Struggling to meet minimal requirements
The LCS was conceived as an unusual multi-mission ship platform, capable of being used in shallow water to help fight battles on shore (“littoral” denotes a region along a shore) as well as in deep-water engagements, as a replacement for existing mine sweepers, frigates, and coastal patrol craft. It was to be equipped to counter armed boats, submarines or mines by reconfiguring the ships’ weapon systems, sensors and crews according to needs of the moment.
In that sense, according to critics, it is unfortunately the sea-going equivalent of the Air Force’s trillion-dollar F-35 fighter plane: designed too ambitiously to fulfill too many roles and as a consequence well over its budget, flawed in its execution, and struggling to meet even minimal operational requirements.
Among its more notorious missteps, the first of the new littoral combat ships to be deployed, named the USS Freedom, was immobilized in the South China Sea — a key future operating area — during a trial run in 2013, after also experiencing a cracked hull and unexpected rusting. A year later, auditors at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the USS Freedom had spent 58% of its 10-month deployment idle in port in Singapore.
Last December, a second ship, the USS Milwaukee, broke down and had to be towed 40 miles after a software malfunction failed to allow the clutch to transfer between the warship’s gas turbines and diesel engines, spewing metallic debris into the gears. Another ship, the USS Fort Worth, was sidelined in January — and remains in Singapore today — because its operators failed to follow proper maintenance procedures and adequate lubricants did not reach those same gears, which are vital to the operation of waterjets needed for high-speed operation.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy captain, told the service’s officials in a February letter cosigned by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Jack Reed (R.I.), that LCS “seaframe failures and system reliability shortfalls” as well as its weak armaments had made him highly skeptical that the ships could defeat anything more than “a small number of lightly armed boats” — well short of what he cited as the Navy’s boasts that it could put “the enemy fleet on the bottom of the ocean.”
McCain said the program had “significant design, testing, integration, and deployment challenges.” And his committee eventually approved a defense authorization bill that supported the Obama administration’s LCS production cutback. But it wasn’t the last word.
Despite the ship's troubles, the Navy wanted more. In March, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told the House Armed Services Committee that the military branch had a “validated need” for 52 littoral combat ships, 12 more than his boss at the Pentagon said it did. Mabus went on to say that Carter’s plan to choose one shipyard to make most of the ships instead of two would drive up the price. At an industry conference in January, he called the overall program a “success story.”
Key congressmen rushed to support Mabus. Led by Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisc., who represent districts that house the two competing shipbuilders, roughly 40 House lawmakers signed two April letters to the House Armed Services Committee and House Committee on Appropriations applauding the ship’s “production efficiencies and cost savings,” and stating that reductions to the fleet would “hinder the Navy’s ability to respond to threats around the globe.”
Financial backers of the shipyards in question — Austal USA, in Mobile, Alabama, and Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin — reinforced this message in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lobbying from January 2016 to March 2016 according to reports filed by them with the House and Senate clerks. Lockheed, a prime contractor on the LCS that says it is also a minority investor in the Marinette shipyard, said it spent $3.65 million to lobby Congress on all issues between January and March 2016, with an unspecified portion related to shipbuilding. Austal USA --which has narrower interests -- separately spent $189,096 lobbying just on the shipbuilding provisions in House and Senate defense appropriations bills.
Austal USA employed 12 lobbyists, almost all of which previously worked in government, including on appropriations committees, according to information gathered by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. Lockheed employed 70 lobbyists, according to the Center’s data, of which over two-thirds had previously been in government posts, including at the Department of Defense and on appropriations committees. At least six of Lockheed’s lobbyists formerly worked with the Navy; one of Austal USA’s lobbyists was a naval captain and another previously worked for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a strong supporter of the LCS.
The two contractors’ home-state lawmakers didn't stop at signing the letters. “Congress should not allow a Secretary of Defense with less than a year left in office to decide the fate of a critical Navy program like the LCS,” Rep. Byrne said in a statement before the amendment passed in April. A provision he successfully inserted in the House-passed bill would block Carter’s plan to give all the work to just one shipyard.
“The LCS is critical to our Navy’s ability to respond to current and future threats across the world,” Sen. Shelby said in a statement after Carter announced his plan in December. “I will fight tooth and nail against this misguided attempt to needlessly undermine the security of our nation and the American people.”
It's clear why home-state lawmakers would support the extra spending. But the influence of the shipbuilders runs far deeper at the Capitol. Lockheed Martin has given campaign funds to almost every current Senate and House defense appropriations subcommittee member, a total of at least $2.3 million from 1999 to 2015, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of Federal Election Commission filings and Center for Responsive Politics data. Though the contractor is not allowed to give directly to candidates, Lockheed Martin’s employees can contribute and its company-directed political action committee or PAC, which collects employee and other funds, can donate.
Since 1998, Rep. Frelinghuysen R-NJ, the key House subcommittee chairman, has received at least $151,850 from Lockheed Martin’s employees and PAC; the amounts rose after he assumed that role in late 2013. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Tx, the vice-chair, has received at least $341,850 in contributions from Lockheed Martin’s employees and PAC, including those to her leadership PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The ranking member, Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-IN, has received at least $102,100 in individual and PAC donations. The House Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-KY, also received at least $82,475 from Lockheed Martin’s PAC and employees.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, received more than $72,000 from Lockheed Martin’s employees and PAC since 1989. Senate defense appropriations chairman Thad Cochran, R-MS, received over $40,000. Austal USA, a subsidiary of an Australian defense firm that mainly makes ships and has a much narrower set of legislative interests, has given thousands of dollars to Sen. Shelby and to two House defense appropriators.
Spokesmen for Cochran, Granger, and Shelby said the contributions did not influence their support for the ship; the others did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“When you’re the chair or senior member of the defense appropriations committee you’re going to get a lot of money from various defense contractors…[that] hope that you act favorably on their wants,” Ellis said. If the contractors have been making campaign contributions “right along, they can potentially get to the senior members of the committee whether [the members]…represent them or not.”