Littoral Combat Ship and the Birth of a New Navy
(Source: The Lexington Institute; issued April 26, 2007)
Presentation by Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., The Lexington Institute,
At the LCS Mission Systems Supplier Conference
April 26, 2007

I'm real pleased to be here today, discussing the most innovative and exciting vessel in the Navy's entire shipbuilding program. The schedule for today's event describes me as the luncheon keynote speaker, which means I'm supposed to capture the most compelling themes of the day -- despite the fact that you're eating.

That's not a hard task though, because the need for the Littoral Combat Ship is so obvious that only a fool could fail to grasp its value, and the design concepts shaping LCS set it apart as a true breakthrough in naval engineering.

As with any other revolution, the story of LCS will not be a chronicle of steady, linear progress. It is so different from what came before that some surprises are inevitable along the way. But I guarantee you that this program will go forward, because the joint force can't live without it.

It is the only hope the surface Navy has for operating in close proximity to the complex threats of tomorrow, and it is the only hope the whole Navy has for returning to a fleet of over 300 vessels in the near future.

So if there were no program like the Littoral Combat Ship under development today, the Navy would need to go out and start one.

It matches the needs of the service better than any other war-fighting system currently in the budget. What I'd like to do for the next fifteen minutes is explain why that is so by looking at three separate subjects:

- First, the way military threats have evolved since the end of the cold war.
- Second, why a fast, versatile littoral warship is so well matched to emerging threats, and
- Third, the role of design concepts such as modularity in assuring the new warship can accomplish its missions.

I only have five minutes to spend on each topic, but by the time I'm done I think it will be obvious to you that supplying mission packages for LCS is likely to be a very rewarding business in the years ahead.

Changing Threats

Let's begin by looking at how threats have changed.

By the time communism collapsed on the eve of the new millennium, the U.S. Navy had grown accustomed to fighting a certain kind of enemy. That enemy typically was a dictatorship with a large industrial economy capable of sustaining a blue-water Navy.

The signature warships of these big, state-based adversaries changed over time, from dreadnoughts to aircraft carriers to nuclear-powered submarines, but the blue-water nature of the challenge persisted.

The other services were oriented mainly to security challenges ashore, but for the Navy the big question was always how to secure the sea lanes that assured our access to Eurasia and points south.

So the Navy built a fleet that was shaped mainly by the maritime forces of the other side, rather than by the need to project power onto land.

That all began to change around 1990, when the Navy faced the prospect of no peer adversary at sea -- no Imperial Fleet, no Red Navy -- for the first time in many generations.

Recognizing that relevance was essential to survival in a world of reduced threats, the Navy began thinking more creatively about the ways it could contribute to winning wars ashore, especially in concert with the Marine Corps.

It came up with some pretty interesting ideas, such as the notion of "network-centric" warfare that was later appropriated by the rest of the joint force. But the 1990s was no time to take a radical turn in military investments, because threats were muted, force structure was shrinking and funding for modernization was being slashed.

So the Navy entered the new millennium with a lot of interesting ideas, but minimal political support for implementing those ideas. And then the 9-11 attacks occurred.

Suddenly, the political system was awakened to a raft of emerging threats that had previously been neglected:

- Terrorists inspired by extreme religious beliefs.
- Insurgents bent on overthrowing political order and altering borders.
- Weapons traffickers eager to sell the mass-murder technologies of the preceding century.

The more policymakers looked, the more emerging challenges they saw, from rogue states to drug cartels to illegal migrants to pirates. And so the political system's previous obsession with the danger posed by a few big, peer competitors gave way to awareness of diverse threats emanating from many quarters.

As the defense establishment sorted through these various threats, a few unifying features became apparent:

- First, they were all asymmetric, meaning they challenged the U.S. where it was weak rather than strong.
- Second, they were elusive, hard to track or target using conventional means of surveillance.
- Third, they were relatively weak in terms of resources and weaponry, which is one reason why they employed asymmetric tactics.
- Fourth, despite being poorly resourced, they were all empowered by the availability of new technologies such as the internet.
- Fifth, they all sought to reduce U.S. access to areas where they were active, either by denying use of local bases or by simply making it too dangerous to be in the neighborhood, and
- Finally, although they had no significant capability on the high seas, they were very active in littoral regions where population, commerce and marine traffic is densest.

The latter characteristic, obviously, was of great interest to the Navy.

The Navy had long realized that most of the world's population and commerce was within easy reach of the sea, but until the cold war ended it had seen its role in the littorals largely in terms of supporting the rest of the joint force.

For example, the next-generation DDG-1000 destroyer had been built around long-range guns that could sustain high rates of precision fire in support of Marines ashore.

But now the Navy began to see a broader array of responsibilities for the fleet in littoral regions, as other services faced difficulties tracking adversaries, gaining base access, and sustaining forces ashore.

The big question was how to reorganize the fleet so it could operate effectively in the littorals, given the fact that it had been built mainly to operate in the open sea.

The Navy wasn't ready to give up on the idea of deploying big warships such as aircraft carriers in harms way, but it was obvious something would need to be done to reduce the danger in littoral waters before the big guns arrived, and it wasn't so obvious that big warships were always the right answer to the threats found there.

Thus was born the Littoral Combat Ship, an agile warship constructed from the keel up to operate effectively in the shallow, crowded, dangerous environment of the littorals.

There are actually two different stories behind the LCS, one about the emergence of new threats and missions, the other about the use of new technology and tactics.

Let's turn first to the new missions, and examine how LCS was uniquely responsive to the emerging threat environment.

Critical Missions

When we look at the defining features of the Littoral Combat Ship, five characteristics stand out:

- First, it is a fast, stealthy warship designed to operate in shallow water.
- Second, it is a multi-mission vessel that can be easily reconfigured and refreshed.
- Third, it hosts an array of sensors, airframes and unmanned vehicles that assist in the execution of missions.
- Fourth, it is continuously connected to the rest of the fleet and designed to fight in a networked environment.
- Finally, when you wrap the whole package together, it costs a small fraction of what a new destroyer would cost.

Now, how would these five features help the Littoral Combat Ship to cope with the kind of war-fighting environment likely to be found in the future near the coastlines of hostile countries?

Well, the threats the Navy is most likely to encounter there are mines, diesel-electric submarines and swarming speedboats. But it will encounter those threats in a cluttered, confusing environment where they cannot be addressed unless U.S. forces can first sort out who is friendly, who is hostile, and who is neutral.

Much of the time, the warship may be operating in close proximity to noncombatants whose accidental death or injury would severely impede the success of the mission.

So the design features of the Littoral Combat Ship have been selected to address this constantly changing, unpredictable landscape of challenges where larger surface combatants would operate at a distinct disadvantage -- at least until LCS has cleared the way for the rest of the fleet.

In terms of speed and agility, LCS will be able to navigate successfully where no other warship in the fleet could easily venture, alternately chasing down enemies or racing to escape hostile vessels and munitions.

In terms of multi-mission reconfigurability and refresh, LCS delivers a maximum measure of flexibility for mixing and matching capabilities as threats dictate, both today and tomorrow.

In terms of on-board sensors, airframes and vehicles, LCS can extend its reach well beyond the scope of action of a more traditional warship, tracking and targeting many different littoral dangers with exceptional precision.

In terms of connectivity and networking, LCS will have the capacity to tap into the full information resources of the joint force, not only assimilating knowledge from off-board sources but also sharing its own collections with them.

And in terms of cost, the low price of the hull combined with minimal crewing requirements and interchangeable modules will enable the Navy to buy enough ships so that the service can cover the littoral regions of the world with an adequately-sized fleet.

Thus, the Littoral Combat Ship really is well-suited to the challenges presented by littoral warfare as we understand them today.

The baseline missions for the warship, as you know, are anti-mine, anti-submarine, and anti-surface warfare.

Beyond that, LCS will be a multi-sensor reconnaissance asset, a special-warfare platform, a maritime-interdiction vessel, and a homeland-security asset.

The inherent versatility of its design will permit each LCS to conduct many different missions well, and the ability to configure mission packages differently from vessel to vessel in a multi-ship deployment will make it a very flexible asset indeed.

We can't predict everything that is going to unfold in the littorals of the future, but we can say that if any warship will be ready on day one of a war to cope with the diversity found there, it is likely to be the LCS.

None of which should obscure the fact that LCS fits into a broader fleet architecture in which it is merely one component of a more comprehensive force structure -- a force structure that ultimately will amount to a new Navy radically different from the maritime forces of the past.

Design Concepts

That brings me to my last topic for today, the role of design concepts such as modularity in assuring the Littoral Combat Ship can accomplish its missions.

I mentioned several minutes ago that there are really two different stories behind LCS, one about emerging threats and missions, the other about emerging technologies and tactics.

I've talked about the new threats and missions, but I haven't said much about the role new technology plays in driving the design of the warship.

The technology story needs to be told, because LCS isn't just about trying to keep up with changing threats, it's also about capturing the benefits of the information revolution.

The latter goal is referred to within the Pentagon as "military transformation," and in some ways it transcends the demands imposed on our forces by emerging adversaries.

That's why Secretary Rumsfeld referred to Pentagon investment priorities on his watch as "capabilities-based" rather than "threat-based" -- because he wanted war-fighters to leverage the full potential of information technology regardless of whether the threats they were addressing were new or old.

Rumsfeld continuously urged the joint force to rethink its concepts of operation, its organization and its tactics in light of what emerging technologies might make possible.

Well, that's a big part of what the Littoral Combat Ship is all about -- using new technologies to their maximum potential regardless of who your adversary is or where you encounter him.

The Navy pioneered such thinking when it formulated the precepts of network-centric warfare, and LCS is its most sophisticated interpretation of what kind of combat system is best suited to a networked, distributed force.

Other than net-centricity itself, the two most pervasive ideas informing the design of LCS are modularity and open architecture, complimentary concepts that make the warship more flexible and adaptable than any other surface combatant in history.

It is so different from what came before that even calling it a "warship" may be a bit misleading, because that term summons forth images of more traditional platforms LCS is supposed to replace.

As Robert Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments puts it, "The LCS is less a ship and more a battle network component system, consisting of a sea frame, a core crew, assorted mission modules, assembled mission packages, mission package crews and a reconfiguration support structure."

This certainly doesn't sound like the kind of warships the Navy used to buy, which were hard-wired to the nth degree and about as flexible as the steel that made up most of their weight.

The new ideal, fully captured in LCS, is a war-fighting system that can be shifted quickly from one role to another, or accomplish several different roles simultaneously, through the rearrangement of modular components that share common design standards and network interfaces.

When you combine the modularity of LCS hardware with the open-architecture approach used in fashioning its software and networks, the end result is a war-fighting system that is ready for just about any threat or technological opportunity you can imagine.

Among the benefits the Navy expects to realize from its new design concepts are:

- Enhanced operational flexibility.
- Increased crew productivity.
- Reduced investment outlays.
- Streamlined maintenance practices.
- Faster technological refresh of on-board systems.
- Easier inter-operability with other services.
- And perhaps even more opportunities for overseas sale of U.S. warships.

So being able to fight effectively in the littorals is just the beginning of the benefits delivered by the design principles underpinning LCS.

We tend to use simple metaphors in explaining these principles -- Lego blocks for modularity, plug-and-play computer games for open architectures -- but the impact of the principles on how the Navy does business in the future is likely to be profound.

Today, it is so costly for the service to upgrade legacy, proprietary software systems that it sometimes decides to retire ships long before they have reached the end of their design lives.

And when confronted by urgent needs not anticipated in the naval planning process, the service often has very few options from which to choose.

Those problems will be much less common in the future, because modularity and open architectures, like net-centricity, aren't just design features -- they are also business models and cultural values.

They transform the way the Navy thinks as well as the way that it acts.

By embracing the ethos of the information age, the Navy is committing its fleet and its fortune to a fundamentally different way of preparing for and waging war.

The Littoral Combat Ship is the leading edge of a revolution in naval warfare, and you all will be proud that you were able to play a part in its birth.


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