How The US Navy Screwed Up Its Warship Of The Future

The US Navy has the most powerful and technologically advanced fleet in the world. So why is its ultra-modern warship — which was supposed to usher in a new age of naval warfare — such a lamentable failure after five years? Wired's David Axe took a look at exactly what happened to the Navy's "Warship of the Future".

The Littoral Combat Ship was going to change the way the Navy did business. It was an entirely new class of ship, taking its name from the coastal waters, or "littorals", where most modern sea battles take place. The LCS was going to change the fleet from lead-footed bruisers into a collection of fast-acting commando ships:

It was smaller, more manoeuvrable. And instead of relying on sheer firepower, it carried few of its own weapons. Instead, it would function as a mothership for super-sophisticated robots that would do most of the ship's fighting.

Once the program got its footing under then-Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, the expectations and ambitions of the program got a little out of hand. All of a sudden the ship was supposed to be a sub-hunter, a mine-clearer, a commando transport, and a dozen other things. It's like the US Navy got excited about everything it would be able to do with the zippy new ships and forgot to keep its expectations realistic:

The LCS has attributes suited to each of the [desired]tasks. The problem is, some of these attributes cancel each other out — and the Navy lacks the clarity and discipline to decide which missions the LCS should keep, and which should be assigned to other ships.

The vision for the LCS was to make it "modular", so it could be fitted with appropriate weaponry and sensors for each mission. Which sounds great in theory, but in practice, the requests made of the ship, and the realities of engineering, made the ship a mess of half-realised ambitions:

In the course of just four years, the Navy fought, embraced, and then completely corrupted the small-ship philosophy. Instead of compact, brute-simple coastal brawlers, it would get over-inflated, gas-guzzling, gutless ships dependent on ultrahigh-tech gizmos. Every degree of uncertainty regarding the basic LCS concept added another degree of complexity to the still-unbuilt robots and modules.

Now, after years of running over budget and without a clear purpose for the ship, the albatross of a project is keeping the Navy from building, ironically, the kind of ship that the LCS was originally supposed to be: "low-end", replaceable ships to fight the interminable skirmishes in coastal waters. For the full rundown on the specifics of the LCS and all the insane ideas that got tacked onto it, check out the full piece over at Wired.