The US Navy has turned to the defense industry in a request for information (RFI) that could signal the death knell for the LCS (littoral combat ship) program that never quite got legs.
The service can't seem to make up its mind on whether to commission littoral combat ships, frigates, or modified littoral combat ships. The last frigates were decommissioned in 2015. But the program to replace them has been a major dud.
The Navy once planned to field 52 LCS-baseline ships to retire its time tested Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered the Navy to cut the number of ships down to 40 in December of 2015. The program has failed to achieve lofty ambitions.
The Congressional Research Service released a report in April of this year declaring 26 close-shore attack ships had been funded. But contractors Lockheed Martin and Austal USA completed less than 30 percent of the number of ships they were paid to produce.
"As of October 19, 2016, seven LCSs (LCS1 through 6 and LCS 8) were in service. LCS 7 is scheduled to be commissioned into service on October 22, 2016. LCSs 9 through 26 are in various stages of construction," the federal think tank reported.
"Whereas the program expected to deliver all 55 ships in the class by fiscal year 2018, today that expectation has been reduced to 17 ships," the watchdog noted.
"The LCS program poses several issues for [the US] Congress," CRS wrote.
The independent watchdog agency within the federal government, the Government Accountability Office, reported in December of 2016, "our recent work has shown that the LCS business case continues to weaken."
Notably, the LCS ships being developed right now "have exceeded contract cost targets, with the government responsible for paying a portion of the cost growth." In nominal terms the Navy has asked for taxpayers to throw another $246 million to cover cost growth for twelve of the apparently troubled ships, GAO added.
Pentagon leaders finally got a clue that it may no longer be prudent to throw good money at bad. Taxpayers have clearly gotten the short end of the stick on the LCS program. Nevertheless, Lockheed Martin claims "affordability" to be a major selling point of the ships they've struggled to construct.
The LCS program was supposed to be the next generation of warships to escort aircraft carriers, track submarines, and drown enemy combat vessels. Oliver Hazard Perry-class sunk into the history books in 2015 when the last Perry-class ship was retired. It may have been a mistake financially, but it also opens up the larger question of improper predictions of what the future of warfare would look like.
Military analysts foresaw a battle space in which combat would occur closer to shores. This is where LCS vessels were supposed to thrive. The willingness, finally, to examine scrapping the program indicates that vision may have been little more than an effective ideology to support an expensive new program.
The Turkish navy, for one, never bought into the LCS program. Instead, Ankara's navy devoted resources to fortifying its G-class frigates with 32 long-range SM-2 Missiles and 32 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, Sputnik reported in April.
The government's request to map out a new small surface ship is "an effort to get the design right up front," Read Adm. Ronald Boxall told Defense News on Monday.
"We're looking to have a dialogue with industry to get the most capability for the best price."