In an unusually scathing memo to Secretary of the Navy Ray Maybus, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has demanded severe changes to the troubled Littoral Combat Ship program. It includes instructions to cut the number of Littoral Combat Ships to be built, and as well as focusing on building one variant, from one shipyard and general contractor.

Carter has specifically directed Maybus to cut the number of hulls for the LCS program from 52 to 40, and to select a single LCS design-shipbuilder team, instead of the current plan for two completely separate designs and shipbuilders, according to the letter originally obtained by USNI.

Two LCS variants are in production, with six ships operational (three of each type), and 20 more on the order books. The two suppliers include Lockheed/Marinette Marine for the Freedom Class that features a traditional mono-hull design, and General Dynamics/Austral for the Independence Class that features an exotic trimaran design.

Both versions have their strengths and weaknesses, although they are designed to carry out the similar mission-sets.


The building of two LCS variants has long been a controversial concept, considering the Pentagon seeming obsession with paring down its types and suppliers of major weapon systems. Even the F-35, the largest defense program of all time, was not allowed to have an alternative engine, despite the hypothetical alternative’s advanced design stage. Then again, shipbuilding has been, and still is, somewhat of a different animal when it comes to protecting industrial bases, jobs, and the various individual Congressional interests.


Carter’s directive states that the Navy should have selected a single design and shipbuilder for the remaining LCS units by 2019. It also orders the Navy to slow orders to just one unit over the next four years, down from three a year. The fifth year will see two ships ordered, which is where the Pentagon’s current LCS acquisition planning ends.


The savings realized by truncating the Littoral Combat Ship program will be directed toward a number of high-end weapon system needs, with more Super Hornets and F-35C Joint Strike Fighter being sought, as well as more of the promising and flexible SM-6 Standard Extended Range Active Missiles – capable of engaging ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft, as well as a latent land attack capability as well – ordered to arm the Navy’s AEGIS combat systems-equipped cruisers and destroyers.

The savings gained by Carter’s LCS cuts will also find their way into America’s in-demand nuclear submarine fleet by upping the funding for the Virginia Payload Module development. Once deployed operationally on future Virginia-class fast attack nuclear submarines, the upgrade will allow America’s converted Ohio-class guided missile submarines to be slowly retired, simultaneously opening up funding for the Ohio-class’s replacement.


Carter also directs Mabus begins by noting the strange drive to acquire more and more ships, no matter their actual capability, at the expense of critically-needed investments in areas in which the U.S. possible enemies are rapidly making their own advances. Strike, ship survivability, and electronic warfare capabilities have all suffered at the expense of the LCS, as well as reductions in other necessary weapons and aircraft to confront looming threats.

But the most damning part of the letter actually appears to be not about the submarines, but the very notion of how – and how many – ships are obtained:

Earlier this year the Department of Defense gave guidance to correct and reverse this trend of prioritizing quantity over lethality; however, counter to that guidance, the Department of the Navy’s latest program submission fails to do so. It is accordingly unbalanced, creates too much warfighting and technical risk, and would exceed the numerical requirement of 308 ships… This requirement should be met, but not irresponsibly exceeded.


There is obviously a hotter than normal war underway among the air, submarine and surface branches of the Navy when it comes to funding and the need to adapt to current threats as well as those on the horizon. The issue is that an enormously expensive program like the LCS has struggled to find its mission, and then accomplish that mission successfully.

The ship’s automated mine hunting system, a key component that was supposed give the LCS a valuable capability for one of its rudimentary missions, remains a total bust. What’s worse is that the decision to “up-gun” the design with more combat punch and armor, instead of procuring a more traditional frigate, resulted in adapting a design for something it was never meant to do.

This up-gunned variant, slated for the last LCS ships, with some components possibly being retrofitted to older models, lacks an area air defense capability. This means that even these enhanced versions will be dependent on expensive and already highly tasked AEGIS-equipped cruisers or destroyers for escort. It severely limits the LCS’s operational independence in all but low-threat environments.


Now the question will be if the LCS make it to even 40 units. A new presidential administration is just a year away and the program has been on questionable ground for many years now, with the Navy seemingly holding on to a failed concept for dear life. Additionally, many of these weapon systems will focus on defeating foes with high-end anti-access/area denial (AA/A2) capabilities, something the LCS is not built to contend with.

These factors may spell out the real possibility of an earlier than expected doom for the Navy’s giant jet boat with a chronic identity problem.


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Photos via U.S. Navy