The U.S. Navy’s Redesigned Future Ship Still Won’t Fight
A new ‘frigate’ Littoral Combat Ship will remain vulnerable and ineffective
by MANDY SMITHBERGER & PIERRE SPREY
The Navy’s $29 billion Littoral Combat Ship program provides a step-by-step case study in acquisition failures and the costs and risks of unacceptable levels of concurrency.
Its design requirements were poorly conceived, the manpower planning was wildly unrealistic, Navy leadership and program managers repeatedly circumvented acquisition rules — increasing concurrency and cost risk — and production was approved despite poor and rushed analysis.
Production milestones were approved despite glaring program failures. Moreover, the program is an example of how unwilling Congress is to step in and hold defense acquisition programs accountable. Congress repeatedly failed to intervene despite warnings from the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service and experienced independent analysts that this program was grossly off track.
Now the Navy has announced that it is abandoning the LCS’s radically new manning concept as well as the fundamental concept of a multi-mission ship with swappable mission modules, completely overhauling the justification and total concept for this program.
This necessitates large increases in crew size and a significant redesign of crew spaces and weapons installations, almost certain to significantly increase acquisition and operational costs.
In response to the mounting storm of criticism, on Dec. 16, 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the original buy of 55 LCSs, already cut to 52, would be cut to 32 ships plus an additional eight “frigate” versions of the original LCS. The Navy prefers to go even further by cutting the LCS buy to 28 ships plus 12 “frigate” LCSs — and is requesting approval of a 12 ship block buy to lock in the program’s production commitment with a concomitant large increase in concurrency.
Approval of a block buy committing the taxpayer to full production of a revamped $1.2 billion “frigate” LCS — one immune to cancellation in the event of failed operational tests — is the largest LCS decision now facing the new Department of Defense and the new Congress.
That decision needs to be considered carefully in light of what the “frigate” LCS actually represents.
Namely, a superficial redesign that leaves the LCS’s excessive vulnerability unaddressed, eliminates the urgently needed mine countermeasures mission, does little for improving the ship’s lethality in the surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare missions, and results in a “frigate” that cannot accomplish traditional frigate missions due to lack of the requisite sustained speed, endurance and survivability.
Ultimately, the upcoming congressional and Pentagon decisions regarding the LCS program’s future, including the proposed block buy and frigate, will dictate whether American crews will be forced to risk their lives going to war in ineffective, excessively vulnerable ships.
Recent problems spur changes
The program has been plagued with design failures and unreliability. In fact, the U.S. Naval Institute reported in September that just in the last year the LCS experienced six major losses of combat capability while deployed.
The first four of the 28 LCSs meant for deployment will instead be turned into dedicated testing vessels. Six others will have to be assigned as dedicated training ships, doubling what had originally been planned. This means diverting deployable assets because of the unprecedented burden of the multi-specialty cross-training needed for every sailor in the LCS’s radically reduced crew.
Out of the first 28 LCSs that have been built, only 18 are really available for deployment.
But the Littoral Combat Ship program has been unnecessarily complicated from the beginning.
One of the more distinctive elements of the LCS program was that its seaframes and the three mission packages are being developed separately and concurrently, each with substantial risk. Compounding this, there are two versions of the seaframe in production. Lockheed Martin manufactures the Freedom class and Austal builds the Independence class.
Initially the Navy aimed for each ship to cost $220 million, but the Government Accountability Office estimates procurement costs for the first 32 ships is currently about $21 billion, or about $655 million per ship — nearly triple what they were supposed to cost. The program’s three mission packages, according to the latest select acquisition report, add about $7.6 billion.
One of the iterations of this program originally planned for the Navy to down-select between the Freedom and Independence classes to increase acquisition and lifecycle cost savings. When the Navy decided to keep both designs, critics — including the GAO — expressed concerns that the Navy had not adequately considered the lifecycle costs and operational challenges of maintaining two separate fleets.
We are starting to see the operational impacts of that decision now. The two fleets will be operating and training separately, with the Freedom class based and supported out of Mayport, Florida, and the Independence class based out of San Diego, California. While the Navy doesn’t say so explicitly, the significant differences between the two classes has almost certainly driven the decision to double the number of training ships.
In the decade and a half since the program was first sold to Congress, the LCS has already been forced into multiple major program changes, initially driven by large cost overruns, the lack of combat survivability and lethality discovered during operational testing and deployments, the almost crippling technical failures, and schedule delays in each of the three mission modules.
Now the Navy has announced it is abandoning the two fundamental concepts behind the program — a multi-mission ship with swappable mission modules and a radically new way of manning it. Instead, each LCS hull will have a single mission and a significantly larger crew assigned a single primary skill set.
The operating cost per ship-year has skyrocketed due to crew size increases, the continued unreliability of the ship systems, and the unprecedented need for expensive contractor support. In 2014 a GAO analysis of the Navy’s life-cycle cost estimates found LCS operating costs are 3.3 times greater than current minesweepers the LCS was supposed to replace, and amazingly, 90 percent of the operating cost of the 9,000-ton DDG-51 ballistic missile defense destroyer.
“The miracle of the LCS didn’t happen,” Paul Francis of the GAO told the Senate Armed Services committee last week. “LCS has taken longer, cost more, and delivered less capability than expected.”
The Navy is now paying the costs of their buy before you fly approach. The concurrency in the program is so extreme that taxpayers will have paid for 90 percent of the LCSs before seaframe operational testing is scheduled to be finished in 2019 — in other words, before the Department of Defense and Congress know whether the seaframes are suitable or unsuitable for combat. Suitability of all LCS mission packages won’t be known until at least four years later.
A useful starting point for considering the LCS program is an overview of its original requirements compared to where it stands today. As Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld directed the services to propose a series of “transformative” programs based on unconventional ideas and technologies.
It was originally sold in fiscal year 2003 as incorporating radically new characteristics that would totally change naval warfare.
As the table shows, the current LCS fails to achieve even a single one of the “transformative” characteristics that were promised — and fails in each by substantial margins.
No combat survivability
In December 2011, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, reported concerns about combat survivability.
“LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” Gilmore wrote. “[LCS design requirements] do not require the inclusion of the survivability features necessary to conduct sustained operations in its expected environment.”
In 2012 POGO obtained documents showing that the Navy’s lack of oversight resulted in ships being delivered with significant cracking, and that there were over 80 equipment failures on the ship. “These failures were not trivial, and placed the crew of the ship in undue danger,” we wrote.
In one instance, there was a darken ship event during a counter-drug trafficking operation that temporarily left the ship adrift at sea.
A 2012 DOT&E report provided additional insight — “LCS is not expected to be survivable in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment.”
The Navy, due to the program’s concurrency-driven lack of survivability testing, has “knowledge gaps related to the vulnerability of an aluminum ship structure to weapon-induced blast and fired damage,” DOT&E wrote, referencing aluminum’s tendency to sag and melt in ordinary ship fires and to burn with nearly inextinguishable intensity when hit by shaped charge cannon shells or missile warheads.
In addition to pointing out the LCS’s lack of combat survivability, the Pentagon’s testing office also found that Freedom’s surface warfare module was defective because the ship’s 30-millimeter gun “exhibit[s] reliability problems,” and that on both classes “ship operations at high speeds cause vibrations that make accurate use of the 57 mm gun very difficult.”
Worse yet, the integrated weapons control and air/surface radar system on the Freedom has “performance deficiencies” that degrade the “tracking and engagement of contacts.”
The surface warfare module wasn’t the only one in trouble — the mine counter-measure module was much worse. The AN/AQS-20A sonar was supposed to identify bottom mines in shallow water, detect, locate and classify bottom, close-tethered and volume mines in deep water, and to communicate all that information to the ship to avoid or destroy any identified mines.
To do this it needed to be towed either by Lockheed Martin’s Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle underwater drone or the MH-60S helicopter. In every test over the last decade, the RMMV drone proved grossly unreliable. Finally in 2016 the Navy officially cancelled the RMMV drone, which had cost taxpayers over $700 million and 16 years.
The Navy now plans to choose among three substitute surface and underwater drones still in development — but testing and assessing the winner’s suitability cannot be completed until 2023, according to DOT&E.
As for the combination of MH-60S towing the AQS-20A, the 2012 DOT&E report found they were “not operationally effective or suitable.” The Navy’s own testing determined the MH-60S helicopter cannot safely tow the AN/AQS-20A Sonar Set or the Organic Airborne Sweep and Influence System because the helicopter is underpowered for these operations. The MH-60S helicopter will no longer be assigned these missions operating from any ship.
Thus, the Navy predicts no LCS will have any mine countermeasures mission capability until 2020 — and the seven to 10 (or fewer) LCSs assigned permanent mine warfare duty may not be equipped with fully operational MCM modules until 2025, if ever.
It may be nearly a decade before a portion of the LCS fleet makes even a modest contribution to the Navy’s grossly inadequate minesweeping capabilities, currently the weakest they’ve been since the beginning of World War II.
The third module, the anti-submarine module, has been in trouble from the start because the waterjet propulsion built into both LCS variants is so much noisier than conventional propellers that it severely limits the sonar’s ability to detect submarines.
Moreover, the ASW module is years behind schedule because its components, particularly the large stern towing rig for the towed array sonar, are being reengineered to lighten them enough to meet the 105-ton weight constraint imposed by the LCS’s severe overweight problems.
Testing has also been sparse and unrealistic. In 2014, testing had been “highly scripted” due to the early stage of integration for the program, so that there was “full knowledge of the target submarine’s position throughout the test, and the operators focused their search only in the region where the submarine was known to be.”
In 2015, according to DOT&E, there was no actual at-sea testing at all. In other words, no test data whatsoever exists for even estimating whether the LCS may have a combat suitable ASW mission capability.
Congressional oversight, little accountability
Requests to start major programs or make major changes are ordinarily submitted to Congress at the beginning of the budget cycle — usually around February. But throughout the history of this constantly changing program the Navy always seemed to submit major LCS budget requests out of cycle, making proper congressional oversight significantly more difficult.
This started from the get-go. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense had excluded the first request for major LCS research and development funding from their budget submission for fiscal year 2003.
It was only later in the year, after the House and Senate Armed Services Committees had held their budget-review hearings to inform their annual authorization bills, that the Navy announced they wanted to pursue a rapid acquisition program. This meant Congress would have had to schedule hearings outside its usual budget process to “review in detail the Navy’s accelerated acquisition plan,” the CRS pointed out. They didn’t.
Quickly the program became, as The New York Times put it, a “lesson on how not to build a Navy ship.”
Costs doubled as the Navy deliberately both designed and built the ships at the same time. With approval from the Office of Secretary of Defense, this acquisition plan baked in an unacceptably high level of concurrency between production and testing.
As mentioned above, the concurrency in the program is so extreme that taxpayers will have paid for 90 percent of the LCSs before 2019, before we know whether they’re suitable or unsuitable for combat, and long before 2023 when we’ll know whether the LCS with its mission packages is effective in combat.
Concurrency was further intensified because the Navy’s terms of competition between the two shipbuilders prioritized acquisition speed over cost or survivability.
Six years later in 2009, the Navy and the Office of the Secretary of Defense requested their first funds for building two full-scale competitors for the LCS production contract. Once again, this was announced mid-year and, predictably, Congress failed to go to the trouble of special review hearings.
After receiving the bids a year later in November 2010, the Navy, with approval from Pentagon acquisition officials, changed strategies for gaining congressional support and asked for authority and funds to switch from a competition for a single winning LCS design to a dual-block buy strategy of 10 ships from each contractor and then down-select.
As before, the Navy’s request came out of the usual budget cycle.
The guarantee of a long block buy to both competitors significantly decreased the government’s leverage for obtaining competitive price bids for each successive LCS production lot, and totally wiped out the possibility of significant savings from two or more shipyards competing against a single LCS design. The Navy told Congress they needed to approve the new plan quickly or risk losing the deal.
For Rep. Gene Taylor (R-MS), then a Democrat and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower subcommittee, approval of the dual-buy strategy was one of his top priorities, even though the year before he had insisted that “true competition” of a single design was essential to getting the program back on track.
In reversing his position, he claimed the dual-buy would help the Navy reach its then-target of 313 ships, and echoed the Navy’s assertion that its fixed-price contracting and the two shipyards’ low-price bids would protect the taxpayer. Protection of the taxpayer did not extend so far as publishing the actual bid amounts, which were kept secret.
Campaign contributions may have been a factor. According to Open Secrets data, Taylor’s top contributor was the sea transport industry, providing him $38,999 between 2009 and 2010.
CRS critiqued the dual-buy and in 2013 the GAO again questioned the Navy’s business case for continuing to buy LCS seaframes “given the unknowns related to its ability to address key warfighting and support concepts.”
When Congress requested additional detail, the GAO found “the Navy essentially suggested that since the two variants are built to the same requirements they perform the same way.”
To say that was ludicrous is an understatement. The Navy now has two separate home bases and two different training programs for Independence and Freedom class crews because the ship differences are so marked. The increase in operating costs is significant. As just one example, the need to dedicate six ships for training is almost certainly twice the number that would have been required had the Navy down-selected to only one ship design.
“The use of fixed-price contracts won’t necessarily prevent an underperforming shipyard from simply rolling its losses into its prices for follow-on ships,” POGO warned Congress at the time. And, in fact, the GAO later found that “the Navy paid for almost all of the shipbuilder-responsible deficiencies discovered after delivery using cost-reimbursable orders under basic ordering agreements.”
For LCS-3 and LCS-4 “the Navy spent $46 million and $77 million, respectively, under these post-delivery agreements to correct defects, complete ship construction, and assist with tests and trials, among other tasks.”
Overall, the GAO found shipbuilders earned between a one and 10 percent profit or fee under the follow-on arrangements for fixing problems the shipbuilders had caused.
Congress could and should have resisted the Navy’s artificial deadlines and taken more time to review the proposals before approving this strategy. Instead they largely accepted the Navy’s optimistic and unrealistic acquisition strategy. As POGO wrote at the time, the Navy was asking Congress to approve the purchase of 20 seaframes “without any real data indicating the program is likely to perform adequately in the future.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing, but ultimately ignored the unanimous advice of CRS, GAO, and the Congressional Budget Office to get more information before approving the strategy.
As problems increased, waivers from requirements began
As it pursued the “dual-buy” strategy the Navy continued to waive key acquisition requirements. At Milestone B, when a program is approved to proceed to Engineering and Manufacturing Development, a program must have approved requirements, an independent cost estimate, and a “program baseline” for cost, schedule, performance, and supportability.
But the Navy, with approval from Pentagon acquisition officials, waived a number of these mandates, including using an independent cost estimate and certifying that “appropriate trade-offs among cost, schedule and performance objectives” had been made.
Congress only learned about these waivers after the Senate had considered its authorizing bill. In the case of “appropriate tradeoffs,” the Navy initially didn’t even bother to write a justification for its waiver.
As each of the LCS’s mission modules ran into serious trouble, Congress became more vocal about the expensive and risky concurrency throughout the LCS program.
“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 House Armed Services Committee wrote in its report for the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. “This dichotomy in capability development appears excessive.”
But the “significant concerns” did not extend to slowing production or fencing money, so the Committee requested GAO conduct another study.
Do more with less, and do it badly
The most important factors impacting survivability are the skills and size of the crew. They are crucial for effectively employing weapons, preventing and repairing system failures while underway, controlling damage and fire when hit — and then continuing to “fight the ship.”
That makes the LCS’s manning and training concept just as crucial as the ship’s technical requirements. The LCS’s ill-considered choice of ultra-lean manning and interchangeable crews uncommitted to single ships, the Navy Times reported, “creates a kind of super-sailor, where crewmembers take on jobs out of their rate and above their paygrade.”
Long-time surface Navy officer and blogger CDR Salamander was a little more pointed, describing the manning as “one of the most infuriating” aspects of the program, as it required sailors to take on others’ duties.
“When you are busy doing other people’s job, you can’t bloody well do yours,” he wrote in a recent post. “[W]hen everyone is a jack of all trades — then you have a ship where no one is a master of anything.”
The whole post is a powerful, comprehensive indictment of the poorly thought-through basis for the LCS’s manning concept, written by an experienced shipboard leader, and is well worth reading in full.
In its 2014 review, the GAO identified a number of risks to the safe and combat-effective operation of the LCS, including that the crew experienced an excessive workload “and fell short of the Navy’s sleep standards despite adding personnel for the deployment.”
The inadequate testing of LCSs and their modules before deployment — a direct result of concurrency — meant the crew uncovered problems while deployed that would have been better addressed in before-deployment testing.
The first trip of the USS Freedom to Singapore, even with a hastily expanded crew of 50 instead of 40, revealed the crew to be largely dependent on contractors for “core crew functions” the Navy manning plan had assumed the crew could perform themselves.
The first trip also revealed that the crew needed considerably more training, that the LCS’s unanticipated maintenance and parts burden limited the ship’s range, and that the crew was so overworked they averaged only six hours of sleep per day.
To solve these easily foreseeable problems identified by the GAO and additional deployments, the Navy was forced to:
- Increase the core crew size for all LCSs to 50. In September they increased the crew sizes again to 70 — a 75 percent increase over the 40 originally planned and one that requires expensive revamping of the crew spaces.
- Increase the number of crews per LCS from 1.5 to two (another 33 percent increase in manning), and abandoning the original LCS manning concept of interchangeable crews that rotated from one ship to another instead of being specifically trained and responsible for a single ship.
- Triple the number of shore support personnel from 271 in 2011 to 862.
- Pull six LCSs from routine deployments and dedicate them to crew training.
- Pull four LCSs from deployment and dedicate them to testing.
- Abandon the LCS’s original justification as an ultra-flexible multi-mission ship capable of swapping mission modules in a few hours or days. Each LCS is now permanently assigned one mission module and a specialized mission crew of 19 or more.
Defense News reported that after the most recent of last year’s six serious engineering casualties on four of the six in-service LCSs, the commander of U.S. naval surface forces “ordered an engineering stand down on all LCS crews and directed all LCS sailors to be retrained in engineering procedures.”
In a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, the leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee suggested the Navy should also reduce the days the ships deploy overseas to reduce crew burnout and risks of major reliability failures.
Tripling the shore personnel, more than doubling the crew members per ship, reducing days of deployment, and withdrawing four ships for testing and six for training from the routinely deployable force mean that the LCS program cost per deployed day has increased enormously.
With only 18 out of the first 28 LCSs deployable — and with only nine out of those 18 deployed at any one time — the LCS fleet is putting on station less than a third of the ships bought and paid for.
The Navy’s counter-gambit
A mounting storm of criticism — focused on lack of survivability and lack of offensive punch — from Congress, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the media, and even from within the surface Navy itself impelled then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to direct the Navy to study better-protected, more heavily armed LCS alternatives in February 2014.
An independent study might have produced real alternatives: the Spanish F-100 guided missile/ASW frigate, for instance — 5,800 tons with far better sea-keeping and far more lethal surface and anti-air weaponry than the LCS — currently being sold on the international market for $600 million apiece. That’s 20 percent cheaper than a non-upgraded LCS and 50 percent less than the latest cost estimates for the “frigate” LCS.
Instead Hagel effectively asked the Navy to grade its own work.
Unsurprisingly, after reviewing all the non-LCS alternatives, the Navy study concluded in July 2014 that none were as cost-effective as an LCS, minimally modified to be slightly more lethal and survivable and reclassified as a “frigate.”
The new LCS’s actual configuration changes include:
- Moving two existing components of the troubled ASW mission module into permanent installation on “frigate” LCSs, specifically the multi-function towed array sonar and the torpedo defense/countermeasures system.
- Permanent installation of the two 30-millimeter guns and the short-range modified Hellfire missile of the existing surface warfare module on both variants, along with making some needed improvements and fixes to the current search radar of the module. Given the ongoing failures in testing, fixes and changes in these components will more than likely be necessary.
- Integration of a yet-to-be-determined longer range anti-ship missile into all new “frigate” LCSs — possibly the Norwegian NM Naval Strike Missile or the Navy’s Harpoon Missile, which failed to hit its target in a test this July.
- Replacing the current three-nautical-mile range self-defense missile with the five-nautical-mile SeaRam.
- Shrinking the new LCS’s mission to just ASW and surface warfare, simply dropping the mine warfare mission, presumably because the MCM module was the most troubled of all and the new LCS has even more severe weight problems than the original LCS. It was unsurprising the LCS’s minesweeping mission was first on the Navy’s chopping block since mine warfare is traditionally a low-priority Navy mission.
The subsequent GAO review of the Navy study found the Navy had heavily biased the study to favor the LCS-based alternatives. This bias included making “assumptions related to crew size that resulted in the non-LCS options appearing more costly by comparison.”
The Navy had assigned to the alternatives a worst-case scenario of crew sizes that was “considerably higher than even the upper range identified by the manning estimates.”
For the LCS, the Navy picked an overly optimistic scenario, with a lower crew estimate for the modified LCS options, making any non-LCS design appear considerably more costly.
Even more troubling, the GAO found the minor configuration changes incorporated into the LCS “frigate” option would not provide much greater capability than what was offered by the earlier LCS — but they would add at least $190 million in procurement costs to the $720 million cost of each LCS — not including the R&D cost incurred in modifying or integrating the new or upgraded weapons systems.
More disturbing yet are the conclusions of DOT&E. “The vulnerability reduction features proposed for the LCS-frigate, while desired and beneficial, provide no significant improvement in the ship’s survivability.”
“Notwithstanding potential reductions to its susceptibility due to improved electronic warfare system and torpedo defense, minor modifications to LCS (e.g., magazine armoring) will not yield a ship that is significantly more survivable than LCS when engaged with threat missiles, torpedoes, and mines expected in major combat operations.”
DOT&E director Michael Gilmore told the House Armed Services Committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee: “[I]t will be less survivable than the Navy’s previous frigate class.”
So far Congress has responded to these major cost concerns and effectiveness deficiencies by including money for an additional LCS beyond what the Pentagon requested, and a series of hearings.
When is a frigate not a frigate?
In the widespread urge to cure the LCS’s inadequate self-defense capability and lethality shortfalls by turning it into a frigate, few seem to have stopped to consider the actual missions a frigate needs to accomplish.
Traditionally, frigates serve as anti-submarine escorts for convoys, freeing up more expensive and scarcer destroyers for higher-priority missions. They also accompany task forces, either adding to the screening and scouting or air defense provided by destroyers, or substituting for them in lower-threat environments.
By far the most common frigate missions in our conflicts of the last 65 years have been supporting small task force landings or insertions, interdicting enemy freighters, tankers and smaller logistics craft, or countering pirates.
To escort convoys or task forces, a frigate needs to match their cruising speeds and have enough endurance for the transit, particularly in rough seas. For open-ocean escort duties, the original LCS has neither the speed nor the seakeeping ability to do the job.
Both merchant ship convoys and task forces make at least 18 to 20 knots.
To maintain the endurance to cross oceans, the Independence LCS is limited to around 14 knots while the Freedom class has to slow down to nine or 10 knots. In moderately rough seas at or above Sea State 4, the LCS is even more limited due to the slamming of the Freedom — an inevitable consequence of its semi-planing hull — and the need to avoid rear quartering seas for the Independence, because of the trimaran’s propensity to capsize when heavy rear seas lift the stern of one hull.
The frigate version of the LCS will be even more restricted in speed and endurance in moderately rough water because it will be heavier, slower, less stable and less seaworthy. All of this applies equally to coastal zone operations. Shallow coastal waters are not necessarily smooth seas. In fact, the shallower the ocean bottom, the steeper and choppier the wave action.
Put more bluntly, no matter what armament is added to the LCS, it can’t accomplish the traditional missions of a real frigate.
Secretary of Defense chops the buy, the Navy goes further
In December 2015 Secretary Carter reacted to the Navy’s insistence on a thinly disguised continuation of the current LCS program by cutting the LCS/frigate buy from 52 ships to 40–32 LCSs plus eight of the new “frigates” — and mandating a down-select to a single ship design for the new version in FY 2019.
Since that announcement the Navy has indicated it wants to down-select one year earlier and cut the LCS buy even further to 28 in order to increase the “frigate” buy to 12 — which may be a telling sign of their lack of confidence in the original LCS.
More concurrency, less oversight and far less accountability
The Navy’s plan for developing and buying the new “frigate” version of the LCS seems simple. Sign a new block buy contract this year for 12 standard LCSs, and issue a request for proposal in late 2017 — not for a new contract for a redesigned “frigate” LCS but instead a proposal for a vaguely specified set of engineering changes to the old LCS contract.
This would be followed by picking a winning shipyard in 2018 to do the detail design of the engineering and production-line changes needed to switch from producing original LCSs to “frigate” LCSs.
If implemented, this plan could set a new benchmark for what Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall has termed “acquisition malpractice.”
First and foremost, signing a block buy for 12 ships this year commits taxpayers and the next administration to 12 ships and $14 billion at least three years before operational testers have determined whether the original LCS seaframes are fit for combat.
Since the Navy intends to convert these 12 into a new and unspecified design — with no plan for new developmental or operational testing in place — it will be at least six to eight years before developmental testing, fixing of problems, and then operational testing can be completed for the “frigate” LCS in order to determine its suitability for combat.
As the GAO has observed, this approach “does not form a sound basis for a future frigate procurement; a robust frigate competition once designs are firm would be a more informed approach.” Committing to this procurement before designs are stable would commit taxpayers to 12 more $1.2 billion “frigate” LCSs “even though these ships have not demonstrated lethality and survivability capabilities.”
The rush to issue an RFP doesn’t leave the Navy enough time to do the in-house feasibility and tradeoff design studies required to be precise and specific about the desired capabilities.
Moreover, issuing an RFP less than a year after initial program approval means there will only be general guidance on the desired extra capabilities of the new LCS. The same is true of costs — without careful in-house studies of the cost consequences of alternative designs and capabilities, the Navy will have little or no basis for judging the cost realism of the proposals they will be receiving.
An RFP with only general guidance means the Navy is almost entirely dependent on the contractors to make decisions about crucial capability tradeoffs and final determination of such things as the ship’s required range, speed, stability, seakeeping, ammunition storage, rate of fire, survivability, reliability and maintainability. Outsourcing to contractors these critical determinations about combat effectiveness would be repeating the mistakes that have resulted in the devastating problems the LCS is suffering today.
The Navy also lacks any plans to revise key mission and performance effectiveness thresholds in order to have contractually binding requirements for new “frigate” contracting. As a consequence, no shipyard can be held accountable if the revised LCSs fail to deliver adequate capabilities.
Cost oversight and accountability will also be further hindered because the Navy appears to have no plans to track costs for the acquisition of new “frigate” LCSs transparently and separately from the cost of the old LCS program and its ongoing and costly fixes.
The Pentagon’s chief tester has warned of exactly these problems. In a recent memo, he states that the Navy’s contracting approach — relying on contractor-generated engineering design specifications rather than on key program requirements — “permits the combat capabilities desired in these follow-on ships to be traded away as needed to remain within the cost constraints.”
In the worst-case-scenario, the new ships could “be delivered with less mission capability than desired and with limited improvements to the survivability of the ship in a combat environment.” The ship could meet all of its key requirements “without having any mission capability.”
The $14 billion program cost incurred by the modified “frigate” buy is so large that it needs to be monitored as a separate major defense acquisition program, not a routine add-on to the existing LCS program. But, the GAO warns, “there are no current plans for official DOD milestone reviews of the frigate program … In addition the Navy does not plan to develop key frigate program documents or to reflect frigate cost, schedule, and performance information in the annual” select acquisition reports.
The history to date of DoD and congressional oversight has been weak, to say the least. If this “frigate” acquisition approach is approved, the Navy will have further weakened accountability and oversight while significantly increasing concurrency and risk.
Program momentum overcomes common sense in Congress
Despite the overwhelming failure and dangerous precedents of the LCS program, Congress is continuing to shovel money into this program. A bipartisan amendment by Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) to strip the money out was blocked from consideration by the House Rules Committee.
In an unusual move for Congress’s auditors, the GAO’s most recent LCS report recommended that Congress zero out funding for 2017 to allow time to devise a responsible, well thought-out approach to managing the new LCS.
Usually Congress resists stopping programs because they are worried about the “industrial base” — code for jobs in their districts. But in this case, the GAO found, those concerns “are less compelling, as both yards will be building LCS currently under contract through fiscal year 2021.”
“Haven’t we done enough for the industrial base?” the GAO asked the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “Isn’t it time for the industrial base to come through for us? Can we get one ship delivered on time? Can we get one ship delivered without cost growth? Can we get one ship delivered without serious reliability and quality problems?”
The presidential election has brought a renewed call from the public to drain the swamp of Washington’s self-dealing habits. Congress has consistently failed to do so, egregiously so in the case of the LCS program where they have rewarded failure by adding money.
If Congress agrees with the Navy that 28 LCSs is enough, they should end production and fully fund an operational test that is as realistic as possible in order to uncover and fix the ship’s many remaining deficiencies.
Rejecting the Navy’s risky block buy approach will be a true test of the new administration’s and the new Secretary of Defense’s commitment to the promised swamp-draining. The block buy approach is simply the foot in the door for committing the taxpayer to spending $14 billion more on LCSs thinly disguised as “frigates” — frigates that will be incapable of executing traditional frigate missions.
Approving this acquisition malpractice when the industrial base already has plenty of work rewards concurrency, technical failures and cost overruns while making contractor oversight and accountability nearly impossible.
If supporting industrial base employment and capability in the years past 2021 remains a high priority, the new Secretary and Congress need to apply out year LCS budget savings to purchasing effective minesweepers that are far more urgently needed than slow, overpriced, under-armed, vulnerable LCS “frigates” without any mine warfare abilities at all.
We should be able to buy four minesweepers for every LCS we cut — or 6.5 for every LCS “frigate” we cancel — and thus more than quadruple the pace to reach a 300-ship Navy.
Focusing our resources on thoroughly testing and fixing the LCSs we’ve already bought and turning around the Navy’s 75-year neglect of mine sweeping will send a clear and welcome signal to the sailors and grunts who have to fight our wars — we care more about their lives than about funding crony contracts and greasing revolving doors.
Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.
Pierre M. Sprey is a co-designer of the F-16 fighter jet, was technical director of the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 concept design team, served as weapons analyst for the Office of the Secretary of Defense for 15 years and has been an active member of the military reform underground for the last 35 years.