Steering the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Program Off the Shoals

Michael Mohn, Stephen Murray, and Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

May 19, 2008

How do you know you have a deep problem in acquisitions? When companies don’t even want to bid on a multibillion-dollar contract.

Sadly, this is the state of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, where in the latest back-and-forth over cost overruns and shifting requirements, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics recently hinted they may not bid on the next round.

The LCS is intended to fill a vital role in tomorrow’s fleet, in terms of its own capabilities as well as contributing toward the goal of a Navy of 313-plus ships.

While supporters often use the phrase that “failure in the program is simply not an option,” the unfortunate reality is that this is the track we are now headed toward. Failure is not only an option, it is a front-runner.

All parties must work to right the ship and avoid an almost certain interruption in LCS’ future.

We recommend the following steps:

  • Hold a meeting of the minds: The rat’s nest of confusing directives, acquisition strategies, analysts’ warnings and congressional concerns of cost, schedule and performance that surround the LCS need to be put in order.

    The Navy should pursue a multiparty, closed-door conference to identify all the divergent issues holding back the LCS program. We recognize that this is easier said than done and will require an investment of honest and open dialogue, putting profits, motives, military bureaucratic maneuvering and congressional parochialism aside. But the stakes — both security and financial — are too high to let such a valuable program be scuttled.

  • Pursue a path to attain the capability and capacity the Navy needs: The goal of this meeting must be to create a comprehensive, realistic plan that all stakeholders can support. There has been too much lost time in the morass; it is time to make steam. This plan must pragmatically identify the defensible and realistic funding streams to achieve needed fleet numbers as well as corporate viability; what is needed to gain true support from congressional subcommittees; and how the program will fit into the overall Navy shipbuilding plan.

    It must also stand up under rigorous analysis to support the final requirements, force size and especially the concept of operations the ships will operate under — much of which is far too tentative at this stage.

  • Finalize the requirements: As long as the Navy allows two ship variants to exist that each have unfinished final designs and possess unique characteristics, subsystems, training regimens and logistics tails, there will be confusion as to what exactly the Navy requires. This confusion has ironically created an air of uncertainty around a program that has fairly unified support in its concept, if not the execution.

    The Navy needs to finalize the final requirement set. Maybe this isn’t achievable until after operational test and evaluation of both the Lockheed and General Dynamics ships, but at least the Navy needs to state that up front.

    So until it is solved, industry will remain reluctant, Congress will continue to push for an answer and defense analysts will chastise the Navy, DoD and Congress for allowing the prices to escalate.

  • Redefine the acquisition strategy: After identifying the key collective roadblocks and solving the requirements problem, the Navy should aggressively retool its approach to building an LCS fleet. It should consider abandoning the past statements of uncertainty on whether there will be a final choice of “one” or “the other” or “maybe a different hull” built by either Lockheed or General Dynamics or someone else.

    Instead, it should decide when and how a final decision will materialize. It should also address whether the LCS fleet size (55 or more hulls) warrants a multiple-yard construction strategy. By solving these issues and allaying competitive fears, the service can better deal with congressional caretakers who fear their districts will either face boon or bust on the outcome.

  • Build a future force: Once the plan and path are prescribed, all energy needs to focus on how to reach the goals in an efficient manner. The challenges with LCS reflect broader concerns emerging in shipbuilding and defense contracting. As our work force ages, work force strength and competencies are shifting and even drying up at our shipyards and the overall industrial base. We must face this issue head on.

    We must also balance prudent engineering practices with anticipating advance technologies.

We must analytically develop cost estimates and then establish realistic checks and balances to avoid skyrocketing costs that seem to appear out of nowhere. There must be a shared ownership and commitment between industry and the government to solving these challenges to keep American defense capacities vibrant in the coming century.

In short, the variables that will determine success with building LCS are the very same that are needed on the far too many other Navy and Coast Guard shipbuilding efforts that have recently experienced trouble (LHD, DDG-1000, Deepwater), and could easily apply to other defense acquisitions. Our future fleet integrity relies on us getting this right.

Captain Michael Mohn, U.S. Coast Guard, Cmdr. Stephen Murray, U.S. Navy, and Dr. P.W. Singer are all fellows in the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Washington. These opinions are their own views and do not reflect official policy.