Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, the commander of naval surface forces, called on the Navy to consider a ship with more offensive capability after the first 24 vessels are built, according to a Navy official who asked not to be identified discussing the confidential document.
Copeman's memo, prepared late last year at the request of Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, indicates the Navy may be starting to re-examine the $37 billion program. A review could lead to an eventual redesign of the ship or the development of an entirely new vessel.
"He's raising issues which no one with active-duty stars on their shoulders has said before," said Norman Polmar, an independent naval analyst and author who's spoken to Navy officials about Copeman's memo. "He's not playing the total party line. I think it will have an impact on people expressing their views."
Producing a ship that can accommodate larger guns or Harpoon anti-ship missiles "would be a major redesign," Polmar said in an interview. "It will be real work to put major weapons on the ship."
The Littoral Combat Ship -- derided by critics inside the Navy as the "Little Crappy Ship -- has been beset by troubles since 2005 as the price doubled to $440 million per vessel.
Two versions are now being built: A steel-hulled vessel made in Marinette, Wis., by a team led by Lockheed Martin Corp., and an aluminum trimaran built in Mobile, Ala., by a group led by Austal Ltd. Lockheed's first ship developed a crack in the hull, and Austal's vessel had corrosion problems.
Conceived in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the ship was designed to replace aging frigates and other vessels. It's intended to perform missions such as clearing mines, hunting submarines, interdicting drugs and providing humanitarian relief.
Nothing has haunted the LCS more than the perception that both variants are too lightly armed and may not survive an enemy attack. The Pentagon's chief weapons tester has cited flaws with the ship's guns and concluded that its helicopter isn't powerful enough to tow mine-hunting equipment.
The ship "is not expected to be survivable in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment," Michael Gilmore, the weapons tester, said in a January report.
Until now, Navy officials have maintained that the ship has sufficient defenses to perform its missions while working in tandem with the rest of a battle group.
"These ships are designed for speed," Rear Adm. Tom Eccles, deputy commander for naval systems engineering at the Naval Sea Systems Command, said at a Surface Navy Association conference in January. "They're designed to be in the fight and then get out of the fight when it's required."
Copeman's assessment suggests that the Navy may rethink that strategy. In a speech at the same Navy association conference, Copeman spoke publicly about the possibility of creating a "Super LCS," likening it to the evolution in fighter jets from the F/A-18 Hornet to the Super Hornet. The newer plane is a larger version of the aircraft built by Chicago-based Boeing, with longer range and more endurance than its predecessor.
The vice admiral's memo calls for a vessel that can operate independently rather than traveling under the protection of better-armed ships, according to a government official familiar with the document who isn't in the Navy and asked to not be identified.
"It's born of this nagging fear in the surface warfare community and elsewhere that we're out-gunned by the Chinese, who have a series of surface-to-surface missiles," said Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer who commanded a destroyer.
Outfitting the LCS with heavy-duty missiles or guns would add weight, and "additional weight means a loss in both speed and endurance," said McGrath, a critic of the Littoral Combat Ship who is director of consulting at Delex Systems Inc. in Herndon, Va.
The Navy projects that the $37 billion program will buy 52 ships. Of those, four have been built and the Navy has agreed to buy 20 more through 2015.
"We're committed to 52 LCS's," Captain Danny Hernandez, chief spokesman for Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said when asked about Copeman's memo.
Lockheed, based in Bethesda, Md., is building its Littoral Combat Ships in partnership with Marinette Marine Corp., a subsidiary of Fincantieri, based in Trieste, Italy. The other version is made by Austal, based in Henderson, Australia, in partnership with Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics Corp.
Greenert requested the memo from Copeman, which was entitled "Vision for the 2025 Surface Fleet" and was previously reported by Defense News. The comments on the LCS are three paragraphs in a 10-page document on the future of the Navy's surface fleet.
"He appreciated the thoughtful look he gave into the future," Hernandez said of Greenert's reaction to the memo. He said the Navy chief considered Copeman's proposals to be "interesting and useful."
Those who have read Copeman's recommendation offered differing interpretations of the changes he envisions. While the Navy official who asked to not be identified said the current LCS designs could be revised, the other government official said the proposed changes would amount to developing a new type of ship.
"There's inexpensive ways, less expensive ways, to dramatically increase the offensive power of our surface fleet, I think, without spending hundred, tens and tens of millions of dollars on research and development and come up with new classes of ships," Copeman said in the January speech, according to a transcript. "I think we can look at what we've got, and what we've got on the drawing boards right now, and take great advantage of that."
Copeman's memo didn't discuss whether one of the two current designs should be scrapped or whether just one version should be used as the base model for future improvements, the Navy official said.
Building both versions of the ship, which have different designs and parts, adds about $400 million in operating and maintenance costs over the lifetime of the vessels, according to Rear Admiral James Murdoch, who oversees the ship's procurement.
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