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The Littoral Combat Ship and the Folly of Concurrency

The Navy’s plan to retire the first four Littoral Combat Ships serves as an object lesson about the dangers of overlapping weapon development and production.
The littoral combat ship Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Coronado (LCS 4) is rolled-out at the Austal USA assembly bay on January 9, 2011. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Navy leaders announced in February 2020 that they want to retire the first four Littoral Combat Ships, which aren’t even teenagers, a move that signals an admission of the failure of the program and the waste of billions of taxpayer dollars. Much has been written (including by us) about the overall folly of the Littoral Combat Ship program; the cancellation of the program proves the larger folly of concurrency, showing why the Pentagon should not purchase large numbers of weapons before the design is complete or its effectiveness is proven through testing.

While the Navy leaders are right in their decision to decommission the four ships and to cancel the program, the taxpayers will be left with $2.4 billion worth of Littoral Combat Ship concurrency orphans.

At the program’s inception, Navy leaders projected each ship would cost $220 million. To no one’s surprise, the costs more than doubled so that each of these ships cost taxpayers approximately $600 million to build. The Navy included the first four Littoral Combat Ships produced—Freedom, Independence, Fort Worth, and Coronado—on its list of ships to be decommissioned in the coming months. The first ship, the USS Freedom, entered service on November 8, 2008, while the USS Coronado was commissioned on April 5, 2014. The Coronado completed its only operational deployment to the Pacific in 2017.

Under the Navy’s current plans, the four Littoral Combat Ships will take their place in the mothball fleet on March 31, 2021. The Navy’s budgeteers decided the costs to retrofit these ships into something resembling a combat-ready configuration were too high. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday said the upgrades would cost $2 billion over five years.

The Littoral Combat Ship program’s demise should be a surprise to no one, because of the numerous conceptual flaws. Navy leaders and their industry partners intended for the ships to be modular with the ability to be configured in different ways. This would have made them a versatile class of ships capable of performing several critical combat and maritime support roles. Its most important planned role was to hunt enemy mines. The Navy’s minesweeping capability has eroded significantly in recent years, despite the fact that sea mines remain one of the most serious threats the surface fleet faces. The Navy currently has only 11 Avenger-class minesweeping ships and 29 MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters to protect a fleet of 300 commissioned warships and more than 250 support vessels. The failure of the Littoral Combat Ship program means that these already limited and aging assets will have to be stretched even further to protect the growing fleet. Navy leaders failed to select a single design despite the original plan to do so, and instead purchased two largely incompatible variants. The Navy abandoned the concept of making the ships reconfigurable when it couldn’t get the mission modules to work properly despite sinking $7.6 billion into the project.

The Littoral Combat Ship program serves as a cautionary tale for the insidious Pentagon practice of concurrency: the overlap between weapon development and production. Just as consumers should test drive a car before buying it, the Pentagon should sail a fully developed ship before buying a bunch of them. Concurrency poses significant risks to the taxpayers. Weapons purchased before the development process is completed often require extensive modifications at great expense to incorporate design changes devised after testing. Sometimes, as in the case of the first four Littoral Combat Ships, the costs to modify underdeveloped weapons are so great that the effort is abandoned and the weapons become “concurrency orphans,” having never provided useful service. While the Navy leaders are right in their decision to decommission the four ships and to cancel the program, the taxpayers will be left with $2.4 billion worth of Littoral Combat Ship concurrency orphans.

It remains to be seen if the Navy will actually be allowed to carry out its plans to mothball the ships in question. House appropriators have questioned the Navy’s rationale for the retirements, calling the plan “shortsighted.” Lawmakers take issue with the Navy’s penchant for buying new ships rather than taking care of and upgrading those already in the fleet. As a general rule, it is right to ask such questions. In the case of the failed Littoral Combat Ship program, however, the more prudent course of action would be to scrap the ineffective ships in favor of simpler designs based on realistic operating principles and proven technology.

The Navy plans to make up for the smaller Littoral Combat Ship fleet by buying 20 new frigates. The ships themselves will be built by Fincantieri Marinette Marine and based on an existing Italian design, which will reduce some of the risks hazarded by the Littoral Combat Ship program. Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract to kit out the new frigates with their actual warfighting systems. In that contract, the Navy designated Lockheed Martin as the lead systems integrator for the frigate’s combat systems.

The Congressional Research Service has warned in the past that using a private-sector lead systems integrator cedes responsibilities normally carried out by the government to the contractor and reduces the program’s transparency. According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report, “[Lead Systems Integrators] can have broad responsibility for executing their programs, and may perform some or all of the following functions: requirements generation; technology development; source selection; construction or modification work; procurement of systems or components from, and management of, supplier firms; testing; validation; and administration.” This arrangement creates potential conflicts of interest. The contractor could design requirements for the program tailored to its own products or by favoring vendors selected from the contractor’s own subsidiaries.

The Navy estimates the new frigate will cost $940 million per copy. The Government Accountability Office has warned that the program is already not following best practices by failing to confirm that estimate through an independent analysis. So while the new frigate may be an improvement over the Littoral Combat Ship on the conceptual level, it will likely be anything but a bargain for the taxpayers.