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The Navy spent $30B and 16 years to fight Iran with a littoral combat ship that doesn't work

The LCS was supposed to be inexpensive and easy to build for the new era of asymmetric warfare. That era is here, but the ship is not.
Image: Ship LCS building, Construction silhouette
An employee descends scaffolding surrounding a littoral combat ship under construction in Wisconsin on Feb. 11, 2013. Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Iran announced Thursday that it had seized a foreign oil tanker and its crew of 12 for allegedly smuggling oil through the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz. This was followed by the United States announcement that it had jammed and destroyed an Iranian drone that came close to an American ship (a claim Iran denied). They were the latest Iranian provocations in the strategic channel as tensions between Tehran and Washington have flared.

The strait, through which about 20 percent of all oil traded worldwide travels, is shallow and only 24 miles at its narrowest point, making large ships such as aircraft carriers and oil tankers easy targets because they are limited to a few predictable transit lines. Making matters worse, Iran has based small mine- and missile-armed motorboats, truck-mounted anti-ship missiles and torpedo-armed mini-submarines that can suddenly ambush and interdict ships all along the coast of the Gulf.

This program raises questions about whether the military can swiftly adapt itself for the next generation of warfare — and to the asymmetric threats posed by Iran.

Thankfully, the U.S. Navy has the perfect ship — small and maneuverable — to defend U.S. interests and international commerce by ensuring the right of passage through this strategic area. And it’s no mere coincidence that this is the case: Predicting that future conflicts were more likely to occur in dicey coastal waterways around countries like Iran and North Korea, the Navy almost two decades ago embarked on building the littoral combat ship, specially designed for skirmishes in shallow coastal areas.

Too bad the ships are still virtually unusable after 16 years and $30 billion, with each ship costing a whopping 250 percent more than the original price tag. While they were technically made operational a decade ago, they’ve been plagued by so many technical issues that the Navy doesn’t seem to consider them ready for service in the Gulf. They didn't send any overseas at all for 19 months until this June because of constant breakdowns and fears about their vulnerability to modern threats.

This is particularly unfortunate because now the Navy faces exactly the kind of situation it was anticipating when it decided to build these ships. Tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have risen in recent months as President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal to slow Tehran’s technical progress and has slapped harsh sanctions on the country. With the crippling measures in place, Iran is using its heavily armed motorboats to harass commercial shipping in retaliation for the economic hardship.

The Navy is by now well aware of the long-suffering program’s deficiencies and is ready to cut its losses. By 2018 it had downsized its order from 52 ships to just 32 and is now aggressively seeking a new frigate to take its place. But the House and Senate are having none of that. Each chamber’s version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act currently being debated on Capitol Hill includes funding to build three more littoral combat ships than the Navy wanted.

Astoundingly, it gets worse: Legislators are cutting funding for the anti-submarine and mine warfare modules necessary for the existing ships to perform their missions.

The irony is that the littoral combat ship program was intended to be inexpensive and easy to construct, the start of a more cost-effective and flexible approach to military planning for an age of asymmetric warfare and splintering power centers.

The inability of the U.S. Navy and its congressional allocators to successfully manage this program raises questions about whether the military can swiftly adapt itself for the next generation of warfare — and to the asymmetric threats posed by Iran.

The Navy entered the 1990s with a fleet of robust frigates, destroyers and cruisers designed to battle Soviet submarines, jet bombers and surface warships in the Atlantic. But these powerful vessels were overly expensive for the routine global presence and policing missions that came to define the American naval agenda after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Even more problematic were the potential vulnerabilities of such hulking ships to ambushes by small boats and submarines fielded by the coastal navies of adversaries like Iran and North Korea.

Thus, the littoral combat ship was conceived in the early 2000s as, in the words of then-Navy Secretary Gordon England, a “small, fast, maneuverable and relatively inexpensive” shallow-draft corvette weighing one or two thousand tons that could battle low-rent adversaries in their coastal waters while freeing 9,000-ton destroyers with 300-person crews to carry out missions more appropriate for their size.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act currently being debated on Capitol Hill includes funding to build three more littoral combat ships than the Navy wanted.

But Pentagon planners just couldn’t keep things that simple. Rather than cheaply adapting an existing ship — which would have been eminently doable — the Navy fell prey to the tendency in military procurement to go for, as the lingo puts it, “exquisitely” tailored designs full of cutting-edge technologies. Those had to be concurrently developed from scratch at great expense.

In this approach, unprecedented degrees of automation would allow core crews of just 40 cross-trained personnel to perform multiple tasks, thereby reducing operating costs. Plug-and-play “mission modules” would allow each littoral combat ship to be reconfigured for either surface warfare, mine-clearing or anti-submarine duties on short notice. And their hulls would allow radar stealth and extraordinary speeds of 50 miles per hour using a unique dual-engine propulsion system.

The Navy told congressional overseers the lightly armed vessels would cost a mere $220 million per ship. But these best-case estimates overlooked that across-the-board innovation meant the newly developed systems had no consistent baseline to adapt to. Cascading delays and cost overruns eventually rocketed prices up to $550 million per ship, and ballooned the vessels to three to four times the originally proposed weight.

Furthermore, the Navy illogically elected to pay for the development and procurement of two entirely different designs. While both types had their strengths, doing things that way meant paying for two separate development, testing and training programs as well as separate spare part inventories. That means 10 out of the 35 scheduled littoral combat ships need to be dedicated to training and testing missions.

Shortfalls with the radical new manning scheme became evident once the ship began sea trials, with the 40-person crews overworked, inadequately trained and inefficient. The specialized mission modules by themselves have cost $7.6 billion and proved so difficult to integrate that the Navy abandoned the swappable module concept entirely.

So now each littoral combat ship will be dedicated to just one mission: surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare or mine warfare, with fixed crews of 65 to 75. Even so, littoral combat ships repeatedly broke down and the USS Milwaukee even had to be towed back to port due to engine failures — with four experiencing engineering casualties in a matter of months in 2016. One 2014 report estimated the ships have a 46-percent higher operating cost than the larger multirole frigates they have replaced.

The vessels’ supporters point out that ambitious new technologies inevitably encounter teething issues. But unlike the similarly troubled F-35 stealth jet, the littoral combat ship was dedicated to fighting second-rate adversaries.

And it may not even do that very well. Don’t just take my word for it: In 2017, the Pentagon’s department of testing and evaluation estimated that “neither LCS variant is survivable in high intensity combat.” And in 2016, the USS Coronado struggled to prevent simulated swarms of Iranian attack boats from closing within range to perform a deadly attack.

Now, in proposed 2020 budgets, Congress is looking to cut $33 million to $120 million out of the $197 million requested by the Navy to finish developing the mine warfare module — even though these sums are peanuts compared to the price of three unnecessary ships. Mine and anti-submarine warfare abilities, long neglected by the Navy, are areas where the littoral combat ship might still make useful contributions, and are pertinent to the situation in the Persian Gulf.

The littoral combat ship program embodies many of the pathologies dogging American military procurement.

Proponents still argue that it’s the least expensive solution for a navy struggling to maintain personnel and ship count, and that once the bugs are worked out and its armament upgraded it will be effective at the low-intensity coastal missions it was designed for.

Though there’s fortunately some utility to be squeezed out of the over-engineered littoral combat ship, that doesn’t make it any less damning that the Pentagon blew billions on “inexpensive” vessels designed to combat relatively weak adversaries — and still hasn’t deployed a single littoral combat ship to the Persian Gulf theater.

In short, the Littoral Combat Ship program embodies many of the pathologies dogging American military procurement, starting with a tendency to chase overly ambitious and expensive projects at the expense of practical and affordable solutions that could be promptly put in action. And rather than correcting these military excesses, Congress is making the problem worse by ordering additional ships the Navy doesn’t want while cutting off funding that would ensure those same ships can actually perform the missions they were intended for. All of which is making America’s sailors — and the country — less safe as water-based encounters with Iran increase.