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

July 6, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: U.S. NavyLittoral Combat Vessel

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.

Thankfully, the great relearning appears to have begun. The navy has bulked up the LCS “core” crew by 25 percent, from 40 to 50 sailors. That’s still compact compared to the 215 officers and enlisted who manned the recently retired Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, vessels comparable in size to the LCS. (Even with the extra crewmen assigned to operate the LCS’s sensors and weaponry, its crew numbers one-third that of a Perry.) Whether the supersized crew is enough to handle the rigors of equipment mishaps, bad weather, and hostile action—alongside the everyday chores that comprise life at sea—remains to be seen.

If ships need surplus manpower, they also need surplus hardware—and for similar reasons. Metal and saltwater do not coexist well. The tactical setting is innately and perpetually hostile to high-tech shipping. Naval operations, moreover, subject hulls to radical maneuvers and machinery to fast transients. Equipment likes to operate at steady-state speeds, temperatures, and pressures. Changing those parameters suddenly imposes stress on a vessel and its innards. Hardware breaks down from time to time—and when it does, you need a spare. The demands are even heavier when a foe is lobbing weapons at you—deliberately trying to disable your systems.

Redundancy isn’t a bug in ship design, then; it’s a feature. In bygone generations, naval architects designed as many duplicate systems and workarounds into hulls as they could. Yet, note Pentagon officials, littoral combat ships are short on redundancy. That shortfall casts doubt on their staying power in a fight. The more extra capacity shipwrights can retrofit into the LCS design, the better. Let the great relearning continue—lending resilience to littoral combat ships while reshaping the U.S. Navy’s future shipbuilding philosophy.

And lastly, there’s an operational and even strategic dimension to something as simple as sending Fort Worth to sea with tools and spare parts. No ship, no matter how lavishly outfitted with repair shops, can remain on foreign station indefinitely without access to bases and shipyards. As sea-power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan notes, ships without forward naval stations are like “land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores.”

Now transpose that logic to Southeast Asia. A four-ship, rotating LCS contingent will eventually make its home at the seaport of Changi, in Singapore. Depending on shore repairmen for routine upkeep, as the LCS maintenance strategy envisioned, would tether the vessels to Singapore. LCSs could operate in the South China Sea—but they would be land birds, unable to venture far from Changi. Supplying LCS crews with the wherewithal to conduct preventive maintenance and basic repairs liberates them—in part—to roam farther afield. It also protracts the time they can remain on station.

Never underestimate the strategic value of showing up—and staying. One imagines Tom Wolfe would cheer on the navy’s efforts to learn and adapt. Nevertheless, the littoral combat ship represents a cautionary tale for future ship designers. Redundancy and self-sufficiency should remain watchwords when configuring fleets. Warships and crews will depend on them for as long as enemies ply the briny main—which is to say, forever.

Thankfully, the times have evidently afforded the navy the leisure to experiment, and to rediscover old verities. No enemy force is sniping at LCSs, and for that let’s count ourselves fortunate. But circumstances could prove less kind in the future, compelling the fleet to undertake a great relearning at a time and place of Fate’s choosing—probably under extreme duress, and maybe under fire. Fate is whimsical that way.

That great navy president, Theodore Roosevelt, furnishes an excellent guide to the habits of mind useful for fleet design and tactics. TR once quipped that in politics, “wise radicalism and wise conservatism go hand in hand, one bent on progress, the other bent on seeing that no change is made unless in the right direction.” As with statesmanship, so with naval and military affairs. By all means let’s experiment with revolutionary new hardware and methods. That’s how military forces keep apace of the times. Wise radicals are essential to progress.

But wise conservatives—the guardians of fixed truths about human competition and war—should turn out in force when radicals maintain that the nature of war has changed, that high-tech wizardry can dispel the fog of war, or what have you. Devil’s advocates should do their damnedest when proponents of gee-whiz technology claim to have been liberated from fundamental principles that rule naval warfare. Naval warfare has not been made anew. No one can start out from zero. That’s the lesson from the littoral combat ship.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gary Granger Jr.