The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) has rightly been proclaimed dead. After spending $30 billion over three decades with ships that cost three times their estimated amount, the Navy has only acquired six deployable ships out of 35 training vessels. The things that went wrong suggest that the United States relied too much on technology to meet too many new threats.
Much like the F-35 fighter jet, the LCS was designed to be a base system that could have certain modulars added to meet a variety of threats. This included countering conventional submarines, small patrol boats, terrorist speed boats, conducting amphibious operations like inserting SEAL teams, providing basic reconnaissance or fire support to insert teams, and responding quickly to transient local threats while being stealthy enough to minimize vulnerability and enable covert operations.
But these projects were individually complex and, taken together, proved almost insurmountable. The final design wasn’t modular and the final result was a Frankenstein ship that had a little bit of everything, but wasn’t particularly good at anything. The ships were light and relatively fast but only when the engines were working. It lacked striking power and continued to have doubts about its survivability in combat. It was designed to be manned by a light crew, but its technical problems means the crew is overworked and response times are slower.
As with the F-35, LCSs were designed and built at the same time which meant that flaws in the design phase resulted in construction problems, and often construction exposed flaws that required redesigns. It didn’t help that the Navy looked at the Iraqi insurgency in 2003 and 2004 and saw the lack of armor for Army equipment like Humvees. Subsequently, they demanded that the ship have more armor and survivability which required another round of design edits.
The fix for this reveals even more about this project and new technology in general. The Navy is looking to cancel the remaining order and instead procure additional guided-missile frigates and destroyers; these ships do have significant firepower and staying power in the event of a fight, and they have remarkable experience operating in the littorals even if they aren’t specially designed for them.
Taking a step back, this shows the relative importance and reliance on new and untested technologies versus older but reliable and upgraded technology. The LCS was a new aluminum-based hull that was supposed to be fast, strong, inexpensive and the wave of the future. But it ended up being none of those things and was cancelled in favor of frigates and destroyers, many of which are upgraded versions of ships that are decades old, which in turn are based on designs that have been around for 100 years. This is a principle to keep in mind the next time a super technology is introduced as a “game changer.” It might sound really great on paper but chances are it will be expensive, late, and quickly replaced by reliable mainstay systems.