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SNA: The Navy's next LCS dilemma

The Navy absolutely, positively, no-kidding must make its littoral combat ship program work, two of its top surface warfare leaders said Tuesday, because the stakes couldn’t be any higher for the future of the service.

And yet in the very same speeches, the same leaders acknowledged the Navy’s thorny, ongoing problems with the very skills and principles that the service needs to reach its LCS goals.

Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s brand-new boss of requirements for surface warfare, said one of its most important abilities was to show “American flags on halyards” atop Navy warships. The planned program of 55 LCS ships will let commanders show the flag more often in more places, he argued, and that will only get more important further into the 21st century.

“That means aggressively fielding the LCS fleet in order to meet our vital war-fighting gaps and forward-deploy additional American flags on LCS halyards,” Rowden said. “We must we must bring LCS into the fleet. We must control cost and build them in numbers.”

Not only could LCSes compose as much as half of the future surface force, making the program critical based on numbers alone, the smaller ships’ value in alliances only raises the stakes, Rowden said.

“LCS will be ships with which our partners will be comfortable operating … We have a number of ships that are simply overwhelming to friends and potential friends,” – as in, the blue water Cold War-era fleet. “LCS allows us the flexibility to begin working with friends, partner nations and potential friends on their terms – in the end, their terms must be considered if we’re to work with them.”

In other words, the navies of Vietnam or the Philippines might not be able to play when the U.S. Navy shows up with a 95,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and an armada of Aegis escorts. But if the American brass sends a few 3,700-ton littoral combat ships, the locals might feel that's more their speed.

Rowden could feel the crowd of surface warfare officers, many of whom are Aegis Mafiosi, sit up in their chairs.

“There’ll always be a requirement for ships suited to intense phases,” he said – as in, full-scale war. “But we must have ships that can be adapted as the future transitions into the present.”

Fair enough – and it’s rare these days to hear any top officer volunteer an enthusiastic defense of LCS, given the beating it has taken in Congress and elsewhere. But the Navy has to get a lot right in order to realize Rowden’s vision, and it’s not just an acquisition exercise. The service also has to be able to figure out how to produce expert sailors at the scale it needs to field two crews per hull.

Surface Force Commander Vice Adm. Richard Hunt made it clear that the fleet still has a long way to go before its sailors begin arriving at their ships with the levels of skill they’ll need to keep them running for as long as the Navy hopes. Hunt said the Surface Force is standing up yet more new schools for sailors and officers, and trying to impose yet more rigor into executive officer and commander officer training – on top of what has been a historic effort over the past few years.

Today’s Surface Force is on the upside of a pendulum swing, back from an era in which the Navy tried to cut costs everywhere it could as it tried to “run like a business” under the authority of MBA admirals. That meant fewer sailors on ships, trained less thoroughly than their predecessors and getting less funding, maintenance and fewer spare parts.

The Navy brought it off for a few years, but when it began to hit bottom – at times literally, as when the cruiser USS Port Royal ran aground off Hawaii – it had to begin undoing its cutbacks with more people and better training.

So LCS was born of an era that created not just a novel acquisition approach – a  “modular” ship developed apart from its main weapons and mission equipment – but a novel personnel approach, too. The Navy wanted to field two small crews of senior, highly trained sailors for each LCS. They would share the ship, taking alternate deployments, and there would be no time or ability to accommodate junior newcomers. Everybody had to be ready on arrival.

In effect, one of the Navy’s metaphorical hands didn’t know what the other was doing: At the same time service officials were scaling back training, they were fielding a ship that depended on senior, highly trained sailors in order to function. Hunt became the latest top leader to promise he was committed to getting back to the core onetime principles, and Rowden made clear he thought the Navy had no choice.

“It is disheartening when a [sailor] with 12 years experience comes up and says, ‘Sir, it’s broke -- the stability’s not very good and I can’t trust the picture,’” Rowden said.  The crews of today and tomorrow both must get better at operating, repairing and “owning” their equipment, he argued.

This necessity, combined with the entirely separate acquisition challenges for pursing LCS through the coming build-down, could wind up being the Navy’s biggest problem for at least the next decade.

 

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