One of the drawbacks of the Navy's push to continue to build both littoral combat ship types is that each features a unique combat system the combination of sensors, weapons and software that is at the heart of any modern warship. (Navy)
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One of the drawbacks of the Navy's push to continue to build both littoral combat ship types is that each features a unique combat system the combination of sensors, weapons and software that is at the heart of any modern warship.
To speed development, each design team was allowed to develop its own system. Lockheed came up with COMBATSS-21, in some ways a lightweight derivative of the Aegis combat system built by the company and fielded on nearly 80 cruisers and destroyers. General Dynamics' Advanced Information Systems developed an entirely new system for its design, a system the company claims more closely embodies the open-architecture concept espoused by the Navy for virtually all its new computer systems.
Each combat system requires its own support pipeline: maintenance and parts chains, training programs, and operational characteristics. Even if the Navy had picked one, it would still have been unique in a fleet that has striven for homogeneity and relative simplicity.
Navy officials downplay the impact of fielding separate systems and claim competition will hold prices in check. But sooner or later, whether today's management team supports both combat systems or not, an official will come into office who sees the dual-system setup as wasteful and unsupportable. When that happens, the ships with one of the systems will likely be taken out of service years before they're used up and probably made available for foreign military sales.
The Navy reportedly has a plan to deal with the dual combat systems, but it's not saying what it is, possibly because officials lack the authority to discuss details of a dual-ship buy. While a number of congressional staffers and analysts have been briefed on the plan, they've been sworn to secrecy. Even among those who have been briefed, there are concerns that this is an issue the Navy needs to address publicly before the buy-both-designs plan can be approved.
Creating a third system
So, what is the Navy's plan for the combat systems? Sean Stackley, the service's top weapons buyer, gave some clues in September 2009, when he announced the service would have a competition to buy only one of the designs. As a key factor in the strategy to keep a lid on cost growth and perhaps drive prices down, the Navy would compete multiple elements of each LCS design, including the combat systems, weapons and engines. Eventually, the service wants to purchase the technical package both for the design and for the combat system, thus allowing other companies to bid for construction.
After sailors have a chance to put each LCS combat system through its paces, the service will begin to choose the various elements of each system. Those elements will be incorporated into what would become, in essence, a third combat system. Another competition would then be held for that, allowing companies such as Northrop Grumman, Raytheon or even Saab to bid as the combat system integrator.
Under this scenario, a third system might be developed in time to begin incorporating the new, one-size-fits-both combat system into the later ships of each company's 10-ship buy. Even if the new system isn't ready by then, it could become a key element in follow-on ships, beginning with the 25th LCS in 2016.
What would become of the earlier ships featuring individual combat systems is not yet clear.