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Of Facebook, frigates and the littoral combat ship

The Navy’s littoral combat ship program has not gone the way its planners hoped. Everybody’s talking about it again this week: The fleet originally was supposed to have a dozen or more ships by now, but it actually only has two – neither of which is available for tasking. It was supposed to have a trove of wonder-gear for the ships to take aboard, including weapons for surface battles and remote sensors for hunting mines and submarines – that it doesn’t have. And on and on and on.

But you can’t judge a major defense program just by its first few years, Galrahn argued in a post Thursday. Citing the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, which had design issues and growing pains of their own, Galrahn points out that they went on to give three decades of hard service, enduring mines, Exocet missiles and endless miles of crashing ocean transits.

He summed it all up this way:

The Navy, with a ship class that they knew required a redesign as early as 1976, built FFG-7 and fifty more just like it anyway - and to this very day the Oliver Hazard Perry class serves in several Navies worldwide including the US Navy conducting the roles and missions in low intensity environments the ship was originally designed for. Last week on July 29th the Navy retired USS Doyle (FFG 39) after completing over 27 years of service in the US Navy. Despite all of the early, very serious program and cost problems with the Oliver Hazard Perry class and despite the very serious criticism those who knew about the problems heaped onto the program, is anyone today ready to say the Navy made a mistake building the ships of the Oliver Hazard Perry class?

Not me -- the early history of a shipbuilding program does not tell the story of a ship class.

You could apply this lesson to many ships, aircraft or systems that we now consider classics – there was never a golden age of Pentagon acquisitions; a lot of things in the arsenal began with problems or took awhile to find their way. That doesn't excuse when things don’t go right in our era today, but it’s the reality.

But there are a few other things worth remembering: Even though they were never used this way, the frigates were originally intended to take on a familiar naval role: high-seas escorts in the North Atlantic. The Navy had a mission, it wrote what we now call “requirements,” and then it built a ship. And despite the figs’ problems, they were ships everyone understood; navies have had vessels called “frigates” for hundreds of years – in our modern sense, they’re bigger and more heavily armed than corvettes, but less so than destroyers. Got it.

With its “littoral combat ship,” however – and despite its name, a third of its capability is not for use in the littorals, but rather out in deep water, hunting submarines – the Navy came up with something new. LCS, in fact, was the product of an “analytical virgin birth,” in the memorable phrase of shipbuilding expert Ronald O’Rourke, of the Congressional Research Service. Why’d the fleet need it? What “capability gap” justified it? Ah, don’t worry, Navy officials said, we’re already locked in – what's important now is to get these things into the fleet and see how commanders use them.

“With regard to the Littoral Combat Ship, the LCS, I believe it is critical that we, Navy, adapt to the LCS, and we do not force the LCS and her crews to adapt to an institutional fleet model,” said Adm. John Harvey, head of Fleet Forces Command, to Congress last year. In the face of a historic defense build-down, he and other admirals want to treat a multi-billion dollar shipbuilding program like Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” at the dawn of Facebook: “We don’t even know what it is yet!”

And as an example for LCS, the Perry-class frigates have as much going against them as they do in their favor. They’re mostly irrelevant in today’s battlespace; they lost their ‘one-armed bandit’ SM-1 missile launchers years ago, although the Navy tried to preserve a little of their dignity by preserving the "G" in "FFG." The ships don’t have the same advanced sensors and communications gear as newer warships. Frigate crews refer to themselves as “the ghetto Navy.” For much of the past decade, the frigates have taken mostly make-work missions, visiting third-world ports so their crews can train local sailors how to fix outboard motors, or carrying Coast Guard detachments on counter-narcotics patrols in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific.

It’s all very stylish in the context of “soft power” – in a crisis, as the Navy likes to say, you can surge ships, but you can’t surge trust, so it’s worthwhile for sailors to build relationships with their counterparts. But does the fleet take these missions because they’re important, or does it take them because it has ships that can’t do anything else? And as a side question, are missions in which frigate sailors give stuffed animals to children what's contributing the surface Navy’s self-described “unsustainable optempo?”

This is what happens when you build a platform – or in the case of the figs, have one that you choose not to keep operationally relevant -- and let it dictate its own use. How much does America’s national security benefit from the USS Samuel B. Roberts’ visit to Dar Es Salaam? If commanders had another Aegis destroyer or cruiser, or even a fully functioning LCS instead of this frigate, would they still send it on this kind of mission? Maybe, but they'd also have more options on the assignments it could take.

If the Navy brass valued what the frigates do now, it would have designed another frigate – a ship without LCS’ modular equipment, with a sea-keeping hull, a normal-sized crew, longer legs and standard speed. Some analysts have argued for years that the Navy should buy a version of the Coast Guard’s national security cutter for just this reason – you’ve read here about Huntington Ingalls Industries’ concept for its gray-hulled “Patrol Frigate.” You better believe Ingalls would make the Navy a heckuva deal if the admiralty even sniffed in this direction, but it hasn’t. The Navy doesn’t want another frigate -- it wants LCS, whatever LCS is.

So what does it all mean? Galrahn’s right: Maybe just because a program has growing pains, they shouldn’t condemn it for all eternity – after all the blood and treasure the Marines spent on their MV-22 Osprey, now they love that thing. But given America's descent into pauperdom, it also might prove risky to spend the time and money building something without a clear vision of how you’ll use it, with the hope that somebody, someday will figure it out.

What do you think?

 

Photo: A sailor from the frigate USS Kauffman slid into first during a game with a Russian semi-pro baseball team in St. Petersburg last year. It's typical of the missions that frigates get today -- here's how the Navy's official caption described it: "Visits such as these serve to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Russian navies."

 

 

 

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