Alleged quality problems in the Navy’s newest combat vessel are sparking fresh controversy over the future of the program.
A batch of documents submitted to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees this week offers details on hull cracks, flooding and engine problems in one of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship variants. Most of the safety concerns disclosed April 23 in a letter to Congress by the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight first surfaced about a year ago. Navy officials and ship manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. said the information is old news.
The timing of the release of this data, however, could send the Navy into damage control mode, as the House Armed Services Committee’s shipbuilding panel is slated to begin debating the Navy’s fiscal year 2013 request of $1.78 billion for four LCS ships. The new round of controversy also comes days after senior Navy leaders put forward an ardent defense of the LCS program during the Navy League’s annual convention.
One member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said via a spokesman that she would offer an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would call for further investigation of the alleged problems in the Littoral Combat Ship.
The design in question is the Freedom class, a 377-foot semi-planing steel monohull with an aluminum superstructure that can reach speeds of 45 knots. The first ship of the class, the USS Freedom, is slated to begin a 10-month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region in 2013. The other LCS design, made by Austal, is a high-speed trimaran. The Navy has committed to buying 20-ships, 10 of each variant over the next five years. The goal is to acquire a total of 55 ships.
POGO National Security Fellow Benjamin J. Freeman said his investigation should give the Navy pause. Hull cracks were disclosed a year ago, but he claims that new details show that the full extent of the problem had not been publicly known. One of the hull cracks depicted in POGO’s report, for instance, caused extensive corrosion that had not been reported previously, Freeman said.
Chris Johnson, spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command, said in a statement that the Navy is “reviewing the concerns mentioned in the [POGO] letter.” The issues were “well reported and have been corrected as warranted,” he said. “Additionally, the Navy has worked closely with the operational test and evaluation community to address their concerns.”
The USS Freedom, Johnson added, is a first-of-class ship, and it is “expected the Navy will discover and correct issues as they are identified. This is not unique to LCS, but standard for all first-of-class ships.”
The Navy is “fully confident that LCS 1 and the rest of the class will perform as designed,” said Johnson.
Lockheed Martin also released a statement casting doubt on POGO’s reports for being “based on selective information that is more than a year old” and focused on “isolated incidents.”
USS Freedom has been “certified and approved by both the Navy and the American Bureau of Shipbuilding,” said the Lockheed statement. “Any issue that has arisen in the development, testing and usage of this lead ship has been, or will be, addressed. … And our overall LCS program remains on cost and on schedule.”
According to Freeman, lawmakers are likely to take POGO’s allegations seriously. “Reaction from Congress has been very positive,” he said. “There’s a general sense of outrage.”
If, as the Navy said, the problems have been fixed, Freedom should not have experienced the trouble it saw the last two times it went out to sea, when engines failed, a shaft seal blew, and the ship came limping back into port just hours after leaving, Freeman said. “The Navy may have patched up the cracks we provided pictures of, but whistleblowers tell us that cracking and corrosion are still rampant on the ship,” he said. “Does that sound like a ship that's ready to travel across the Pacific to Singapore?”
The argument that first-in-the-class ships are expected to experience growing pains only goes so far, said Freeman. Freedom is not simply a research vessel that the Navy is using only for experimentation. “They’re talking about deploying the ship later this year,” he said. “Our sources told us it should be a training vessel, not deployed. … If they want to use it for R&D, don’t sail across the Pacific.”
The firestorm over LCS brings to mind the troubles of the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutter. Congress threatened to cancel the program in 2006 when design flaws were found in the first three ships of the class. The Coast Guard fixed the problems and got the program back on track.
Navy officials insist that the LCS program is progressing, and should go forward.
During an April 19 hearing of the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., asked Navy leaders to discuss recent media reports that the LCS was over budget and behind schedule. “The LCS is such a critical part of the Navy's future. It has fewer sailors, higher speeds, less fuel costs and remarkable capabilities,” said Sessions, who has particular interest in LCS as Austal is building the USS Independence in Mobile, Ala.
Sean J. Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, assured Sessions that the program is proceeding according to plan. “We see stability. We see steady improvement. We see good cost returns on the front end of this dual-block buy strategy,” said Stackley.
The first ships of each class, LCS 1 and LCS 2, are making their way to home port in San Diego. “And as with any new ship class, we learn a lot,” said Stackley. “I don't spend too much time studying the reports that come from the press, other than to be aware of what information is out there and try to correct any misperceptions,” he said.
“We look forward to deploying LCS-1 next year and we've got a lot of work that we have to do to make sure that when she deploys, she is well supported and succeeds in all the mission areas that we assign to her,” Stackley said.
Vice Adm. Kevin M. McCoy, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, explained to the committee that LCS is moving at a much faster pace than traditional ship programs. “One of the things about LCS was the first two ships are in fact our research and development platforms,” he said. “They were bought with R&D funds.”
A new ship design typically would have a “robust R&D program ahead of the ship,” said McCoy. “If you look at LCS 1, we went from concept of the ship to deployment in seven years, which is a record for the United States Navy. And on every single one of our new classes, even ones that we put R&D money in up front, we learned technical issues on the first of the classes that we feed back into the subsequent ships. And we've learned on LCS as well.”
Recent LCS 1 trials, he said, had the ship sailing at high speeds, satisfactorily for the most part. “We've had some technical issues but nothing that would tell us that the platform itself is fundamentally unsound and would not be a very well-performing ship in service,” McCoy said. “And every time we find something, we fold it back into the construction line.”