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Why Would the Pentagon Waste $1.4 Billion on This Ineffective Warship?

After months of spending little or nothing on major weapons purchases, the U.S. Pentagon finally took out its wallet this week and started spending. Over the course of five days, the Pentagon awarded nearly $4.6 billion in new contracts -- including about $1.4 billion to buy four of the U.S. Navy's new Littoral Combat Ships, or LCSes, from defense contractors Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) and General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  ) , and Austal (NASDAQOTH: AUTLY  ) .

But should it have?

America's first Littoral Combat Ship, the USS Independence (LCS-1). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A word to the wise
"LCS is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat because its design requirements do not require the inclusion of survivability features necessary to conduct sustained combat operations in a major conflict as expected for the Navy's other surface combatants."

This assessment by the Pentagon's independent director of operational test and evaluation, or DOTE, released last month, got a lot of attention in the media. After all, the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship is ... a littoral combat ship. "Combat" is part of its job description.

But for those who know the LCS, this assessment shouldn't come as a huge surprise. After all, the aluminum hull on the USS Independence-class LCSes, and the small crew sizes and limited armaments of both classes of LCS, mean the LCS was never designed to take the kind of punishment dished out in a "high-intensity combat" -- the kind where bullets and bombs (and sea-skimming missiles) are flying fast and furious.

And in fact, the situation's even worse than the 2013 assessment suggests. One year ago, DOTE issued a similar report on the LCS, and concluded:

"LCS is not expected to ... maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment."

One strike, and out
Now that really was a revelation. The fact that just one solid hit on an LCS might be enough to sink the ship, or at least knock it out of commission, seemed to raise serious questions about the ship's viability. Negative publicity surrounding these revelations probably contributed to the Pentagon's decision to significantly scale back its ship-buying program for the LCS, cutting planned purchases from 52 to 32.

But in fact, in the age of modern warfare, "one strike and out" is hardly an uncommon fate for naval warships. Consider: At just 3,000 tons displacement each, the Independence- and Freedom-class LCSes are among the smallest warships built for the U.S. Navy. Yet recent naval conflicts have shown that even much larger vessels can be taken out of commission by just one single "significant hit."

For example, during Britain's short conflict with Argentina during the Falkland Islands War in 1982, a single Exocet missile strike was enough to sink the 4,800-ton British destroyer HMS Sheffield.

Type 42 destroyer HMS Nottingham, twin to the sunk Sheffield. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Two days before the sinking of the Sheffield, the Argentine warship ARA General Belgrano, a 12,000-ton light cruiser, was hit twice by British torpedoes. The first torpedo struck the ship too far forward to be fatal, but the second hit, taken amidships, knocked out the Belgrano's power and forced the crew to abandon ship within 20 minutes.

ARA General Belgrano. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

More recently, on Oct. 12, 2000, the 9,000-ton U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67) was struck by suicide bombers in a bomb-laden skiff. That single "hit" blasted a 40-by-40-foot hole in the Cole's side, killing 17 sailors, and knocking the ship out of commission.

USS Cole, once again whole. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The upshot for the LCS
If warships 150% (Sheffield), three times (Cole), and four times (Belgrano) the size of the USS Independence could all be taken out of commission, or even sunk, by "a significant hit in a hostile combat environment," it only stands to reason that a similar strike would inflict a similar fate upon a much smaller LCS.

Viewed in this light, the Pentagon's reports of the LCS's "vulnerability" don't sound quite so serious as they've been portrayed in the media. While it's certainly worth debating whether the LCS is the right ship for the missions it's designed to perform, or whether it's worth the billions of dollars the Pentagon (still) plans to spend on it, the fact that the ship may not survive a missile strike isn't necessarily a good reason to kill the program.

Investors who've been led to believe that the Littoral Combat Ship program is doomed for this reason alone... have been misinformed. 

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Read/Post Comments (20) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2014, at 9:03 PM, ilsm50 wrote:

    The littoral combat ship is welfare for shipyards owned by Italian and Australian companies, therefore "the fact that the ship may not survive a missile strike isn't necessarily a good reason to kill the program."

    Or that the ship has no real mission is no reason to lay off people in shipyards.

    The test report suggest the ship should not be sent into "harm's way". In other words you should not put you daughter on it, if it goes into combat.

    The combat the ship is made for is fiction, so it don't matter that it cannot be sent into harm's way.

    The littoral combat ship is welfare for shipyards how dare the test report try to inerfere with the cash flow saying the ship is not effective in its missions, too much costly refit to change missions and so dangerous it should not be exposed to any enemy.

    The pentagon exists to keep shipyards turning a profit no matter how inept.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2014, at 8:53 AM, rustyjeep2 wrote:

    ah, pesky laws of physics. this article reminds me of a recent story about a congressman complaining about the laws of physics, finally saying "We're Congress - we can change laws!"

    If you want speed, in a certain size, with a certain payload, you require it to be light.

    Additionally, if you make something TOO HEAVY (implying armored hull) it might even sink sitting at the pier, let alone make the speed required to prosecute submarines effectively.

    Not every platform can meet every potential operational mission requirement, regardless of what the services might thing.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 12:49 AM, angrim20 wrote:

    If the Navy really needs a ship in this size, then a new class of frigates would do the trick. These LCS's are more suited for the Coast Guard than the Navy. Give our service men and women the right equipment for the job and to hell with Lockheed Martin's profits!

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 9:21 AM, ugo wrote:

    Why did Boehner fight to keep buying plane engines the military did not want? Why are knowingly way overpriced defense contracts awarded? Why is there so much fraud and waste in that budget? Politics.It is the last budget with little oversight or accountability. To question spending there is un-American.It has become politicians go to slush fund.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 10:32 AM, Rotomoley wrote:

    Actually, any ship that can not take multiple hits and keep going is probably useless these days in a real fight. Even an aircraft carrier could not keep functioning with one good hit from China's DF21 ballastic anti ship missile. I would argue that the Navy is becoming obsolete except for submarines. Therefore, any future ships should be so based or have effective counter measures good for at least a salvo of 10 or more simultaneous missile/torpedo launches. We are not building well to this.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 10:34 AM, Azbill007 wrote:

    Just more waste by the military. They don't seem to understand that their prime mission is defending this country. What they are buying is for offensive against other countries.As usual someone in Washington doesn't have their head screwed on right.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 10:36 AM, sparky023 wrote:

    Its a fine ship for what its designed to do. Its not a battleship with the big 16" guns of yesteryear. Its more of a forward operating base with a lot of sophisticated classified electronics. Its a flagship for a modern Admiral not an iron side for an old sea dog. To say we don't need them is naïve. Of course it always comes down to politics, not the needs of the navy. Which state gets the money?

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 10:46 AM, ceh4702 wrote:

    There is a big difference in speed. They are harder to hit.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 10:56 AM, boggyg wrote:

    the same reason they build tanks to fill the fields of America , republican job creation ,the bridge to no where

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 10:59 AM, ceh4702 wrote:

    I tend to think of them as an experiment. They are designed to go into a shallow water where other ships can not easily go. However, they are very fast. I could see them being used to rescue seamen or some such thing also. I wonder how they would do in really rough storms. They may not have enough weight to displace really big waves like a destroyer or an air craft carrier. I wonder if you design one as a light missile launching platform?

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 11:12 AM, ceh4702 wrote:

    They had another version that they mounted twin turret guns on each side that was designed to take out multiple small craft. I wonder if we would be better off developing drone boats with no people on board designed to take out smaller crafts like terrorists on rafts.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 11:37 AM, DeeBarker wrote:

    You BOZOS haven't seen what this ship can do. It traves at speeds of the ocean going Cigar Boats yet out maneuvers anthing and everything. No ship has ever performed on water like this ship. 70 MPH+ and 90 degree turns. I looked at the photos many times in complete unbelief. Rich Smith must be a kindergarten liberal to have written such a stupid article, and you all are naive to believe him.

    Dee Barker

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 11:42 AM, DeeBarker wrote:

    I just checked out this RICH SMITH. Right On! He IS OUT OF HIS LEAGUE! Smith is a FINACIAL brainiac, far from a military analyst and probably never set foot on a dock much less a row boat. Ignorance realy IS Bliss. You all need to do some serious background checking....

    Dee Barker

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 12:01 PM, extraclasss wrote:

    The LCS is designed to be Fast and capable of operating in shallow water where bigger ships could no go! It is also designed as a platform for for different types of weapons systems or electronics packages! Not a bad idea if it works out, but only time will tell!

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 12:31 PM, Muskysmell wrote:

    Nothing more than a way to feed the contractors GD,LM, and Austal, taxpayer funds.

    A Yu-Gi-Oh card LCS can now be played in the game of shallow mined war mongers.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 1:28 PM, therdl wrote:

    Surface warfare officers have been carefully showing what waste of money this ship is for a long time: No punch in its basic armaments, relies on mission modules that still don't exist., victim of optimum manning ideas so its crew is too small and is worn out by peace operations let alone combat operations to name just a few of the problems. Building a modern frigate makes about 100 times more sense than the LCS.

    Read Navy blogger Cdr. Salamander if you want to know more:

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 2:13 PM, pete2121 wrote:

    A little long-winded, but worth the read for those lacking in military knowledge:

    The LCS is not intended to be used in a traditional approach to warfare. Similar to the Army, the Navy has been geared more in recent years to fight an assymetrical war. This is most commonly used to mean we are fighting a rapidly changing and non-traditional enemy (read "terrorists" or "pirates") that require a rapid response and multi-tool arsenal. The army came out with the stryker and retooled its armor-heavy/dependent tactics and strategies in favor of brigade combat teams (or bct), which were specifically designed to have a vast amount of tools at the disposal of a few amount of men; meaning we can now deploy a 4k man brigade in a situation that previously required multiple elements from multiple divisions (16k or more men needed).

    The LCS attempts to provide exactly that option to the Navy, and is the only realistic solution for at least another 15 years due to R&D costs/time and other planned projects. Instead of deploying a whole battle group (15+ ships) to an area, the dream would be to deploy a 5+ LCS group that can accomplish the same mission (anti-piracy/assymetrical warfare) with more efficiency and a higher success rate for a fraction of the cost. If successful, the long term cost-savings is too enticing to NOT try it out for the Navy. Just do some basic research on costs for a carrier group (13 Billion needed for a single new carrier alone would pay for 20+ LCS in theory). Until a more comprehensive design is developed, the LCS is the only option short of committing an entire battle group, which is why the program will continue at least for the near future.

    Personally, I believe a much better alternative could have been dreamt up a decade ago. Also on a side note, several weapons tests initially failed due to the fact that the LCS's high maneuverability and speed rendered the weapons unneccesary. Basically the LCS literally ran circles around the attacking forces and capsized them due to turbulence before the LCS even had a chance to fire. The tests had to be rerun with the LCS simply sitting there like a lame duck.

    -military academy grad

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 3:02 PM, Neillarson wrote:

    These ships are a stab at bringing the gap between Cruisers and Gun Boats. Really a terrible design. survivability and armament are significantly under designed. The navy had a great recipe with the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG 7) class frigates and the Pegasus (PHM 1) class hydrofoils. The 76MM OTO Melera guns and Harpoon Missiles made both potent and the addition of SM1 Missiles and MK 46 torpedoes on the FFG added anti air and anti sub capabilities. The Ticonderoga (CG 47) class cruisers and the Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) destroyers provided great in depth fighting abilities and great range for both independent missions and battle group missions. The Zumwalt (DDG 1000) destroyers are interesting, well armed and stealthy and would be a great compliment.

    Instead our Navy and our military in general, have heir inventories driven by congress instead of fighting men.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 3:52 PM, jolo wrote:

    they have found the lost billions the pentagon conveniently got lost!

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2014, at 4:13 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    More good reading for anyone interested:

    The short version is that the Pentagon may be cutting short (but not canceling) the LCS production run. But it's planning to make good use of what it's learned from the first few months of the experiment -- perhaps by designing this new frigate that angrim20, therdl, and Neillarson seem to want to see.

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Rich Smith

As a defense writer for The Motley Fool, I focus on defense and aerospace stocks. My job? Every day of the week, I'm monitoring the news, figuring out the winners and losers, and tracking down the promising companies for you to invest in. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the most important developments in defense & aerospace, and other great stories.

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