By CAROLINE CHEVAT
"The Littoral Combat Ship is like a Swiss Army knife--it does a lot of things, it just doesn't do any of them well," said POGO National Security Investigator Ben Freeman yesterday at a Cato Institute forum on the future of the U.S. Navy surface fleet.
Freeman was joined by Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work, as well as the Congressional Budget Office's Eric J. Labs and Cato's Christopher Preble and Benjamin Friedman.
Work took a liking to Ben’s Swiss Army knife analogy, but insisted that “this ship does it a lot better” than other alternatives.
This wasn’t the first point of contention about the troubled program, which POGO recently wrote to Congress about, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Freeman and Work also disagreed about the Navy’s current approach of buying two very different variants of the close-to-shore ship.
“I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why two variants are better than one,” Freeman told the Cato crowd. Work tried to offer one, claiming that an advantage of having two models of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is that if a problem arises with one model, the Navy still has one to fall back on. Freeman, however, said he remained unconvinced—and it appeared that he wasn’t alone. Another panelist, Chris Preble, Vice President for defense and foreign policy studies at Cato said, “It is not unreasonable for those of us who are concerned about the cost to question why a ‘down select’ [the earlier plan to choose just one design] was not executed the way it was supposed to be and to revisit that.”
There was also disagreement about the dangers of the ship’s inability to engage in combat. The LCS is, by the Navy’s own definition, built to a very low level of survivability. Work argued that “You never buy all your ships to go into full-blown battle—you don’t need it.” While true, it’s still not clear why this logic should apply to a ship whose middle name is, literally, combat, and that will constitute more than a third of all our surface combatants.
Work also surprised many of us when he conceded, “I am certain the core crew of the ship will be slightly larger,” than had been planned. This manning increase will undoubtedly increase costs and possibly decrease performance as these sailors, their equipment, and supplies add more weight to the ship. For years, one of the biggest selling points of this ship was its low manning and, consequently, low operating costs.
While Freeman’s critiques of the program were many, he later said he was most struck by the Under Secretary’s candor. Work said that “the program was a mess when we first came in,” and “we’re not afraid to say if we made a mistake.” Work added, “Do we know everything about the vessel? No,” but “if we can’t fix [the LCS] we’ll stop building it.”
In a program whose obfuscation we have vehemently criticized, this frankness is welcome, to say the least. Hopefully, we can expect more of the same from the LCS program in the future.
Caroline Chevat is a POGO intern.
Photo by Caroline Chevat.