PENTAGON: John D. Burrow is in a hurry – and if you think you know what the Navy needs as an alternative to its controversial Littoral Combat Ship, you will be too. Minutes ago, the Navy released a pair of Requests For Information (RFIs) on LCS alternatives – one RFI for concepts for the ship as a whole and the other for specific shipboard technologies. The deadline for responses: 22 May. As Burrow told reporters this morning, “the RFIs will give them 21 days to provide that information.”
“We’re not going to have time for them to go through and do a design,” said Burrow, head of the Small Surface Combatant Task Force. “[We want] mature ship designs that are in production today and/or mature ship designs that have a high degree of fidelity [so] that we can understand the degree of technical risk.”
Meanwhile, in parallel to industry’s rush effort, Burrow and his staff will consult Navy personnel at Norfolk, Pearl Harbor, and elsewhere during May to get real sailors’ takes on what a small warship needs. Then Burrow and his SSCTF staff will have a month to mate up what the fleet says it needs with what industry says is it can do, analyze the information and narrow it all down to a set of options – not a single ship, but a range of different designs, Burrow emphasizes – to offer to Navy and Defense Department leadership.
“It’s a quick turnaround,” Burrow acknowledged to reporters. “Remember I’ve got to 31 July to wrap this thing up.”
That said, the Navy’s done plenty of prior work for Burrow to build upon, one Congressional staffer told me: “It’s more feasible than you might otherwise think when you consider that in fact they’ve been studying this stuff without telling people since early last year, since early 2013.” Likewise, industry has been touting LCS alternatives for a while — such as Lockheed Martin’s modification of its Independence-class LCS for foreign markets, or Huntington-Ingalls’ upgunned version of the National Security Cutter it builds for the US Coast Guard
The Small Surface Combatant Task Force itself, however, was set up just months ago by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to review whether the existing LCS variants, a modified Littoral Combat Ship, or an entirely new design – even a foreign ship – would best meet the Navy’s needs against increasingly lethal future threats. Whatever ship gets picked, it needs to be ready to enter production in 2019 when the existing LCS contract ends, so production can continue uninterrupted. To do that, the Navy needs to award a new contract for something in fiscal year 2016, for which the services are already building their budgets.
Burrow emphasized repeatedly that he and his team are not holding a competition, not conducting a formal analysis of alternatives – though their work could certainly be the basis of one – and don’t even have formal requirements yet. Some analysts have worried that Sec. Hagel had predetermined the outcome with his memo’s pointed suggestion that the Navy needs something “generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate,” a class of ship significantly larger than LCS. (While some highly capable frigates are in production today, they are all foreign designs). But Burrow emphasized he was not seeking to justify any particular concept — or for that matter to pick any one option.
“I want to make sure everybody understands that I’m not coming in at the end of the day saying ‘this is your ship design,’” Burrow said. “We’re looking at a larger set of alternatives” to offer Navy leadership.
SSCTF is casting a wide net for good ideas, then winnowing out the best to offer Hagel, Navy Sec. Ray Mabus, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. At a minimum, the task force will offer three choices: a modification of Lockheed Martin’s Freedom-class LCS; a modification of Austal’s Independence LCS; or an entirely different ship. Each of these options may itself have variants or different mission-specific configurations.
Then the SSCTF will rate each of these options for cost, technological risk and suitability for a range of different missions. The specific mission needs – their “capability concepts” – aren’t final yet, Burrow said, but he expects there will be at least four: mine-clearing, sub-hunting, combat against other surface ships, and air defense.
It’s worth noting that the current LCS designs are built for three of these four missions, with plug-and-play “mission modules” – admittedly still in development – that can convert a Littoral Combat Ship from a sub-hunter to a mine-sweeper to a defender against fast enemy boats. (Anti-air warfare would be the addition). Hagel, his acting deputy Christine Fox, and many in Congress are deeply skeptical the current Littoral Combat Ship design can carry out those missions in a high-threat environment like the Western Pacific. The director of Operational Test and Evaluation is pretty certain LCS isn’t tough enough, having called both ships not survivable for the last two years. The tight schedule, though, makes it hard to find an alternative to LCS that can be ready on time.