Why did the US littoral combat ship "build while retreating"

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On September 7, the US media released an investigation report pointing out that the average service life of the US Navy's tens of billions of dollars in Littoral Combat Ships is less than 10 years, but such ships can continue to be built despite frequent problems. The investigation report attempts to uncover the reasons for the "retreat while building" of littoral combat ships, which has attracted much attention.

Build while decommissioning

On September 8, the US Navy held a decommissioning ceremony for the Liberty-class littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee. In recent years, the US Navy has retired a number of littoral combat ships ahead of schedule, and even plans to mothball all active Freedom-class littoral combat ships. At the same time, the US Navy has successively received new Littoral Combat Ships, which have little difference in function.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the US Navy launched the Littoral Combat Ship Project, which is divided into two models, the Freedom class and the Independent class, which are built by two contractors. In fiscal 2021, the U.S. Navy applied to retire the first four littoral combat ships, citing that they were all early test ships and the cost of maintenance and upgrade was too high. In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Navy applied for the retirement of three Liberty-class and one Independence-class littoral combat vessel. In fiscal year 2023, the U.S. Navy proposes to retire all nine Liberty-class littoral combat ships. Two more Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships are expected to be retired by FY2024.

While Congress has yet to approve all of the Navy's applications, the trend toward the retirement of Littoral Combat Ships has become unstoppable. In 2021, the lead ships of the Liberty and Independence-class classes "Liberty" and "Independence" were decommissioned; In 2022, the Independent-class "Coronado" was decommissioned; In August this year, the Freedom-class "Sioux City" was decommissioned; In September, the Liberty-class "Milwaukee" was decommissioned; At the end of this year, the Liberty-class St. Louis will also be decommissioned. None of these warships have reached the design service life of 25 years, with a maximum service life of 15 years, a minimum of only 3 years, and an average service life of about 8 years.

Adding to the confusion, after the entry into service of the Independence-class Canberra in July this year, six Freedom-class modifications and four Independence-class littoral combat ships are still in the construction or sea trial stage. The explanation given by US officials is that the performance of these new ships is more stable, and the cost of continuing to build is much lower than the compensation costs incurred due to the breach.

The problem persists for a long time

The U.S. Navy said that the reason for the successive retirement of littoral combat ships is that this type of ship does not meet the current needs of great power competition. However, the investigation report shows that the Littoral Combat Ship has had several problems during the deployment process.

First, the power system is unstable. The linkage gear of the high-speed clutch loaded on the Liberty-class littoral combat ship frequently failed, and this component was mainly responsible for transmitting power to the waterjet propulsion system. In 2015, the Milwaukee suffered a sudden power failure on its way from the shipyard to its home port, and the linkage was damaged, causing the warship to break down. Between 2015 and 2020, the Fort Worth, Little Rock and Detroit all suffered similar problems. However, it was not until 2021 that the US Navy officially notified Lockheed Martin that it would suspend the reception of new Freedom-class littoral combat ships until the linkage device problem was resolved.

Second, modular construction is immature. According to the initial concept, the Littoral Combat Ship can change different weapons and equipment modules within 24 hours to achieve rapid switching between the three combat modes of anti-ship, anti-submarine and mine warfare. However, in practice, the application of its anti-submarine module, especially towed sonar and other equipment, is difficult. At the same time, module switchover is highly dependent on contractors, making it impossible to operate in actual deployments.

Third, the maintenance cost is too high. Littoral combat ships rely on contractors for two weeks of preventive maintenance each month, or longer if deployed outside. Due to over-reliance on contractors, the maintenance cost of littoral combat ships remains high, costing about $70 million per year each, which is close to the maintenance cost of a destroyer.

In addition, during the past 10 years of use, Littoral Combat Ships have also experienced problems such as unplanned engine shutdown, engine corrosion, and cracks in the hull. According to a report released by the US Navy in 2021, after many upgrades and improvements, there are still no less than 32 problems with littoral combat ships.

Complex factors at work

According to the investigation report, the US Navy has long been aware of the problems existing in littoral combat ships and should have stopped the losses in time, but the reality is that Littoral Combat Ships show a special phenomenon that "new ships are still under full construction in the dockyard, and 'young' ships have been gradually retired". There are two main factors contributing to this phenomenon.

First of all, littoral combat ships were once an important tool for the US Navy to compete for the "military budget cake". At the beginning of the 21st century, as the United States adjusted its strategic center of gravity, all branches of the US military introduced new equipment in an attempt to obtain more military budgets. In 2002, then-U.S. Secretary of Naval Operations Vernon Clark proposed the idea of building littoral combat ships. At that time, multiple assessments believed that the Littoral Combat Ship had insufficient protection, immature core technology, and limited endurance, but the US Navy was still actively promoting the construction plan. In 2010, then-U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus made it clear that "we want to leave the Littoral Combat Ship project," which was widely supported. In 2012, Jonathan, then Chief of Naval Operations of the U.S. Navy, asked for an evaluation of the littoral combat ship that was about to enter large-scale service, and many senior U.S. military generals considered it to be a hidden danger, but considering the suspension of other naval ship programs and the need to compete with the Army and Air Force for military budgets, Jonathan decided to continue to move forward with the littoral combat ship project. This reflects that within the U.S. Navy, advancing ship construction and maintaining fleet size is seen as the key to competing for military spending and safeguarding the interests of the services.

Secondly, the US military-industrial complex gave a great impetus to the development of littoral combat ships. In the initial design phase, in order to gain the support of members of Congress, the US Navy decided to design and build two models for the Littoral Combat Ship by two contractors. This has stimulated the shipbuilding industry in at least 2 states, generating a large number of jobs for several businesses. However, this model increased the average construction cost of Littoral Combat Ships by about double. In addition, maintenance costs increased accordingly due to the fact that the parts of the two models of Littoral Combat Ships were not common. After discovering many problems with littoral combat ships, the US Navy has proposed relevant decommissioning plans since 2021, but the United States will not only not support this decision out of concern for the shipbuilding industry, but promote the Navy to increase the number of purchases.

To meet the interests of Congress, the Navy and the military-industrial complex, the United States may sell four Liberty-class and two Independence-class littoral combat ships over the next two years. In the long term, Littoral Combat Ships are expected to be phased out of public view under the dual effects of external sales and internal retirement. However, given the number of existing and under construction, littoral combat ships will remain an important force in the U.S. Navy's coastal operations for some time to come.

Source: China National Defense News