Support for Navy’s $440 million shallow water combat ship is slowly sinking

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 Updated:

One of two designs for the Navy's shallow water ship.

Lockheed Martin

The Navy is planning to build a fleet of 55 shallow-water combat ships, but Congress is raising questions about cost overruns, defects and the ship’s design. The Navy announced March 17 that it had signed a contract for two ships and is attempting to build four more ships in 2012.

Two contractors, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, designed two very different shallow-water combat ships, dubbed the Littoral Combat Ship. The Navy originally planned to award the contract to a single company but decided to issue a dual-award contract, saying it would cut costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. Congress approved the dual-award strategy last December.

Now Congress is raising questions about the functionality of the ship, its ability to survive combat, and welding defects leading to a crack in the hull of the first ship, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

The ship has a shallower draft than Navy cruisers and destroyers, allowing it to operate in coastal waters and ports inaccessible to larger ships. The ship was created to go after fast small crafts, like those used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and pirates. The 3,000-ton ship is about the size of a Coast Guard cutter, and has a maximum speed of more than 40 knots, compared to 30 knots for most Navy cruisers and destroyers.

A number of the mission modules have encountered problems. The Navy canceled a surface warfare missile system and switched to a cheaper missile system with fewer capabilities. The Navy commissioned this system, made by Raytheon, to be installed on the first ships, but was unsure of long-term options. The Navy is also trying to terminate the development of an anti-mine system, which is supposed to locate and destroy underwater mines, after results showed performance problems.

Commanders have no experience deploying these ships and by pursuing two kinds of different ships, with separate and unique combat systems, sailors qualified to serve on one ship are not qualified to serve on the other.

Another concern is the ship’s ability to survive combat, based on modeling and simulation.

 “So I have to ask, why are we buying 55 of these surface combatants if they’re not designed to survive in a hostile combat environment? I don’t understand how we can justify that. What other warfighter need does the LCS program satisfy if the ships are not designed to survive in a combat environment?” said Rep. James Moran, D-Va., at a March hearing on Navy’s budget.

The Navy originally said the ships’ frames would cost about $220 million each, but the price of the first few ships more than doubled. Now it appears they will have an average unit cost of about $440 million. Estimates for just the annual operation and support cost of a single ship frame are estimated at $36.6 million. The total life-cycle operation and support cost for 55 of the ships, each operated for 25 years, totals $50.4 billion.

An official Pentagon estimate of the program’s total acquisition cost, which includes the cost of research, development and procurement, has been lacking. DOD’s December report for the program provides an estimated total acquisition cost for 55 ship frames, but does not include a total estimated acquisition cost for the entire program, which includes 55 ship frames and 64 mission modules.

FAST FACTS: The ship first developed a 6-inch long crack below the waterline that leaked five gallons of water per hour. A Navy investigation ruled out design flaws as the cause, but did say problems with welding could be the cause. Smaller cracks indicating welding defects showed up in the vessel’s aluminum structure during sea trials last year.

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