By Frank Oliveri, CQ Roll Call
Congress appears to have deep-seated concerns about the troubled Littoral Combat Ship program 12 years after its inception, as reflected by the reports that all four defense-focused congressional panels have filed with the fiscal 2014 defense spending and authorization bills.
Those concerns range from how the ships, designed to operate in shallower waters close to shore, will actually be used and the number of sailors needed to operate them to the schedule of their delivery and their survivability in combat.
As the Senate Armed Services Committee noted in the report (S Rept 113-44) to its bill (S 1197), the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Navy.
“The Navy intends that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) will comprise over one third of the Navy’s total surface combatant fleet by 2028,” it states. “This fact compounds risk, since the LCS to date has not completed operational testing or demonstrated adequate performance of assigned missions in critical areas of mine countermeasures, anti-surface warfare, or anti-submarine operations.” Each LCS ship is designed to be easily adapted to any of those three missions by replacing a part of the ship.
In his August report for the Congressional Research Service, Ronald O’Rourke wrote that the LCS program has become controversial due to “cost growth, design and construction issues with the lead ships built to each design, concerns over the ships’ ability to withstand battle damage, and concerns over whether the ships are sufficiently armed and will be able to perform their stated missions effectively.”
Putting GAO to Work
Some program observers have proposed truncating the LCS program to either 24 ships, the number to be provided by two contractors using two different ship hull designs, or to some other number short of the 52 the Navy has planned. Other observers have proposed winnowing the program to a single LCS design after the 24th ship.
But in the meantime, the defense panels have directed the Navy to provide a host of reports.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, noting a critical Government Accountability Office report on the LCS program, directed GAO to complete a follow-on report to review LCS seaframe production and testing, including seaframe developmental test activities and changes to correct deficiencies identified during testing; weight management for both variants of the seaframe; Navy plans for verifying survivability, including the use of surrogate aluminum structures; and plans for achieving greater commonality between the variants, and progress made in executing these plans.
The panel ordered GAO to examine the development and testing of different modules designed to carry out the separate missions of minesweeping, countering small boat attacks and chasing submarines.
The committee wanted a review of results of Navy studies on LCS requirements and technical capabilities, and any recommendations for changes to the design and/or capabilities of either the current LCS configurations or potential configurations, among a host of other requests to be completed by April 30, 2014.
The committee report with the House-passed defense authorization bill (HR 1960, H Rept 113-102) sought a similar assessment from the GAO, but requested the information a month sooner.
The House also expressed concerns about the Navy’s plan to sustain the program over its lifetime. Operations and sustainment costs represent roughly two-thirds of the overall cost of a weapons system. The LCS is projected over 25 years to cost about $87 billion to operate and sustain, according to O’Rourke. This price, however, does not include the costs of operating and sustaining the mission modules, which are being developed and procured separately.
As a result, the House sought a GAO analysis of the plans to collect and analyze data from the recent Singapore deployment of the first LCS ship put into service, the USS Freedom, as well as any mid-point or final reports of lessons learned.
The House also sought information on projected costs of providing preventive and depot maintenance, including an analysis of the alternatives considered in the use of contractor maintenance teams and government and commercial shipyards; progress toward meeting targets established in the LCS plan of action and milestones; life cycle cost estimates for the variants of the LCS and their associated mission modules compared with other classes of Navy ships; and “any other issue that the Comptroller General determines appropriate with respect to the sustainment of the LCS platform and its associated mission modules, including modifications and improvements to reduce long-term sustainment costs and improve efficiencies.”
Although the House-passed Defense spending bill (HR 2397) allows for further procurement of the LCS, the Appropriations Committee report with the bill (H Rept 113-113) says appropriators remained concerned “with the manning model” for the ship.
Originally, the Navy intended the ship to be lightly manned, but it noted “indicators” that call into question that approach. The Appropriations panel noted that, during a recent deployment, the Navy added 10 sailors to the core crew of 40 to help with maintenance, standing watch and training.
Further, the crew associated with the mission module was augmented by another four sailors. An increase in the manning of the LCS would have an effect on lifetime operations and sustainment costs, a significant concern given the funding constraints facing the Navy over the next 10 years.
First Deployment Problems
The panel expressed concern over the problems the LCS experienced on its maiden deployment, despite the high state of readiness one would expect on a new ship. The panel demanded an explanation in report form on the challenges the LCS appears to face.
Senate appropriators were silent on the LCS program in their report (S 1429, S Rept 113-85).
The GAO in late July expressed concern about the stability of the LCS platform and about the program goals of the mission modules. Until these issues are clarified, the GAO recommended Congress consider “restricting future funding to the program for the construction of additional seaframes.”
GAO noted the Navy is now studying changes to increase the commonality of systems and equipment between the two ship variants, primarily with regard to the ships’ combat management systems, and to add new capabilities. Meanwhile, the Navy still has gaps in its knowledge about how the unique designs of the two variants will perform in certain conditions, GAO said.
The Navy continues to buy early increments of LCS mission packages before defining requirements and cost, schedule, and performance goals for each, as required by Pentagon policy, and completing developmental testing, which has identified problems with system performance.
In addition to its own problems, the LCS program has suffered broadsides from Congress itself, as have a host of other defense programs suffering funding reductions from the fiscal 2013 sequestration.
As a result, O’Rourke noted in his CRS report that Congress must determine sequestration’s effects on the LCS program, as well as the potential impact of another sequestration round in fiscal 2014, which appears likely.