By Tony Capaccio
The reliability of the Navy’s first three Littoral Combat Ships “has been degraded by frequent critical system failures” in early operations, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester said.
Testing in fiscal 2013 and analysis of data from fiscal 2012 “continued to identify deficiencies in the LCS” and “essential mission systems,” such as mine-hunting equipment, Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing, said in a section of his annual report obtained by Bloomberg News.
The report documents challenges the Navy is facing in producing the vessels, designed to operate in shallow coastal waters, and in defending its plans for the troubled ship after a Jan. 6 Pentagon directive to reduce the number of ships it purchases by 20 to 32.
The initial plan to build 52 ships by 2026, in two versions made by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) and Austal Ltd. (ASB), has drawn a growing list of questions about the vessels’ manning, mission, firepower, defenses and survivability as costs have soared amid Pentagon budget cuts. The total cost to develop and build the ships is currently projected at $32 billion.
The directive to scrap 20 of the planned ships came in one sentence of a memo to the Navy from Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox, according to defense officials who asked not to be identified before a public announcement. Fox also raised the possibility of building a replacement vessel, one of the officials said.
The preliminary order by Fox could be overturned or modified before the Pentagon completes its next five-year plan in conjunction with its budget proposal for fiscal 2015, the officials said.
Representative Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican who heads the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel, today issued a statement of support for the vessel.
“Although this platform has had its share of development difficulties, I believe it has a necessary role to play in the future fleet, and I look forward to reviewing the Navy’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan over the coming year to ensure the plan adequately supports the entirety of shipbuilding requirements,” he said.
Gilmore’s report, which is due to be made public this month, cites failures of the USS Freedom during testing and a nine-month deployment to Singapore. The ship, built by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, had troubles with its diesel-powered generators, air compressors and propulsion system.
Similarly, the “operational reliability” of the USS Independence, made by Henderson, Australia-based Austal, “has been degraded by equipment failures, including problems with operator consoles, power generation equipment, components of the Total Ship Computing” system, “internal networks, propulsion drive-train components, communications systems and mission package support systems,” Gilmore wrote.
Lieutenant Caroline Hutcheson, a Navy spokeswoman, said the service is “is confident” that Gilmore’s report, “when released, will outline areas the LCS program needs to continue to develop, as well as account for the progress being made as the program and mission modules continue on course from research and development.”
“We routinely work with the operational test community to ensure the LCS program is fully evaluated and validated in an operationally realistic environment,” she said in a interview. “And because of the close coordination and information sharing between Navy and DoD, we don’t expect any issues to be raised that we haven’t been collaborating on.”
Lockheed is building a version of the ship with a traditional steel hull, while Austal is producing an aluminum trimaran, or three-hulled vessel.
The ship is designed to use “mission modules,” equipment that can be swapped out for missions from waging surface warfare to finding and destroying mines. Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC), based in Falls Church, Virginia, is the prime contractor for the modules.
Gilmore’s report raises questions about the anti-mine module, which includes sonar, unmanned underwater drones and helicopter-borne laser-based detection sensors.
Its performance “has been degraded by immature mission systems, low sensor detection performance in some operational conditions, high false-alarm rates, unproven tactics and low operator proficiency,” he wrote in the report.
Hutcheson, the Navy spokeswoman, said “the mine countermeasure mission package modules have seen significant improvements and are on track for” their initial realistic combat tests in fiscal 2015.
By the end of fiscal 2015, the Navy had planned to purchase the first 24 of the ships. Funding for the next installment of 28 was to commence in the fiscal 2016 budget, according to Navy budget documents.
The budget documents indicate that the Navy planned to buy four vessels in 2015, and then two each year in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The remaining vessels that would be cut if Fox’s guidance prevails wouldn’t be built until after 2019.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, advised the Navy last year to slow construction of the Littoral Combat Ship to allow for further testing. As recently as July, the Navy rejected that recommendation, saying it could resolve any testing issues while construction proceeded on schedule.
“We realize that these may be some rough waters,” Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s director of surface warfare, said during a July 23 conference call with reporters. “I’m confident we’ll be able to address these issues and get this significant capability to the fleet.”