A naval ship design expert asked early on in the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program to review the design for the vessels used to joke, “I had a ‘Jaws’’ moment – you know, in the film, when the guy says, ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’”
But what the U.S. Navy brass is trying to get across now is this: with LCS it’s not size that counts, but it’s the way they plan to use the ship – the concept of operations or conops – that will make all the difference.
But LCS conops have led to a lot of promise and problems for the program. On the one hand, Navy supporters say they will use the ship in all kinds of novel ways. On the other hand, the evolving conops make it difficult to gauge whether the ships will be worth the investment.
“I think the long pole in the tent right now is the concept of operations, which involves the manning, the swapping out of the mission modules in theater and the maintenance support concept, which is basically off the ship and on shore,” said Paul Francis, Government Accountability Office managing director of acquisition and sourcing management, during a House Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing on the LCS program last month.
“And while I see the seaframes and the modules as giving the ship its technical ability, it's really the conops that give it its capability,” he says. “Those abilities won't be able to be brought to bear unless the support of the ship works. One can be hopeful but not yet confident that the ship is going to deliver on its full capability.”
The Navy brass says GAO and other program detractors are not looking at LCS in the right way. They need to think more outside the box.
“I was the first Tomahawk officer on the first Tomahawk ship,” says Capt. John Ailes, the U.S. Navy officer recently selected to be admiral who is in charge of integrating LCS with its mission-module packages.
“My job was to give tours – most were them were to flag officers,” he says. ”Every one of them said: ‘You’ll never shoot a Tomahawk in anger. A million dollars for a thousand-pound bomb? That’s just crazy. We’ll take attack aircraft like we always do.’ But for the next 35 years all we did was shoot Tomahawks. They just didn’t have the vision of how it would be used differently.”
It is a matter of asking the right questions, he says. ”Don’t ask: Is [it] attack aircraft versus million-dollar Tomahawk? What’s it worth to you to put no pilots at risk and guarantee that no one will shoot down your airplanes? It’s a whole different question.”
While LCS conops writ large may be still be evolving, Ailes says, the Navy knows essentially how it will – or at least how it plans to – perform many of the basic surface, mine and antisubmarine warfare missions the ships are meant to do.
Still, there are some issues that need resolving. “We’ll be doing some shore-based maintenance training,” says Tracy Nye, a Navy mine warfare expert working on the LCS program. “The ship has a different kind of maintenance philosophy.”
But all of this is just house-keeping, she says. Sailors and support folks will work it out. Annual conops updates are expected, GAO says, because LCS crewing, training, and support strategies are constantly evolving.
Several of the key concepts that underpin the program—such as employing modular weapon systems, highly reduced manning levels, and heavy reliance on off-ship maintenance and administrative support—represent innovative approaches that have not been used before by the Navy and have not yet been validated through operations, GAO notes.
Ailes and other LCS supporters say that operational experience gained from getting “water under the keel” will not only make it possible to perform missions better, but highlight ways of using the ships undreamt of before. They say the ships are worth the risk of finding out.
The Navy 2011 warfighting conops for LCS reflect these unknowns, stating in several places that the Navy will determine how to employ LCS only once it has gained operational experience, GAO says. Consequently, the Navy should hold off any more block buys of the ship until those conops are a little better known, the congressional auditors say.