Littoral Combat Vessel: The U.S. Navy's Great Relearning

"Has the U.S. Navy become the Haight-Ashbury of sea power? In a way."

The U.S. Navy, it seems, is undergoing what literary gadfly Tom Wolfe styles a “great relearning.” Wolfe recounts a 1968 visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, one of the meccas of hippiedom. Doctors at the district’s Free Clinic, he found, were “treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.” Such maladies made a comeback because the hippies “sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero.”

In short, Sixties youth rejected all precepts bequeathed by their elders—including basic hygiene. Having scoffed at accumulated wisdom of the ages, the hippies had to either put up with the rot or reacquaint themselves with common sense. Observes Wolfe: “This process, namely the relearning—following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero—seems to me to be the leitmotif of the twenty-first century in America.”

Has the U.S. Navy become the Haight-Ashbury of sea power? In a way. Service leaders, it appears, sometimes succumb to the urge to start from zero—dispensing with long-accepted verities. Exhibit A: the newfangled littoral combat ship, or LCS. Ever notice how often you hear about “new” innovations relating to these fledgling surface combatants? This week over at DOD Buzz, for instance, Kris Osborn reports on how USS Fort Worth is “launching a new expeditionary maintenance capability designed to improve the ship’s ability to conduct repairs in transit while on deployment in the Pacific theater.” The world is made new.

Except no. It turns out that Fort Worth is innovating by … carrying spare parts for its machinery. And tools to install those parts! Who’d’ve thought the crew of a 3,400-ton shipbigger than a World War II destroyer—could make routine repairs and conduct maintenance without putting into port?

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The answer: every generation of American sailors until this one. As a rule, men-of-war were expected to make themselves as self-sufficient as possible. Shipyards and shore intermediate-maintenance facilities were reserved for major repairs and overhauls. Big ships outfitted with machine shops, welding facilities, and the like could help out in a pinch, fashioning spares not stocked on board. The navy leadership nonetheless expected crews to perform their own preventive maintenance and minor repairs. This doctrine—this assumption—helped make the fleet resilient during routine steaming, peacetime crises, and combat alike.

Resiliency is good. Problem is, ships need manpower and equipment in abundance to shift for themselves. They need a surplus of people and gear—not the bare minimum allocated under navy potentates’ concept of “minimum manning.” So thin is the assigned complement, admits the navy, that the loss of one LCS crewman “will have mission-related implications.” Indeed, the “LCS will be the first class of ship for which personnel losses could result in an operational casualty report.” Think about that: losing one sailor to sickness, machinery damage, or enemy action could impede an American warship’s capacity to execute its mission.

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And the problem goes beyond everyday upkeep and watchstanding, doesn’t it? Students of war know that “paradoxical logic” governs martial enterprises of all types—including those on the high seas. Reversals of fortune are commonplace when the enemy gets a vote in your success, when Murphy’s Law intercedes, as it will, or when the tactical environment—weather, sea states, and on and on—turns deadly. A crew that cannot absorb battle casualties, fight fires, shore up flooding, and fight on is a crew apt to fail. That ships need an excess of manpower—not the bare minimum for peacetime steaming—constitutes an iron law of maritime operations.