By Tony Capaccio
The upgrades to the Littoral Combat Ship approved by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel won’t make it significantly less vulnerable to battle damage, according to the Pentagon’s top weapons tester.
“Notwithstanding reductions to its susceptibility” compared with the design of the first 32 ships, “the minor modifications to the LCS will not yield a ship that is significantly more survivable,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, said in an e-mailed statement.
Hagel approved a Navy proposal last month to buy 20 modified ships after 2019 with improved armor, sensors and weapons. The decision was a reprieve for Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) and Austal Ltd. (ASB), which make different versions of the ship designed for missions in shallow coastal waters. Gilmore’s assessment is likely to increase congressional scrutiny of a vessel that’s already viewed with some skepticism by lawmakers.
In January, Hagel had truncated the original program at 32 ships, now valued at $23 billion, while ordering the Navy to study options including modifications or a completely new ship design. He cited “considerable reservations as to whether this is what our Navy will require over the next few decades.”
Before Hagel’s decision, Gilmore gave him a classified assessment reviewing the options studied by a Navy task force. The task force canvassed fleet commanders for ways to improve a vessel that’s been criticized as lacking firepower and the ability to survive an attack.
Gilmore’s assessment didn’t include a recommendation, and he “will not take a position on which alternative would best serve the fleet or should be pursued,” he said in the e-mailed statement. “The decision is the prerogative of the Secretary of Defense.”
In Gilmore’s statement, provided by his spokesman, Air Force Major Eric Badger, the weapons tester outlined his conclusions without offering details.
Gilmore is likely to repeat these views in his annual report on major weapons, to be released this month. The document may form the basis for intense congressional review of the planned modifications, especially from incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, who’s been a program critic.
Gilmore’s assessment provides “further confirmation that the Navy has yet to sufficiently explain how the LCS — even with still-to-be-defined modifications — can overcome its capability deficiencies and meet operational requirements at acceptable costs to the taxpayer,” McCain said today in an e-mailed statement promising “vigorous oversight” of the troubled ship.
Asked about Gilmore’s conclusions, Commander Thurraya Kent, a Navy spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the service “is moving forward with plans to design and procure a multimission small surface combatant, as approved by DoD leadership.”
Kent cited comments by the service’s top officials after Hagel made his decision.
“We felt very good that we’ve given the fleet what they needed and what” regional combat commanders requested, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, told reporters. “We believe it’s affordable. That was a critical tenet.”
The Navy said the modifications can be achieved with an increase of less than 20 percent over the cost of the current vessels. Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top weapons buyer, told reporters the modifications will add about $75 million to the ship’s price tag, which was about $360 million for the basic seaframe in the latest contract.
The Navy’s proposal will result in a multimission ship capable of long-range attack, self-defense and the ability to perform either antisubmarine warfare or surface attack, he and Greenert said.
“We’ve up-gunned the ship,” Stackley said.
Hagel instructed the Navy in January to prepare alternative proposals for a small combatant vessel “generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”
Gilmore said the combat capabilities and survivability of a frigate could be provided only by a new ship design or a “major modification” to the existing blueprint.
The changes that Hagel accepted “do not satisfy significant elements” of a frigate’s capability that the task force examined, Gilmore wrote.
Hagel’s decision didn’t specify how the 20 additional ships that would be produced starting in fiscal 2019 may be divided between Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin and Henderson, Australia-based Austal. The Navy is working on the acquisition strategy, according to Stackley.
Congress has appropriated about $12 billion so far for 20 vessels. The Navy planned to spend an additional $7.2 billion to buy modules to be swapped out for different missions, such as clearing mines and hunting submarines.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office plans to review the Navy’s methodology, assumptions and alternate designs. Gilmore’s issues “will certainly be part of our work going forward,” Michele Mackin, a naval warfare specialist with the agency, said in an e-mail.
“There is inadequate information available to make a conclusion, but they are making a lot of claims that seem to overstretch,” Everett Pyatt, the Navy’s deputy for shipbuilding in the 1980s and now a critic of the ship, said of the Navy’s plans in an e-mail.
“I do not see how it is possible to make all these changes without a major redesign,” he said. “I have not seen anything that brings the ship up to” the survivability level of a frigate.
The last of the Navy’s current generation of 51 frigates, the USS Kauffman, commissioned in 1987, is scheduled to leave Norfolk, Virginia, today for a six-month counternarcotics operation off Central America. After that, the ship will be decommissioned.