The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is in the news again, with the United States Navy ordering a stand down for the entire ship class and retraining for the crew. The concern from the Navy is that the ship’s dual engine system may be too tricky for its crews to properly manage. While the engine system allows the LCS to run on diesel for slower journeys but engage gas turbines for shorter “sprints,” it is a system that is difficult to operate and maintain. The lessons learned may not be only technical, however. The LCS ships are demonstrating how fixing defense acquisition problems cannot focus solely on speed.

The requirement that the LCS be capable of traveling at very high speeds was put into place during an accelerated acquisition process.The ships were conceptually framed around the “streetfighter,” a small, fast, and highly maneuverable vessel. But critics of this idea pointed out that such a ship would not be able to survive a direct hit. The ideas around the LCS started to shift, but without the U.S. Navy really qualifying what the mission for such a ship was really going to be. The program experienced requirements creep, but the Pentagon continued to push it along. To manage critiques of the ship—it being too small to survive, for example—as well as concerns about a shrinking fleet, the Navy added new missions and goals. 

What wound up being created was a jack-of-all-trades small ship that was still supposed to travel at high speed. Modularity would be the savior, with different systems being ‘plugged in’ as needed. The ship would have different modules for anti-submarine warfare, mine clearing, and surface attack capabilities among others. The problem? Some of the assigned roles had requirements that conflicted with the initial requirement for high speed. Submarine hunting, for example, usually involves large ships with helicopters and quieter engines. High speed is more of a liability than an asset during mine-sweeping. Some of the roles also conflicted with each other—with mine-sweepers and surface attack ships generally having different maneuverability, speed, and survivability needs.

As the ship was developed, its cost grew, making it too expensive to be expendable. At the same time, its weaponry turned out to not be as lethal as expected. Some of the planned modules, such as the anti-submarine systems, are struggling to meet the Navy’s need. Above all, the Navy had not put together tactical or strategic justifications for the LCS’ high speed. Now, concerns are growing that the LCS, with its current small crew and engine problems, might not even be able to handle its speed anyway.

One of the refrains in defense acquisition reform—from think tanks, the Department of Defense, and Congressional leaders—is that the system needs to move faster. The LCS, however, demonstrates the problem with focusing solely on reforming the speed of the defense acquisition system. The desire to get the ship produced as quickly as possible meant that the Navy did not focus enough on the key part of acquiring the LCS: its mission. Without that focus, different parts of the ship got pulled in different directions. The Navy attempted to fix too many capability gaps with one ship, while none were actually resolved.

The LCS is then a tale of the benefits of being deliberate. The defense acquisition process can be overly long, and this does mean that many programs are obsolete by the time they are actually produced. The solution, however, is not to rush through the process so quickly that the purpose of the weapons system is determined only at the end.