Confronting the LCS Myths

Confronting the LCS Myths
U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer Second Class Michaela Garrison
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In a rush to exploit the misfortunes of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), many sources have propagated myths about the LCS in terms of its origins, failures in testing, weight, and cost. It is time to set the record straight and to correct some of these misconceptions.

The Missing Analysis in LCS Origin

It is correct to say that LCS did not undergo a Department of Defense (DoD)-sponsored Analysis of Alternatives (AoA.) The LCS concept did, however complete extensive analysis by the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group (SSG), the U.S. Naval War College (NWC), the Office of the Navy Staff (OPNAV) N81 Assessments division, and the Office of Program Evaluation and Assessment (PA&E), now the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) in 2002. Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) and the nascent LCS Program office also performed their own Analysis of Multiple Concepts (AMC) where five LCS “alternatives” were considered. These included a small combatant with high speed but low endurance; a Coast Guard cutter; a larger combatant analogous to a frigate; a slightly smaller, self-deploying, modular advanced combatant; and a multi-purpose lift ship. A 2007 report by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Center for Technology and National Security Policy on the LCS program stated:

“The AMC determined that the best alternative was the advanced combatant. In concurrence with OSD and NWDC analysis, the AMC concluded that this combatant would have some inherent self-defense capability but get the majority of its combat power from modules; embark a helicopter; have trans-oceanic endurance; and have an optimal speed of between 40 and 50 knots.”

The Navy was criticized for this path to LCS. The 2007 OSD report stated:

“The program was faulted for not rigorously considering non-ship alternatives to the LCS missions and for completing the AMC well after the Navy released the initial request for proposals to industry. This approach created the sense that LCS analysis (or at least the formal AMC) was being done after the answer had been determined.”

Despite these criticisms, OSD determined that the analysis done for the LCS was adequate. Some of the most respected Offices of the Secretary of Defense and the Navy (PA&E, OPNAV N81, the CNO SSG, and the NWC) performed elements of LCS concept evaluation and largely agreed on the results. Given the weight of opinion by these experts, it would seem that LCS received a thorough evaluation from multiple, professional sources to the satisfaction of senior uniformed and civilian leaders. 

LCS Failed Operational Tests

Another persistent myth is that the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3), a Freedom-class variant of the LCS, failed an operational range test supervised by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E.) A 2015 DOT&E report on the LCS program states: 

“During operational testing, LCS 3 did not demonstrate that it could achieve the Navy requirement for fuel endurance (operating range) at the prescribed transit speed or at sprint speed. Based on fuel consumption data collected during the test, the ship’s operating range at 14.4 knots (the ship’s average speed during the trial) is estimated to be approximately 1,960 nautical miles (Navy requirement: 3,500 nautical miles at 14 knots) and the operating range at 43.6 knots is approximately 855 nautical miles (Navy requirement: 1,000 nautical miles at 40 knots).”

The DOT&E report suggests a significant failure on the Navy’s part to achieve an important LCS key performance capability (KPP.)    

A deeper examination of the test, however, suggests that DOT&E did not correctly estimate USS Fort Worth’s fuel consumption. This was perhaps due to the test agency’s failure to understand the LCS’s design and fuel oil storage and transfer system. Many U.S. surface combatants (Ticonderoga-class and Arleigh Burke-class ships) have compensated fuel tank systems. This means, “the fuel/ballast tanks are always completely full of fuel and water, enabling the ship to maintain uniform trim and seakeeping characteristics. The LCS-1 variant is a semi-planning monohull design and unlike other classes of naval vessels does not have compensating fuel tanks. As it burns fuel, the LCS fuel system adjusts trim by moving fuel around rather than by taking on a compensating amount of seawater. As LCS’s displacement decreases as it burns fuel, it tends to ride higher in the water and see less resistance than a ship that sits deeper due to compensated tanks. A conventional hull warship with compensated tanks does not ride higher and at high speeds tends to sit lower in the water due to the effect of squat. This effect causes more friction with the water and decreases propulsion efficiency. The semi-planing monohull is specifically designed to avoid the squat effect.

DOT&E may not have included this feature in its calculations when conducting its LCS range testing on Fort Worth. The operational test authority perhaps assumed a continued full load displacement condition for the entirety of a typical voyage rather than a gradually reduced one associated with a non-compensating fuel system. DOT&E’s test results may have predicted a much lower operational range as a result.  

Follow-on testing was conducted by the Navy on the LCS-3 while it was deployed to the Western Pacific in 2015. The tests were conducted with the interim surface warfare mission package installed aboard the ship. The Fort Worth’s crew measured operational range as it was affected at differing speeds at differing sea states, something that the DOT&E test did not do. Higher sea states tended to limit operational range, but that is an effect not limited to the littoral combat ship. The ship achieved a much higher estimated operational range nearer the KPP of 3500 nautical miles. LCS operational range still requires improvement, but Fort Worth does not represent the most mature version of the Freedom-class variant. LCS-5 (USS Milwaukee) or LCS-7 (USS Detroit) should be tested to determine the mature variant’s real operational range at different speeds and different sea states.

LCS is “Overweight” 

Another common argument leveled against the Littoral Combat Ship is that the class is “overweight” and by the label somehow unstable, and unable to meet its expected lifespan. This assertion is largely based on a July 2014 report produced by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report stated in its executive summary that, “Initial LCS seaframes face capability limitations resulting from weight growth during construction. This weight growth has resulted in the first two ships not meeting performance requirements for sprint speed and/or endurance, as well as potentially complicating existing plans to make additional changes to each seaframe design.” This is not an accurate characterization of LCS class weight growth over the lifespan of the ship. In addition, only one LCS sea frame has ever been the subject of an operational range test; not two as indicated in the GAO report.

GAO and the Navy have fundamentally differing viewpoints on what constitutes a condition of “overweight” for the LCS. Traditionally, U.S. warships have been built with the capability to add additional weight in the form of new/additional weapons, sensors and equipment over the life of the ship. The concept is one of managing Space, Weight, Power and Cooling (SWPaC) margins. Past U.S. warships such as the Spruance class (DD 963) destroyer had large margins for growth allowing for significant upgrade and modernization over their service lives.

The LCS program is different from a conventional warship in that it divides capabilities between the sea frame (basic LCS hull and systems) and the embarked mission module. Growth, as defined in terms of SWPaC is managed within the weight margins of the mission module and not the merely the sea frame. When GAO states that LCS sea frames are “overweight,” it really means that the sea frames do not have the SWPaC margin for growth GAO thinks they should have. GAO does not apparently count the weight reserved within the mission modules as available for different use over the life of the sea frame. GAO is free to disagree with the Navy’s approach to SWPaC in the LCS class, but its reports on LCS weight issues obscures the facts on how LCS weight growth is managed.

LCS: Double the Cost at Half the Capability

During the most recent hearings on the LCS program held by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), members criticized the Navy for providing a ship that was in their words, “twice the cost with only half of the capability.” GAO’s Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Paul Francis continued the cost criticism by suggesting that approval of a block buy of the proposed frigate variant of LCS would strip lawmakers of their influence over the program and not allow for independent cost analysis. Francis’s comment suggested that lawmakers would be better served by putting their faith in the Defense Acquisition system rather than in Navy estimates.   

Lawmakers always have final control over what is authorized and can take steps to suspend a program for cost overruns. They did so by implementing cost caps on the LCS program in 2006, and 2008. The Navy was unable to achieve the first cost cap, and subsequently canceled 4 planned LCS sea frames in a major program restructure. Subsequent LCS sea frames have met the mandated Congressional cost cap of $460 million (subject to inflation) per unit.

The $220 million per unit cost for the LCS sea frames was proposed in 2001. Adjusted for inflation, that cost would be about $300 million in 2016 dollars. It is also a figure that Congress has aleady agreed was not sufficient and contradicts the 2008 Congressional cost cap on LCS that the program has since supported. The LCS program has also delivered ships on time, and on budget targets, except where continued Congressional sequestration has interfered with that schedule.

It is important to confront these LCS myths, as they tend to be repeated in multiple places by defense news sources eager to present negative news for the purpose of advertising and circulation. Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley has said that LCS is perhaps unique in Navy programs as it is “live streamed 24/7,” and all of its minute faults always on display. If this is the case, then these LCS myths need to be better illuminated and disproved.

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