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A fast, agile Navy ship is prone to embarrassing glitches

Some Senate lawmakers are pushing back against the Navy's effort to accelerate production of the troubled Littoral Combat Ships

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One of the Navy’s newest warships suddenly found itself immobilized in the South China Sea on July 20, as the failure of one of its four diesel generators caused a shutdown of all its engines during its first operational deployment. It was not the first major glitch since the USS Freedom began to sail in 2008.

The crew was able to restart all of the engines and get the 3,000-ton vessel into Singapore for repairs the following day. But the incident could not have occurred at a worse time for the sea-going service.

The Freedom is part of a planned fleet of 52 fast, agile, modern Navy warships known as Littoral Combat Ships and meant to operate in shallow coastal waters around the globe, combatting everything from pirates to terrorists to small submarines. But it is suddenly under intense scrutiny as Washington debates whether to fund the production of eight more sister ships over the next two years.

So far, the Navy has deployed three of the $480 million vessels, and it has another sixteen on order or in production. It now wants Congress to approve the expenditure of $1.79 billion on four more of the ships in 2014, and to allocate a similar sum for four more the following year. On July 24, the House endorsed that proposal as it passed the defense appropriations bill for next year.

But some Senate lawmakers, citing recurrent cost overruns, maintenance problems, and unresolved design issues with the Littoral Combat Ships, are trying this summer to block that plan and force further development and modification of the vessels to occur before additional vessels are purchased. They depict this alternative approach — design before you buy — as a moneysaver.

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With large cuts looming in the defense budget due to steep national deficits, however, the last thing the Navy wants to do is postpone a major block purchase of vessels that it considers central to its future war-fighting plans. Critics of the Navy’s purchasing plan nonetheless got some new ammunition — in addition to the embarrassing engine failures in the western Pacific — at a hearing by a House seapower subcommittee on July 25.

There, auditors at the independent General Accountability Office warned that the Navy plan was risky. In a 71-page report, the GAO urged that Congress restrict the purchase of new littoral ships until the Navy completes ongoing technical and design studies, figures out how much it will cost to fix the vessel's problems, and reports to lawmakers on needed changes. It also said the Navy should slow its purchases after 2015, pending a full-scale internal review of the program.

Auditor Paul Francis told the subcommittee that the ship isn’t scheduled to complete operational testing with its warfighting equipment until 2019. “It is a ship in full-rate production but its operational effectiveness will not be demonstrated for years,” Francis said. The Navy, he added, “still does not know how well the ships will perform their missions, how well its unique crewing and maintenance concepts will work, or how much it will cost to equip and support the ship.”

If all of the planned ships are built, the Navy says, they will eventually account for 17 percent of its total fleet. The Navy says that a speedy deployment of the vessels will itself save funds, since each ship would carry about half the crew of the conventional ships they are expected to replace.

But a GAO graph presented with Francis' testimony documented in blunt terms the Navy's shrinking ambitions for the ships (even as their costs rise sharply). It notes, for example, that the vessels were primarily developed for use in major combat, but now are considered acceptable to use only in a "benign, low-threat environment" unless escorted by other, more capable ships. Initially meant to be self-sufficient fighting vessels, they would actually need protection and support.

Problems in the vessels that were previously flagged by the GAO include hull cracks and a superstructure that needed redesign as well as repairs. When one of the ships traveled at high speeds, it shook so much that it was difficult to accurately fire the ship’s 57mm gun.

Designed to be sailed by small crews in a networked battlefield, each littoral ship is supposed to come with three weapons modules — for anti-mine, anti-submarine and surface warfare — that can be swapped out in a few days depending on the mission. But so far, the modules have performed poorly.

According to a March 2013 GAO report, two of those delivered to date failed to meet Navy’s requirements while the third had to be restarted because the initial design failed. An airborne laser mine detection system, the report said, had “challenges” identifying mines and needed redesign. The anti-submarine warfare module didn’t perform any better than existing systems. And the Navy decided to cancel the surface warfare module’s missile launch system and replace its missile with another.

“I don’t think we can be confident the mission modules can do what we say they can do,” Francis said at the hearing.

The GAO’s report was not the message the Navy wanted to hear. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley told the panel that while the littoral ship program had “critical flaws” when it began, those problems have largely been fixed and the ships and production of their modules is urgently needed. “Now is not the time to slow the program and add to the cost,” he said.

Stackley added that the delivery of the modules was “a textbook case of best practices,” adding that “the greatest risk to our mission package program is not technical. The greatest risk is sequestration and budget reductions.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and several other lawmakers questioned whether the Navy’s most pressing need was for a ship for battling swarms of boats and catching smugglers, given the rapid expansion of China’s military might. “If you had to go up against a China or a North Korea, the LCS is not the ideal ship,” he said. It might help stop an effort to close the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf chokepoint for oil exports, he said, “but for the Asia pivot, it’s not what you want.”

Rear Admiral Richard Hunt, director of the Navy Staff, responded that the littoral ship would be “part of the mix” in such a conflict, and could make a contribution in all three of its roles — demining, anti-sub warfare and surface combat.

But other lawmakers asked Navy witnesses to address a famous 2011 complaint by the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation that the Freedom was “unlikely to survive in a hostile combat environment,” due to its armaments and light armor as well as a hull considered prone to catching fire if struck.

Hunt responded that the ship was designed to operate with escorts in a “higher threat environment,” and that its low radar cross section, maneuverability and speed will help it avoid being hit. “It is good enough to protect our sailors and extract itself from a difficult situation,” he said.

Stackley added that the ship’s automated fire-fighting systems and watertight compartments are designed to ensure it survives an attack. But after that, it’s expected to withdraw, he acknowledged.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a Navy veteran and longstanding Armed Services committee member, plans to seek an amendment to the Senate’s defense bill imposing conditions on the program before the Navy purchases can go forward. “The Navy plans for the Littoral Combat Ship to comprise over one-third of the nation’s total surface combatant fleet by 2028, and yet the Littoral Combat Ship has not yet demonstrated adequate performance of assigned missions. We need to fix it or find something else rapidly,” he said during a hearing attended by Navy leaders in May.

A July 22 Congressional Research Service report on the littoral ships said that if Congress decides to reduce the number of the new ships, the Navy could take up the slack by refurbishing old vessels to sweep mines, equipping cruisers and destroyers with weapons to counter small boats and deploying helicopters and drones to battle diesel subs.

Not surprisingly, the ship’s manufacturers — Lockheed Martin, the Marinette Marine Corp, Austal Ltd., and General Dynamics — hate this idea. Altogether, the four companies have employed 142 lobbyists who said in filiings that they lobbied on behalf of the littoral ship or shipbuilding in general since the beginning of 2006, including 85 former members of Congress and their staff, according to an analysis of lobbying registrations by the Center for Public Integrity. The companies’ PACs and employees have contributed particularly heavily to members of the House seapower subcommittee, giving at least $526,000 since the start of 2009.

Six contractors were aboard the Freedom when it sailed across the Pacific this spring for its first overseas deployment, nearly four and a half years after it was commissioned, so they could troubleshoot any problems with its propulsion, lubrication and air conditioning systems.

The need for such a contractor repair team on board a ship raised some hackles among House appropriators. “Navy ships are normally deployed in top material condition to ensure the ship can remain underway to accomplish its mission,” the committee said in its June defense bill report. “The Committee is disturbed by the number of problems this ship has experienced on its maiden deployment that appear to be beyond the crew’s capability to handle, especially given that the LCS should have been in an extremely high rate of readiness.”

But they gave the Navy all the funds it wanted, anyway.

Data reporter Alexander Cohen contributed to this article.