Navy Secretary Defends Littoral Combat Ship

By Valerie Insinna

The littoral combat ship continues to fend off criticism about its cost and survivability, but the Navy’s top civilian leader said the arguments against it are not new.

The first ship of any class has always been the subject of intense scrutiny, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. No vessel operates perfectly its first time out to sea, and the Navy is fixing problems on the LCS as they arise.

"Every time the Navy has built a new ship, two things have happened,” he told reporters June 13. “We've had issues with the first or second ship in the class, and a lot of people inside the Navy and outside the Navy hate it because it's not what we're used to.”

The first littoral combat ships, Lockheed Martin’s USS Freedom and Austal USA’s USS Independence, were designed as developmental ships whereby the Navy could evaluate how they performed and what changes needed to be made, he said.

The Freedom currently is on its first deployment to Southeast Asia. It left Singapore on June 11 to begin exercises in the region after participating in the International Maritime Defence Exhibition.
Navy officials saw the deployment as a chance to vindicate the LCS, but the Freedom has run into several difficulties so far, including a power outage in March on its way to Singapore and an engine problem in May that forced it to return to port.

Mabus’ comments will likely do little to quell concerns from Congress. The House Armed Services Committee recently passed an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Government Accountability Office to study the Singapore deployment and any resulting changes that the Navy recommends to the ship or its modules.

“The committee has significant concerns regarding the levels of concurrency associated with the mission modules and the expected delivery of the littoral combat ship seaframes,” the amendment said.

Congressional problems with the cost of the program often are due to “old numbers or old metrics that we’ve fixed,” Mabus said. Congress in 2002 was told the cost per vessel would run $220 million, but that was based on the idea that the ships would use a commercial hull. Upgrading to a military hull raised the price, he said.

The Navy so far has awarded contracts to buy 10 ships of each variant, and the price of each ship will decrease over time, Mabus said. The first ships cost $439 million, while the last will cost $350 million.

Mission modules — which will include systems for mine countermeasure, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare that can be swapped out as needed — are being produced for less than what was expected in 2002, he added.

"The weapons modules [in 2002] were seen as being almost as expensive [as the ship], being in the $200 million range,” he said. “That has turned out not to be the case." The countermine module is about $100 million, the other two are in the $20 million to $30 million range, he said.

Mabus maintained the vessel’s modularity will help it adapt to a range of missions — even if the service doesn’t know exactly what those are. Modules for the Marine Corps and naval special forces are being considered, he said.

"The notion that it doesn't have a mission, that it's a ship in search of a mission — I think that's one of its greatest strengths,” Mabus said. “We don't know what we're going to face.”

One of the things the Navy is looking at during the Freedom’s deployment is what equipment is needed so that technicians can quickly change mission modules, he said. A classified Navy report released earlier this year suggested that it would take sailors longer than anticipated to switch out modules, but Mabus asserted that it is still quicker to make such changes on an LCS than it is on other ships.

“If you put a weapons system on a DDG [guided missile destroyer], and you find out this just isn't what we need, you [have] to send the ship to the shipyard, you’ve got to rip stuff out,” he said.  It “takes a year. It's very expensive.”

Topics: Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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