How could the Navy begin to remake LCS?

A pattern of reports makes clear that LCS, as envisioned, may need to evolve. But evolve into what?

The only thing that’s clear anymore about the Navy’s littoral combat ships is that they haven’t turned out as hoped.

As Defense News’ naval man Christopher P. Cavas has revealed in a series of extraordinary reports, the bottom has dropped out of the LCS stock inside the service, which quietly worries the ships can’t do several of the key things for which they were designed: Deploy with small, highly expert crews; quickly and easily swap their mission equipment in foreign ports; or keep the ships in fighting shape on an extended voyage at sea.

Cavas’ latest report references an internal Navy study that found it’ll be more difficult than anyone thought for LCS crews to do maintenance on deployment. They rely on American contractors who must fly in to help. U.S. law prohibits foreign workers from doing the kind of work LCS needs — a fact that, incredibly, seems to have escaped Navy leaders despite the years and billions they’ve spent on the program. This means taxpayers must pay for a team to fly from the U.S. to meet an LCS in, say, Busan, South Korea, to help the crew with the ship’s upkeep.

Wrote Cavas:

The limited ability of the LCS crew to perform onboard maintenance, and the need to return to port for even basic repairs, “negatively impacts” the ships’ availability to operational commanders, according to sources familiar with the classified report.

Further, the contractor teams handling maintenance duties are not performing up to snuff or being held accountable for their work. Many contractors are doing the work twice — the second time to correct problems with their initial work — avoiding penalties and billing the Navy twice for the jobs.

According to some LCS crews, the reliance on contractors actually results in more work for the crew, which is too small to supervise the contractors. Navy sailors often have to fix the problems after the contractors have left.

Extensive contractor services also are required to maintain spare parts inventories for the ships, since each of the two ship designs features a number of non-standard systems and the vessels are too small to carry many spares. Ships will be based on either the Lockheed Martin Freedom-class design or Austal USA’s Independence class.

But the reports note the parts and work requirements need to be identified and ordered well in advance, so they’re available when needed — a situation that severely limits the flexibility of the LCS.

You don’t get to see the actual report itself, of course, even though you’ve paid for the ships and the contractors — twice — who phoned in their work here. It’s possible the congressional anger that LCS stirred up earlier this year could result in more disclosures about what the Navy has learned, but do not hold your breath for that.

As for now, the Navy has already conceded it’s adding 20 more racks to its LCS the USS Freedom, and in another Cavas report, that LCS can’t take many of the missions the Navy needs and can’t do the relatively quick toe-touch port swap of mission modules that was to have been its ace in the hole. In that story, Cavas wrote this:

The shortcomings are well known in the fleet, prompting a perception that service leaders are looking for missions to fit LCS, rather than the other way around.

And in Monday’s story, he wrote this:

The OPNAV report, according to sources, concluded that, in light of what the ships can and can’t do, the entire LCS concept of operations needs to be reviewed, along with the minimal-manning requirements and the contractor-based maintenance schemes.

The studies make plain the Navy’s concern with exhaustion and fatigue among LCS crews and the need to improve their quality of life, and cite “the reality of the workload” to bolster those positions.

The review efforts also highlight the extreme complexity of the LCS program — the multiple crews, additional mission module packages and aviation detachments, and two distinct ship classes — as major factors in developing solutions.

So: The Navy has boxed itself into a program that it apparently cannot execute as it once planned. Despite years of criticism and skepticism from the outside, the service is at last reaching this conclusion for itself. Its leaders are acknowledging the need to take another look. Which makes the next question: Where could LCS go now?

Maybe Norman Polmar will win his dollar bill and the Navy will not order any more ships. Ending the current run at 22 vessels, instead of 55, could let the fleet field more sailors per ship and get more good out of each — “wholeness” being a favorite goal of Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations. Building fewer ships also could theoretically free up money to better equip them, since it appears the Navy may be forced to rely more than it first wanted on built-in weapons and equipment, as opposed to the interchangeable gear.

(Cavas wrote that Navy leaders have acknowledged they’re looking at installing Harpoon anti-ship missiles and a 76 mm gun, to upgrade from today’s 57 mm — though the larger gun may not fit onto the Independence-class ships’ narrow bow.)

It’s not difficult to imagine the Navy dividing up its smaller but fully manned LCS fleet into dedicated squadrons with permanent missions. Some ships could be rigged for surface patrols, others for mine countermeasures and others for anti-submarine warfare. The Navy would get some of the ships it says it needs, though sacrificing each individual ship’s ability to be a wild card.

The Navy brass, under its LCS-Is-A-Phish-Concert Doctrine — nobody knows where the groove will take us, bro! — would probably say the beauty of the program is its ability to accept these changes. The challenge is that LCS can only change so much; the ships are what they are, and altering them too much, to improve their endurance or increase their size, would spoil the progress of the Navy and its vendors in reducing their costs as they have. Whatever the heirs of the Freedom and Independence become, they probably cannot be true frigates or destroyers. Wrote Cavas:

Range is still another concern, because of capacity for both fuel and crew provisions. Although the original [concept of operations] called for ships to operate at sea for at least 21 days, the ships have storage capacity to only carry enough food for 14 days, according to sources familiar with the classified report.

So LCS could become something other than LCS we thought we’d get, but the ships that today’s Navy is inheriting may only be able to do so much.