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LCS Mafia's Full-Court Press

The LCS program has used this week’s Surface Navy Association conference in DC for a full-court messaging press against the ever-controversial platform’s critics. Between this month’s Proceedings cover story by Rear Admiral Rowden, director Surface Warfare Division, and yesterday’s LCS Counsel panel the message is loud if not clear: LCS isn’t broken; it’s on schedule (NAVSEA’s chief engineer actually made the claim that it’s ahead of schedule relative to how previous platforms came on line), and it’s exactly the ship that the Navy wants and needs.

However the facts and logic behind those claims are less watertight – about as watertight as LCS-2’s magnesium-alloyed aluminum hull with extensive galvanic corrosion. The ultimate question in the Pentagon’s current fiscal environment is whether LCS’s engineering and design challenges and cost growth are acceptable going forward considering how much is left unknown about how the ship will be used, how it will be manned, and how much it will cost to operate.

The conduct of the LCS Counsel panel at SNA could be viewed two ways: It was either an unflinching defense of LCS or a demonstration of how broken the DoD acquisition process is.

The panel parried the criticisms one-for-one, sometimes going deep into semantics matrices. An audience member questioned the ship’s survivability, the panel asked what the questioner meant by “survivable.” And during the course of the survivability discussion someone brought up MRAP, which was both appropriate in terms of a platform that ultimately saved lives relative to the system it replaced, but off in terms of a platform that was presaged as a requirement going into the conflict.

And that’s where LCS is the poster child for a broken procurement process – including a broken requirements process as part of the procurement process. Basically, the process demands that the service make promises up front to reach the critical mass needed to get a program started, and then break those promises one-by-one as the program goes through design, production, testing, and fleet introduction.

In the case of LCS promises have been broken at every turn: The definition of “affordable” has changed. The unit cost (without mission packages) has nearly doubled. The definition of “survivable” has changed. (Survivability now includes the presence of at least three other LCSs that operate together and, really, it would be best if there was a carrier strike group nearby.) The definition of “reduced manpower” continues to creep up – they just added 10 more crew members to the standard ship’s complement, raising the total to 50.

The rest is a grab bag of factoids that come off as more episodic than protractedly planned. The total buy in the program of record is 24 ships, but the numbers on the slide in terms of out-year production only added up to 14 (12 Lockheed-Martin versions and 2 General Dynamics versions). The two LCS designs don’t look anything alike, but the goal in terms of maintainability and sustainability is commonality. (So why have two versions then?) LCS 1 is going to WESTPAC this spring. LCS 2 is entering operational test in two of three mission areas. One admiral on the panel says “Modularity is the wave of the future,” while another says the modules will be switched out “only to meet theater requirements, not as a matter of routine.” VADM Mark Skinner from ASN(RDA) likened the LCS to an “iPhone with apps” in terms of its open architecture, which again was a perfect metaphor for the ship’s conundrum in terms of the intended versus the unintended. Choosing the right apps could be viewed as a zero sum game. If I had to pay to develop the apps on my smartphone right now, which ones would actually be there?

And the panel introduced the concept of “Rapid Technology Insertion,” one of those brilliant terms that nobody does like the DoD procurement arena. Like “concurrence” with JSF and “spiral development” with Super Hornet before it, the LCS RTI program understands they’re not ever going to have the funding or the time they need to get it right the first go ‘round, so they’ll keep things blissfully ill-defined and jam capabilities into the ship in the event the planets occasionally align down the road in terms of funded technologies.

Nicely ahead of the curve or a complete cop-out? Future LCS crews will be the judges.

And speaking of future LCS crews, unlike the blackshoes with career aspirations that came before them, the LCS is most likely the only class of ship in which they will ever serve. The training pipeline is specific and intense and lasts upwards of two years for a first tour sailor – about the time it used to take a pilot to go through flight school (including FRS training).

VADM Rick Hunt, the director of the Navy Staff at OPNAV and head of the LCS Counsel said he would choose one word to describe LCS: “Opportunity.” It’s an interesting choice, a soft word perhaps by warfighting standards. Will a world of sequestration and trillion dollar bogies fund “opportunities” absent associated terms like “lethality” and “affordable readiness.”

VADM Hunt put a finer point on his meaning, again (as other members of the panel did) unwittingly slamming the system that’s supposed to field effective systems for the fleet.

“We should have put the ship at sea earlier, longer, and let our sailors figure it out,” Hunt said. “We were too conservative. Let our guys figure it out. Let them take it to the next level and they will.”

So what are the syscoms and their “industry partners” for again?

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