Admirals Fire Salvo in Public-Relations War Over Littoral Combat Ship
But their message doesn’t seem to penetrate. Which is no surprise. Just in the past three years, the ship has been under attack by lawmakers and think tanks for its rising costs, for its purported inadequacy in high-intensity warfare against enemies like Iran or China, and fordesign flaws that led to hull cracks and other safety hazards.
The LCS has two variants: The Freedom class, a 377-feet semi-planing steel monohull made by Lockheed Martin Corp., and a trimaran made by Austal Inc. The Navy has committed to buying 20 ships, 10 of each variant over the next five years. The goal is to acquire 55.
The LCS 1, the USS Freedom, is scheduled for a 10-month deployment next year to Asia-Pacific. It will be the Navy’s make-or-break opportunity to restore confidence in the ship and to prove the naysayers wrong. LCS 2, USS Independence, recently sailed through the Panama Canal up to its homeport in San Diego, and the Navy says it will remain in trails before any deployment decisions are made.
So far it's been the LCS 1 that has been the bigger headache for the Navy, following reports of 16-inch hull cracks, corrosion and electrical problems.
House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has called for a Government Accountability Office review of LCS in the aftermath of disclosures by the Project On Government Oversight that there were significant flaws in LCS 1, including a stern door that could not seal shut, stress cracks, corrosion and electrical outages.
“It's disturbing that the Navy would accept a ship that fails to meet the basic requirements for a tugboat. The future of the fleet is corroding before our eyes,” said Speier in a statement. “I find it troubling that it takes whistleblowers and the press to bring these problems to light,” she said. “In their rush to move the program forward, the Navy appears to have given up quality control over its own ships.”
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Undersecretary Robert Workmounted a strongly worded defense of LCS last month at the Navy League’s annual convention. Several senior officials also pleaded their case in recent weeks on Capitol Hill.
Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, director of the Navy’s Surface Warfare Division, and Rear Adm. Jim Murdoch, program executive officer for Littoral Combat Ships, laid out their case during a May 9 conference call with reporters. They were adamant that the Navy has fixed Freedom’s design shortfalls and that the second ship of the Freedom class, LCS 3 USS Fort Worth, has been vastly improved.
“Congressional support for the LCS block buy remains solid,” said Murdoch. The POGO report was, in fact, “welcome” because it directed high-level attention to the program, he added.
LCS 1 was delivered to the Navy in September 2008, and LCS 2 in January 2010. Fort Worth (LCS 3) is under construction at Marinette Marine, Wisc., and Coronado, (LCS 4) is under construction at Austal USA, in Mobile, Ala. Milwaukee (LCS 5) and Jackson (LCS 6) are in early construction. Detroit (LCS 7) and Montgomery (LCS 8) are in pre-production stages.
But even as production moves forward, Navy officials continue to deal with adverse publicity. It didn’t help that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert suggested in public comments last month that the LCS would not survive a shooting war against China. Although the same could be said just about every ship in the U.S. fleet, LCS is far more vulnerable to criticism because of its troubled history. As to the complaints that it could not fight in big blue-water wars, LCS simply wasn’t created to do that.
“It provides a unique capability,” said Rowden. “It was designed to win in the 21st Century against threats in coastal waters where increasingly capable submarines and mines and small boats operate,” he added. Currently the Navy depends on frigates, patrol craft and aging mine sweepers. “LCS in a single class will help us doing all these missions,” Rowden said. It’s not comparable to an Aegis destroyer or a cruiser, but “it is meant to go in harm’s way,” he said. “There are no limits on combat missions.”
Murdoch said one reason why LCS provokes skepticism is that it is “different,” with a modular design — it has interchangeable weapons systems and aircraft decks — that might make some traditionalists uncomfortable.
“But I’d rather have my son or daughter on LCS than on a 228-foot wooden hull minesweeper with 50 caliber guns,” said Murdoch. “I don’t have a lot of concern about the adequacy of the design.”
One bit of good news for LCS of late is its construction costs appear to have been stabilized after the Navy awarded long-term production contracts to both shipyards. Congress had set a price cap of $538 million per ship, and the Navy projects LCS will average $420 million per copy, including $357 million for the hull. The mission equipment — mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare modules — is priced separately.
If all goes according to plan, LCS 1 will be headed to Singapore in Spring 2013 for a 10-month deployment. Crews will be rotated in 120-day cycles.
Tests with LCS 2 will focus on the mine warfare package, which has performed poorly so far as a result of the sonar’s high false-alarm rate.
But even if the Navy can prove that LCS can safely cruise to Asia, and it can defend itself from enemy missiles or buried mines, it remains to be seen how the ship weathers the negative PR storm.
“We are confident on the path of success for LCS,” said Murdoch. “The Navy routinely expects issues to arise from the first ship of the class. Every ship has had test and trials. … Sure there’s criticism. We welcome the criticism so we can sharpen our focus,” he said. “These are incredibly capable ships. It’s a good healthy debate.”