Monday, December 05, 2016

Damn the Torpedoes! And Belay that 'Full Speed Ahead' Order

The Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program is under a lot of fire. Deservedly so. But it is what we have.

The ship was intended to fight in the littorals--that is closer to shores in "green" or even "brown" waters really close to the dirt that flows into the sea. The deep waters are "blue."

The Navy does need a low-end ship to provide numbers as fleets traditionally have.

But the ship class costs skyrocketed.

Yet the modularity concept of the ship has value. The ability to change out shipping container-housed weapons systems to adapt the ship to the mission (anti-ship, anti-air, or anti-sub--or even special operations) was a good idea (so good it led me to propose the Modularized Auxiliary Cruiser, which Military Review published as "The AFRICOM Queen").

But the modular weapons system costs skyrocketed, too.

And the small crew size which relied on automation proved to be a problem for damage control and routine maintenance.

On top of those development problems, despite the focus of the ship missions, the ship was not actually designed to fight and survive in those waters close to shore where land-based systems pose a threat to anything sailing nearby:

In prepared testimony for the hearing, the Pentagon's director of Operational Test and Evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, gave a damning accounting of where the program stands, saying neither of the two LCS variants now being built by competing contractors is expected to be survivable in combat, a fact that undermines the whole concept of operations for the ship class.

That's the key. And a defense of technical complaints--even if true--does not address my concern.

We paid the price for the ships the Navy has put in the water and the development costs for future ships is already spent. So that's a problem in the rear view mirror.

And I can accept that working out the kinks on a new type of ship will take some time. I imagine the Navy will get the ship working. Early in their lives both the M-1 Abrams tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missile were damned for problems in fielding the systems. That doesn't mean the Navy will overcome problems, but it lends credibility to the idea that they need time to do so.

But the survivability problem is not going to go away. That's how the ship class was built in both variants.

I don't understand why this is a revelation. In March 2013 I had a post on LCS survivability with lots of links. In that post I quoted a Navy defense of the ship's survivability:

Navy leadership responded Wednesday to a Tuesday Pentagon report saying both variants of the littoral combat ship (LCS) are “not survivable in a combat environment.” ...

The Navy has three levels of survivability for the ships in the Fleet, according to an August 2012 report on the LCS from the Congressional Research Service that quotes Navy standards from 1988.

“The Navy decided to design the LCS to what it calls a Level 1+ survivability standard, which is greater than the Level I standard to which the Navy’s current patrol craft and mine warfare ships were designed, but less than the Level II standard to which the Navy’s current Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigates were designed, ” the report says.

This design decision did make the ship cheaper in order to get numbers. Which is important. One ship no matter how good cannot be in more than one place at a time, eh? Which is a problem if we need a ship in two places.

The problem in my mind was the concurrent decision to sent that ship as designed into coastal waters rather than keeping them in the blue waters away from most land-based threats.

One of those links in that post goes to a 2008 post of mine that reflected on the carnage of a small-craft battle in the Sri Lanka civil war:

Close in combat like this make me nervous about the Littoral Combat Ship that we plan to sail in deep water and close to shores to combat enemy forces.

We need a cheaper ship to provide numbers in the fleet. The LCS, despite cost overruns, will be cheaper than our other larger ships and still reasonably capable and flexible because of mission modules that can reorient the ship's capabilities.

But look at this ship. It is nearly 400 feet long and 3,000 tons. They are larger than our World War II destroyers. This is not a small, coastal combatant. And I have little doubt that these ships will suffer damage and loss if put into coastal waters against masses of cheap enemy ships that will include suicide boats.

If we really need to operate in the littorals, buy cheap and small ships/boats in large numbers that operate simple small guns, automatic weapons, and short-range missiles. Plus add small UAVs/USVs to extend their range and capabilities. Battles in the littorals cannot avoid losses since we sacrifice the ability to punch at long range by operating in areas that allow enemies to hide and strike quickly at short range.

Putting expensive LCS into the littorals will risk ships way too expensive to be sunk and will just provide propaganda stories for an enemy.

The survivability issue can be lessened by not deliberately putting the LCS into a shooting gallery where every yahoo with a long-range cannon or anti-tank missile (maybe even shore-based torpedo tubes!)--or an inflatable power boat with RPG-7s--can take shots at the ship.

Which is also why I don't sleep well at night thinking of our friggin' aircraft carriers sailing in the Persian Gulf.

But I digress (as I can!).

The LCS is a flawed ship in a more flawed program, but with experience for the crews and operations, and with a decision not to send the ship into the littorals, it will be okay.

Heck, if we can get the shipping container-inserts to work the ship might be just fine in blue water operations.

And by all means, let's get a better lower cost frigate that can take a punch and make smaller vessels cheap enough to be risked in littorals.

UPDATE: Strategypage looks at the LCS.