By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
When the cold war ended, the U.S. Navy faced a crisis of relevance. For the first time in living memory, no Red Navy or Imperial Fleet challenged America's control of the high seas. Having spent the entire 20th Century preparing for such an enemy, the Navy was poorly postured for conducting combat operations closer to shore. Fearing that the Marine Corps would become the tail wagging the Navy Department bulldog, senior admirals began formulating plans for making their warships more useful in fighting enemies on land.
The idea made sense. Most of the world's population lives within 200 miles of the sea, meaning the Navy could play a big role in waging war ashore if its sensors were upgraded for littoral (coastal) surveillance and its weapons had the accuracy and reach needed for targeting assets on land. Thus the undersea warfare community increased its emphasis on covert reconnaissance along coastlines, while the aviation community pursued a "revolution in strike warfare" aimed at equipping carrier-based planes with smart bombs.
The efforts paid off: most submarine missions today are devoted to littoral intelligence collection, and the strike aircraft on carriers can use reconnaissance from subs and other sources to destroy hundreds of land targets per day.
Bolstering the relevance of surface combatants -- frigates, destroyers and cruisers -- has been harder. Aside from shooting cruise missiles and providing air defense of the joint force, traditional surface combatants don't bring much to land warfare. That's not what they were designed to do.
So the Navy has poured money into developing a new family of combatants that can be more versatile and less vulnerable when operating in littoral regions. The best known next-gen vessel is the DDG-1000 (formerly DDX), a multi-mission destroyer built around guns that can sustain high rates of fire a hundred miles inland using precision munitions. DDG-1000 is the technology test-bed for innovations in sensors, propulsion and manning that will be shared across the fleet. It is a very pricey warship -- which is why the Navy is also developing a smaller warship called the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS.
As the name indicates, the Littoral Combat Ship is designed for dealing with threats found near coastlines, like floating mines, diesel submarines and terrorists in speedboats. Its hard-to-track hull hosts both helicopters and small boats suitable for conducting anti-mine, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare. Its sensors and wireless connectivity make it a good collector of local intelligence for the entire joint force, and at least in theory its low cost and light crew make dangerous littoral operations more feasible.
But people inside and outside the Navy are beginning to wonder whether LCS is too good to be true. Naval engineers say too much capability may have been sacrificed to achieve high speed, and a slip of the tongue by Navy acquisition czar Delores Etter revealed that the first ships in the class could cost up to $400 million each (not counting the various mission modules each vessel will require).
Now the Navy wants contractors to sign up to fixed-price development contracts -- even though it probably will demand further changes in the ship's design and performance.
LCS is beginning to look like the latest example of a Navy top-heavy with big ideas, but a bit light on the successful execution of programs. Maybe DDG-1000 isn't so bad after all.