Center for Strategic Communication

USS Fort Worth on trials in 2010. Photo: Lockheed Martin

A lengthened, more streamlined hull for faster, more efficient sailing. Better windows for improved visibility. Simpler wiring. Superior rust-resistant paint. A more reliable system for landing helicopters and drones on her flight deck. And most importantly, an extra 20 beds in case the Navy decides she needs a bigger crew. That’s a good thing: the ship’s original crew size of 75 has been deemed too few in number for basic ship repair and maintenance.

The Fort Worth, the Navy’s third and latest Littoral Combat Ship, features these improvements and more compared to its predecessors. “We’ve learned quite a bit,” Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, the top surface force commander, tells Danger Room.

But the nimble 380-foot-long vessel, optimized for sailing fast and close to shore with a bare-bones crew of between 75 and 95 people, is equally notable for what she still can’t do and still lacks. Fort Worth‘s full allotment of weaponry and sensors, combined into single-purpose packages called “modules,” is years away. And the modules, designed to be rapidly swapped out on the edge of a naval battle, in fact could require weeks of work to remove and re-install.

Bottom line: the Navy’s arguably most important ship class, the one expected to help grow the fleet to more than 300 vessels from today’s low of 280 without adding much manpower, continues to disappoint. And that has some observers predicting an imminent course change on the Pentagon’s part, one that could strand Fort Worth and her sisters in a Navy swiftly sailing in a new direction.

Officially, the Navy plans to buy 55 LCSs, replacing a larger number of frigates, patrol boats and minesweepers, many of which have already been decommissioned. Today 24 of the new, near-shore warships are in service, under construction or paid for. Many analysts believe the remaining 31 will never get built. “I’ll bet anyone here a whole dollar bill we’re not going to build 55,” shipbuilding expert Norman Polmar said.

The $500-million Forth Worth, accepted by the Navy this summer following three years of construction and trials, is currently on a stopover in Detroit while en route from the Wisconsin shipyard where she was built to her homeport in San Diego. There she will test out new weapons, sensors and robots plus her own improvements before deploying on a frontline patrol probably somewhere in the Western Pacific.

After spending eight years and billions of dollars on the Littoral Combat Ship program, the Navy finally has some actual ships to show for its effort — three, to be exact. Forth Worth and her older sibling USS Freedom, both built by Lockheed Martin, plus USS Independence, a separate sub-class of the LCS assembled by Alabama shipbuilder Austal. But a seemingly unending chain of investigations, official reports and classified war games have undermined the case for the full fleet of 55 LCSs, particularly as the Pentagon struggles to pay its bills.

The most damning is an internal Navy study from March known as the Perez report after its chief author Rear Adm. Samuel Perez. That document, details of which have been leaked to the press, confirmed what many observers long suspected: that the as-yet-unready modules, intended to be swapped out in just four days, could actually require a couple weeks owing to their high degree of  complexity.

Copeman tells Danger Room the 96-hour swap is still possible … under the right conditions. Specifically, “if the ship and its people and the people assigned to the mission packages are in the port at the same time.” But Copeman’s scenario doesn’t allow for the chaos of battle or any entirely predictable hiccups in the Navy supply system.

The LCS is meant to have three unique mission modules to allow it to match each of the three very different ship classes it’s replacing: frigate, patrol boat and minesweeper. Without the ability to rapidly swap modules, an LCS can duplicate just one of these older ships instead of all three over a short span of time. That means the Navy might need more vessels to cover the full range of tasks in an intense ocean battle. But only Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney believes America can afford to buy more ships.

More likely, the Navy will stop buying the half-a-billion-dollars-a-pop LCS at the current 24 copies and fill the gap with smaller, more numerous and cheaper single-purpose vessels. Independent analyst Raymond Pritchett believes the sailing branch is delaying announcing its intentions to curtail the LCS. “I’m now convinced the only reason the Navy talks about 55 Littoral Combat Ships with this program is because by doing so they can maintain the [current] fixed contract prices … and avoid triggering a Nunn-McCurdy issue.”

Nunn-McCurdy is a law that requires the Pentagon to defend weapons programs whose per-unit cost growth exceeds a certain threshold. A Nunn-McCurdy breach is politically embarrassing for senior officers like Copeman.

If the Navy takes the Perez report seriously and belatedly sinks the LCS program, as analysts expect, then the improved Fort Worth‘s current journey around North America to her homeport could wind up being a much rarer spectacle. The ship once seen as the backbone of the Navy’s future fleet could end up being a mere appendage.