Scrap Costly New Navy Ship And Build More Submarines
By Rob Simmons
Published on 1/20/2007
The Pentagon last week announced that the Navy had issued a 90-day stop work order on a new class of surface ships because of cost overruns, further delaying delivery of a troubled platform with a questionable future. The Navy envisioned the Littoral Combat Ship, or “LCS,” as a small, fastboat operating primarily in the oceans' shallow-water coastlines; but it is increasingly doubtful that its value will equal its cost to the budget and our sailors.
The Defense Department and Congress should take the three-month hiatus to re-examine whether it makes sense at all to continue this program given the LCS program's failures and the Navy's real needs. For the following reasons, I believe the money would be better spent for submarine design and production.
The Navy initially sold the Littoral Combat Ship with a pitch that it would provide an inexpensive but effective tool along ocean coastlines or the “littorals.” Banking on ambitious but unproven technologies and concepts, the Navy bet LCS could replace many fast-attack submarines and destroyers at a great savings to the sea service.
In 2006, one year after defense budget cutbacks were reversed, the Navy had an opportunity to increase submarine production and help fix a growing capabilities gap in the fleet. At the time, the U.S. Submarine Force — despite working overtime — could meet only about half of its high-priority missions due to insufficient numbers; the percentage is now worse.
The Navy opted instead to accelerate the LCS program. It did this despite serious questions about the ship's final price tag and its ability to perform as advertised once built.
The adverse consequences of those decisions are now obvious to all. In December 2006, a nonpartisan report showed that the cumulative cost of the LCS program's hulls – i.e., the ship's metal frames only – will likely be eight billion dollars over budget. A few months earlier, the Navy was forced to cannibalize other defense programs to find millions of extra dollars for the ships' innards, the actual weapon systems that had proven much more expensive but far less capable than imagined.
The Navy's decision to move full-steam-ahead on the immature LCS program also had repercussions for the core of America's shipbuilding industry. By not fulfilling an earlier plan to increase Virginia-class submarine production to two per year in 2007, the Navy is forcing the Electric Boat Corporation to lay off hundreds of highly skilled workers. When the time comes to begin building two submarines per year, we may find that our finest submarine designers, engineers and builders are no longer available to do the job.
Ironically, the Virginia-class submarine is the only class of ship currently going down in cost. It is also ironic that the submarine is the Navy's weapon of choice in the war on terror because of its stealth and proven capabilities.
If you need proof of the value of submarines after the Cold War, ask any Special Operations Forces personnel whether they would prefer to approach shore from a submarine or a surface ship. The answer is always a submarine because of its stealth.
Ask any submarine captain whether the U.S. does its best intelligence collection from surface ships or subs. They probably won't answer you, because the secret successes of the Submarine Force against terrorist targets are rarely reported. But the Navy's decision to open a counter-terrorism center at Sub Base New London should give you a clue as to where the action is in today's fleet.
Unfortunately, the latest cost overruns for LCS will add to the shipbuilding deficit, meaning fewer overall ships in the fleet during a time of great uncertainty. Currently China is outstripping U.S. submarine construction by at least five-to-one, and the terrorism threat will be with us for a long time into the future.
When I served as Vice Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Navy Subcommittee, I did not see the value of LCS and I said so. Last year I opposed bailout funding for the program when it became clear that the LCS' main anti-submarine weapon system would not work – even though LCS was supposed to be a submarine hunter.
I also became convinced that the ships lacked adequate defensive systems for our sailors. LCS is largely defenseless against cruise missiles, and its aluminum skin can be pierced by large-caliber projectiles. A direct shot from a missile or a torpedo could sink the ship in just minutes. The proliferation of anti-ship weapons means that only subsurface vessels can navigate stealthily and safely near enemy shorelines in East Asia or the Persian Gulf.
Our nation needs more ships, but the kind that can meet the threat effectively, without unnecessarily endangering our sailors. Submarines have the stealth, persistence on target and protective elements we need. The Navy needs to stop funding the LCS, and apply those dollars to funding two Virginia-class submarines per year. Let's scrap the “Little Costly Ship” and build the ships we really need — submarines.