Surface Forces: The Good Old Days Were Cheaper


November 2, 2007: The Littoral Combat Ship program has suffered another serious blow with the Navy terminating the construction of LCS-4, the second of the two the trimaran designs (Independence-class) that General Dynamics is using. Both LCS programs are suffering from serious cost overruns, and the Navy now has seen both LCS-3 and LCS-4 fall victim to this. This does place General Dynamics and Lockheed on a more equal footing.

The LCS is intended to be a low-end vessel with a high top speed (over 90 kilometers per hour), and capable of carrying out a number of missions, including minesweeping, anti-submarine warfare, special operations support, intelligence/surveillance, and even logistics, through a modular design that would allow the ships to use various mission packages. These ships were intended to replace the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and other vessels. So far, the cost for the LCS has ballooned to roughly $200 million, and this is before any mission packages are added. The basic armament of the LCS is a 57mm gun, point-defense systems like the Rolling Airframe Missile and the Phalanx Close-in-Weapon System, and a variety of decoys and electronic warhead gear.

The LCS, like the DD(X) is several times more expensive than the previous vessel in its class. The Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates cost around $68 million each to build (about $100 million today). For that money, the Navy got a 3,600 ton warship with a top speed of 55 kilometers per hour, a 76mm gun, the ability to carry two helicopters, and (prior to the removal of the Mark 13 missile launchers) the ability to use Standard surface-to-air missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The Perry also proved to be a very tough design. In the 1980s, the Stark and Samuel B. Roberts survived anti-ship missile hits and a mine respectively. For the price of one LCS, the United States Navy could get two new Perrys which could carry out most of the same missions.

The debate over ship costs and who is to blame for them will rage for a while as the Navy will not only have to fight contractors (and their congressional patrons), but also among themselves as they have to decide whether to keep building older designs like the Burke-class destroyers (about $1 billion each). The blame really goes all-around. The contractors often submit bids that are on the low side, but at the same time, the Navy has had a nasty habit of introducing essential, and expensive, changes during construction. Environmental regulations have also gotten stricter – often standards that are tightened just for the sake of tightening them. This costs shipbuilders money – and the costs get passed on to the consumer (in this case, the U.S. Navy).

Finally, the peace dividend led to the consolidation of many parts of the defense industry, including shipbuilding. As orders declined (the Seawolf was cut from a planned production of 29 to three), some shipyards re-tooled for civilian production while others went out of business. Many of the workers and designers left as well, and have retired or otherwise moved on. In a very real sense, the Navy is paying a delayed price for the peace dividend of the 1990s in the form of higher shipbuilding costs and problems getting new ship designs right. Meanwhile, the remaining Perry-class frigates, as well as other ships, are not getting any younger. – Harold C. Hutchison (


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