After years of botched contracts and cost overruns, the Navy has finally signed contracts to buy a bunch of its speedy, near-shore Littoral Combat Ships — at a per-copy price nearly a third cheaper than expected. But hold the Champagne. The cost-cutting that made the LCS so affordable might also doom the ships to watery graves in future conflicts. “We have a warship design that is not expected to fight and survive in the very environment in which it was produced to do so,” one critic at the U.S. Naval Institute blog claims, describing the LCS as “poorly-armed” and “poorly-protected” for dangerous, crowded coastal waters.
When the LCS deals were announced last week, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus crowed that they would “provide needed ships to our fleet in a timely and extraordinarily cost effective manner.” Instead of picking one shipbuilder, the Navy tapped rival firms Austal and Lockheed Martin to build 10 LCS apiece through 2015, each using their own distinct design. The cost per ship? Just $450 million, at least $200 million below the cost of each of the four prototypes.
But to get those low, low price, the ships will be built to commercial, rather than military, structural standards — meaning they’re lighter and less blast- and fire-resistant. Indeed, the Navy does not even have plans to subject the LCS to traditional blast-testing, “due to the damage that would be sustained by the ship,” the Congressional Research Service points out.