Is the Future of the Littoral Combat Ship Adrift?

defenseThe Littoral Combat Ship is one of the Navy’s most high-profile programs. But is it heading for rough seas? The Defense Secretary recently called on the Navy to cut procurement of these ships from 52 to 40, narrow down the design options, and spend the savings on either more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or on upgrading existing ships.

What’s wrong with the Littoral Combat Ship program? In today’s WatchBlog, we share why we urged Congress to delay funding for them.

$34 billion program

The Littoral Combat Ship program is designed to build fast, small vessels that can operate close to shore. The program is slated to cost over $34 billion in 2010 dollars and, so far, 26 ships have been built or are under contract.

Yet, 6 years after the first ship was delivered, it’s still unclear if these ships have enough firepower to succeed in combat and fully respond to enemy threats. Moreover, the program has a history of cost overruns, schedule delays, and technical challenges.

Capability issues

In developing littoral combat ships, the Navy received two different design options from two different contractors. The Navy’s original intent was to “downselect”—choose the one design they liked best, but then decided to continue buying equal numbers of both types.

While both designs met the same set of performance requirements, they have key differences.

  • Figure 1: Two variants of combat shipsThe Freedom variant has a steel single hull, or “monohull” design with an aluminum superstructure, whereas
  • The Independence variant uses an aluminum alloy and a “trimaran” hullform—one that has a main hull and two smaller outrigger hulls.

One key issue for both designs is the use of aluminum, because aluminum loses strength faster than steel at high temperatures. While the Navy has acknowledged the limits of aluminum, testing of how the Independence variant would survive a serious fire or other damage is incomplete.

Further, the Navy has not yet determined how either design of littoral combat ships would handle an underwater explosion. The service won’t know the answer to this until it completes “shock testing” in 2016. And the Navy won’t fully understand how the ships would survive damage from weapons and other threats until 2018, when it completes both designs’ survivability assessments.

Moreover, while the Navy hasn’t completed its analysis of the littoral combat ships’ rough sea performance, both designs sustained damage during their rough sea trials.

And finally, while the ships have demonstrated some initial lethality capabilities—the extent to which their weapon systems can damage or destroy threats—they have yet to demonstrate their full range of combat performance.

Future plans

The Navy is quickly embarking on an effort to attempt to redesign littoral combat ships to try and ensure they are lethal enough to respond to enemy threats and sturdy enough to survive rough seas and combat. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to keep watch to ensure the Navy has a clear direction for the future of the program.

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