What is the Pentagon's Strategy in Cutting LCS for F-35s?
Defense Secretary Ash Carter just told the Navy to spend less money on ships and more on jets. In a memorandum this week, he directed Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to cap purchases of Independence and Freedom-class ships at 40 (instead of 52), to rely on one shipbuilder from 2019 onwards, and to plough the money saved into F-35Cs. Carter is torqued that the Navy for years "has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers,” as if ships was what the Navy was supposed to buy. Until now, these particular ships had survived the critics, but now, the Joint Strike Fighter is eating the budget, and it must be fed. Given trends in military technology, and a fundamental question about American strategy, I do wonder if this re-emphasis on aircraft and quality over ships-in-quantity may be the wrong call.
First, about those LCSs. After arguments that the “Little Crappy Ships” cost too much and did too little, the Navy hatched a plan to improve their firepower and survivability. The new versions will be frigates, with over-the-horizon missiles for killing enemy ships, an improved three-dimensional radar and SeaRAM missiles for local air defense, 25 mm guns for better warding off small boats, and a towed array sonar and torpedo countermeasures for better capability against submarines. The Navy’s LCS-as-frigate plan does put the emphasis on sub-hunting, but that is a traditional emphasis for frigates.
There remains a question as to how thoroughly quieted these new frigates can be on a hull not built expressly for that purpose. The bigger question, as Andrew Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has asked, is whether ships focused on fighting other ships (including submarines) is a sensible purchase in an era in which jet-powered aircraft with precision-guided missiles can range hundreds or thousands of miles out to sea in search of targets. In the near future, evading detection by legions of drones, and failing that, surviving what Andrew Krepinevich of the CSBA calls a “mature precision-strike regime” near an enemy coast, will be very challenging for any surface ship.
To get to the frigate—yes, it will be a frigate—Navy has learned plenty of lessons from its operations with the first few ships of the two classes. The crews are “tight-knit” but a bit frazzled. Yes, there remain serious questions about the survivability of the first-generation (LCS version) of the Independence and Freedom classes. The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester is unimpressed with the Navy's plans in that regard—though I’d take his office more seriously if it hadn’t declared the Predator drone “not operationally effective or suitable.” And as Steve Wills of Ohio State has argued, modern small ships are quite rationally built more for disposability than survivability. The latter vessels will be frigates, but perhaps not traditional frigates. As with MRAPs and aircraft, the better objective might be crew survival.