The surface Navy can’t handle the LCS

The surface Navy can’t handle the LCS


By Captain John Byron USN (ret.)
Best Defense office of naval affairs

The LCS is a pair of innovative warship designs offering good lower-end combat capability in the near-shore areas of the world. At about a third of a billion dollars each, this class is intended to deliver much global naval presence at much less cost than we get from the larger Arleigh Burke destroyers (at $1.8 billion each), the Ticonderoga cruisers (at $1 billion each), and the latest, the Zumwalt (at $4 billion).

The engineering plants of both the Independence and the Freedom LCS design-types are operationally of great promise but complex and challenging to operate and maintain. As result, both design-types have been snake-bit since going into commission, the failure rate of their engineering plants astonishing, their operational availability dismal.

Four reasons for this:

  • The engineering-plant designs are revolutionary, not evolutionary, and unforgiving of maintenance or operating errors.
  • The ship crews lack the training and discipline to keep these plants on the line.
  • The squadrons supporting the LCSs aren’t supporting them.
  • The surface navy refuses to back innovative ship designs with the resources and programs needed for true readiness.

The full LCS horror story is laid out in the official investigation of the recent casualties in engineering aboard USS Fort Worth (LCS-3).

This investigation’s final endorsement (from commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet) contains recommendations seldom seen in such documents. Usually the ship’s commanding officer gets hammered (fired, in this case). But Cincpacflt goes above the skipper to assign blame for this incident and for LCS engineering woes in general to the two ISICs (Immediate Superior In Command) involved, the parent squadron commander stateside and the deployed boss. This is seldom done.

The investigation documents that the stateside ISIC turned Forth Worth loose on deployment fully aware that it took five tries for the ship’s engineering department to gain readiness certification and that was only provisional. The deployed ISIC pretty much ignored the state of material readiness once he got the ship under his command.

I note that Cincpacflt (Admiral Scott Smith) is a tailhook aviator. His insistence that Forth Worth  problems go above the ship itself highlights the contrast between the often-cavalier attitude the surface navy take towards material readiness and that of submariners and naval aviators.

If a surface warship breaks underway, the ship just stops and bobs around until it either gets fixed or towed, whereas in airplanes and the submarine world a casualty can kill everyone aboard. Aviators know their aircraft and its operation cold. Submariners have unmatched knowledge of their extremely complex boat. The Navy’s aviators and submariners insist that the platforms they send their people to sea in are designed and supported for best possible reliability and readiness. The surface navy doesn’t do this.

The surface Navy, for many reasons, does not fund and support readiness as it should. As result, its ships often lack the discipline, training, and support needed to provide proper readiness. Many moons ago I wrote an article on surface ship readiness in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, the Navy’s professional journal. As the sad saga of the LCS illustrates, not enough has changed since then.

Captain Byron holds both surface warfare and submarine qualifications. He lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy