Mini Cooper or Lamborghini: What should you drive?

I feel compelled to react to acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox’s remarks yesterday regarding the questionable combat capability of the Navy’s controversial Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Her views are that the threats to surface ships are so great that we ought not invest in them, especially the less capable LCS. Instead we should put our bucks in submarines (to the tune of about $2 Billion apiece) and other “enablers” like Electronic Warfare capabilities. She’s obviously been bitten by the Sub Bug! The facts are that we simply can’t afford the high-end “Lamborghinis” in the quantity necessary to make a difference in an uncertain peace or war. The idea behind the LCS was not to be a part of a “Main Battle Force” going toe-to-toe with some imagined foe of the future (The Chinese I assume), but instead the LCS was part of an “engagement” fleet, capable of operating in areas where US presence makes a difference. Frankly I’m as much surprised by her remarks in their timing as in their substance.
Ask yourself if you think we are likely to become involved in some sort of major world conflict between superpowers anytime in the next few decades. That’s where we need high-end ships like carriers and submarines, and frankly they are so potent that we don’t’ need that many of them. I think a rational person would say that our future, at least in this century, is  building relationships in key areas, South America, Africa and the Asian Pacific. This is exactly what the LCS was designed for. They too, are the enablers that Ms. Fox stresses the need for.
And then there’s the question of numbers. Imagine yourself standing on the beach of an emerging democracy somewhere in the littoral. What’s going to give you a better sense that America is supporting you, a black SSN sail and a rudder sticking our of the water  a couple of thousand yards off the coast or an LCS, a couple of hundred yards off the coast?
The latest flights of Arleigh Burke destroyers cost north of $1 Billion; Zumwalt destroyers well above $3 Billion, Virginia Class submarines around $2 Billion and the granddaddy of them all, $10-12 Billion for an aircraft carrier. While I love the capability, they just aren’t focused on what we need and can afford. We are likely to become a Navy of 100 ships if we focus our investments on the high-end. LCS is compromise between capability and cost. We have to think about both.
So I’m confused. DEPSECDEF says surface ships are vulnerable, but supports the biggest of them all, an aircraft carrier. She says enablers are important, but fails to support a key enabler, the LCS. The sad fact is that while we all want lots of submarines and other high-end capabilities, we can’t afford them all.  It’s too easy to get enamored of the high-end when one sits in the Pentagon day after day where the predisposition is to go BIG and fancy.  It’s where the money is, but money for whom?  We need a reasonable balance, focused on likely threats. It is indeed a balance between capability on cost.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a Mini when your goal is to zip around, parking in unlikely places and have a little fun while doing it.  That’s why you get it.  When you have a Lamborghini, you park it in a deserted area of the parking lot, if you drive it at all.  You impress the rich who can afford one, but insult the poor who can not.  A wise person keeps both in the garage, and drives the one appropriate for the situation.