With an enormous splash and cheers from spectators, the 378-foot-long vessel Freedom slid sideways into the Menominee River in Wisconsin. It was September 23, 2006, and the U.S. Navy had just launched its first brand-new warship class in nearly 20 years.
Freedom also represented a new strategy. Where previous warships had been tailored for open-ocean warfare using guns, missiles and torpedoes, Freedom — the first so-called “Littoral Combat Ship” (LCS) — was designed for a new kind of coastal combat. She was smaller, more maneuverable. And instead of relying on sheer firepower, she carried few of her own weapons. Instead, she would function as a “mothership” for super-sophisticated robots that would do most of her fighting for her.
Freedom was also cheaper than older ships: just $600 million, compared to more than $1 billion for most other vessels. The Navy hoped to buy as many as 55 LCSs for around $40 billion, reversing the U.S. fleet’s steady numerical decline that began in the late 1980s.
There was so much promise invested in one “small” ship. “It comes none too soon,” Adm. Mike Mullen, then Chief of Naval Operations, said of Freedom’s arrival, “because there are tough challenges out there that only she can handle.”
But the fanfare and Mullen’s optimism masked deep problems in the LCS program. Freedom was years late and $400 million over her original cost estimate. None of her robotic systems were ready for combat. Five years later, they still weren’t ready, preventing Freedom from undertaking any real-world missions more serious than a Caribbean drug hunt.
Meanwhile, mechanical and structural problems festered inside the ship, the symptoms of a rushed design process. In 2010 and 2011, Freedom and a sister vessel would both suffer serious maintenance failures within months of each other.
The LCS’ biggest problem, however, was conceptual. Five years and billions of dollars into the LCS program, the Navy still hadn’t figured out what the coastal combatant was really for. Today, the sailing branch is no closer to an answer. “Apart from the Navy’s inability to properly forecast how fast these ships could be built, fielded and paid for, there is a similar tone-deafness to how they will be employed,” ace naval journalist Christopher Cavas wrote.
What is the Littoral Combat Ship? Is it a heavily-armed brawler meant to wade into bloody coastal battles and sacrifice itself while taking out multiple enemy missile boats? Is it a mine-clearer? A sub-hunter? A low-cost patroller ideal for slowly stalking pirates, drug-runners and weapons smugglers and training alongside allied navies?
Is it a small, fast amphibious ship for slipping teams of Marines, Navy SEALs and river troops into an enemy’s coastline? Is it an ultra-high-tech mothership for carrying diving, sea-skimming and flying robots? Is it an affordable version of the Navy’s large destroyers, meant for the export market? Is it the flagship of an industrial scheme designed to revamp American shipbuilding?
The answer is … all of these things. And none of them.