The Littoral Combat Ship is a Lens on the Military-Industrial ComplexRoundup
tags: Navy, military industrial complex
Emma Salisbury is a Ph.D. candidate at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research focuses on defense research and development in the United States and the military-industrial complex. She is also a senior staffer at the U.K. Parliament. The views expressed here are solely her own. You can find her on Twitter @salisbot.
The military-industrial complex “has more tentacles than an octopus,” and its “dimensions are almost infinite.” So wrote Sen. William Proxmire in his excoriating 1970 book Report from Wasteland. He described the military-industrial complex (i.e., the deep interconnection of the military, politicians, and industry) as a “military-contract treadmill” that had unwarranted influence over U.S. politics.
Does this treadmill still exist half a century later?
The littoral combat ship can answer that question. It has been plagued by problems since its conception in 2001. Uncharitably dubbed the “little crappy ship” by its detractors, the program has faced cost overruns, delays, mechanical failures, and questions over the platforms’ survivability in high-intensity combat. Each of the 23 commissioned littoral combat ships cost around $500 million to build, with astronomical operating costs adding to the program’s hefty price tag. While the ships themselves are currently facing the prospect of decommissioning and replacement, and many will not be sad to see them go, the program has one saving grace — it offers some important lessons about the American defense industrial base.
The U.S. Navy’s over-reliance on a small number of shipyards, combined with a powerful lobbying effort by prime defense contractors, meant that congressional efforts to remove funding in the early stages of the program — citing concerns that were ultimately proved correct — were doomed to fail. The acquisition of the littoral combat ship is an example of the military-industrial complex in action, and one that should not be forgotten. While close working relationships between the services, policymakers, and contractors can be beneficial, blunders like the littoral combat ship can undermine U.S. military capabilities while wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere.
The Beginnings of the Littoral Combat Ship
Following the end of the Cold War, the disappearance of the threat from the Soviet Union meant that the U.S. Navy lost its great raison d’etre. The lack of a clearly defined naval mission in the 1990s, combined with the same budgetary pressures faced by the other services as defense funding fell, meant that the U.S. Navy needed a new purpose. This came in the form of the doctrine of network-centric warfare, which emerged in the late 1990s and gave key roles to the U.S. Navy in maintaining a global presence via seabasing and ensuring access to contested regions. Network-centric warfare gave prominence to the idea of small, light, and fast “nodes” that connected together in conflict scenarios, and this meant that the U.S. Navy needed to move away from its traditional platforms — huge, complex, and multipurpose ships. Furthermore, network-centric warfare focused more on projecting power ashore, meaning that ships that could operate in coastal waters were required.
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