By Greg Moran
The first two Littoral Combat Ships commissioned by the Navy cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than initially budgeted and were rushed into service so quickly the Navy didn’t fully test them for problems, a new government report on the troubled program says.
The report by the Government Accountability Office is the latest in a series of audits by the oversight agency over the past several years that have criticized the shipbuilding program, which has been plagued by cost overruns and problems such as equipment failures, corrosions and cracks in the hulls.
Once envisioned as fast, low-cost ships to operate in coastal waters that would make up as much as 20 percent of the total fleet, the ships have come under criticism in Congress and elsewhere for the high cost and performance problems. The first dozen of the ships are expected to be homeported in San Diego.
Last year, Congress asked the GAO to determine if the Navy complied with government contracting policies and regulations for the two flagship vessels, the Freedom and Independence. While concluding no rules were broken the report released Sept. 25 faulted the Navy for accepting the ships from contractors Lockheed Martin and Austal before they had fully gone through a battery of sea trials.
That led to what the report called “knowledge gaps” as to how the ships performed. The GAO said Navy leaders were intent on getting the ships into the fleet quickly and used waivers to get around standards for accepting ships that are normally used.
The waivers are allowed under federal regulations. But the combination of those factors led to the service “to devote considerably more time and money to resolving deficiencies after delivery than anticipated.”
In all the GAO report said that Freedom, a monohull version of the LCS built by Lockheed, cost $631 million to build. Independence, an aluminum trimaran construction, cost $704 million.
Both are far above the original $220 million per ship estimate.
Eric Wertheim, author of the U.S. Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, said the Navy was intent on getting the new-style ships into the water.
“They wanted to get these operational as fast as they could, and then maybe iron out the bugs and work through the issues,” he said.
The report offered no recommendations, since both ships have been built and are now part of the fleet. It noted that since the well-publicized problems surfaced the Navy has changed the structure of the contracts that new ships will be built under that is meant to provide better controls over costs.
Those changes have not been enough to stem criticism of the LCS program. In February, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the $15 billion program would be scaled back, from originally building 52 ships to a current cap of 32.
The ships were conceived as futuristic, multipurpose vessels that could perform different missions and replace frigates, coastal patrol boats and mine hunters. The LCS are supposed to have different mission packages than can be plugged into the ships.
But in a previous report the GAO said that those packages won’t be able to prove they can meet performance standards until 2019.
There are ongoing questions about how the ships can perform in combat and if they can do all that was envisioned for them, Wertheim said. “So right now the question really is what are we going to do with these ships?” he said.