NavWeek: Stacking the Deck


I have to admit it – I just love to watch U.S. Navy Assistant Secretary Sean Stackley testify before Congress, on anything.

It is not so much what he says – although there’s something to be said for that, too – as the way he says it. He commands presence and respect with his very demeanor, along with his ability to reel off facts and figures without seeming to pause for a breath.

He always seems collected. He is the consummate front man, the kind of guy who says, “Trust me,” and well, you can’t help but think that might just be wisest course of action.

But Stackley had his work cut out for him July 25. Appearing at a House Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing on the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, the assistant secretary not only had to defend the first ships and the program as a whole, but also sell lawmakers on the idea they should keep up the planned block buy of the vessels despite a very detailed and thorough U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released that day arguing that the nation should go slower on the purchasing and ramp up on the testing – especially in light of the program's missteps thus far.

The performance was pure Stackley. He knows this stuff inside and out and he has that ability to flaunt that knowledge without seeming to be condescending.  

“I've been involved with every lead ship since the late '70s that the U.S. Navy has fielded, either as a sailor, as a designer, as a production manager, as a program manager, as an oversight member in the Senate Armed Services Committee and in this job,” Stackley reminded lawmakers. “This is the way we bring ships to the fleet. We do not have a prototype. LCS-1 is the prototype for this class. That's the way ships are built and fielded.”

With his pedigree – and the way he says such things – you just feel it all has to be true. Never mind that there’s an inconsistency here: saying the Navy fields ships without prototypes and then calling the Freedom a prototype.

Never mind, too, that even Navy Secretary Ray Mabus acknowledges the Navy has never before sent an experimental-operational-research-and-development ship out for deployment with sailors to a place like Singapore.

The Navy’s never had such a ship before, the brass says.

Still, Stackley’s point is well taken. Building Navy ships is not like constructing an aircraft. You don’t generally take and designate a warship as a purely experimental prototype to blow up and knock apart. A lead ship like the Freedom is going to have its problems as it gets water under the keel and sailors are going to figure out what those problems are and fix them, not only for the Freedom but for follow-on LCS vessels as well.

But, as Stackley noted time and again in the hearing, the Freedom has become particularly beset with all kinds of problems and the LCS program as a whole tripped and fell right out of the starting gate. The effort has been a litany of higher costs, production delays and operational miscues.

But now the Navy has it all fixed, Stackley says. Trust us.

The problem is that lawmakers have heard this before.

In his testimony before the subcommittee, Paul Francis, GAO's managing director for acquisition and sourcing management, noted about the LCS program, “We made a recommendation in August 2010 that because operational testing was slipping – there were some problems with the mission modules at that point, and the ships and the modules were kind of getting out of sync – we recommended to the department [that it] re-sequence these and get them back in line so that you know what the combined capability of the seaframes and the mission modules are before you get into operational testing. Now the department agreed with that. But since then, the seaframes, if anything, have gone faster, the modules slower.”

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) asked, “So they agree, but then they don't follow through with what they say?”

Francis said, “No. The strategy they embarked on was a different strategy than what we had recommended.”

Which prompted Speier to ask, rather rhetorically, “So how do we trust anything?”

And this is the big question. While it understandable that a ship like Freedom will have its issues, it is not nearly as fathomable why Navy officials, until rather recently, have opted to hide many of those problems.

There is no doubt the Navy has been transparent about Freedom’s idiosyncrasies – and LCS programmatic issues writ large – for the past several months. At times, Stackley seemed downright penitent during the hearing.

But trust is easily lost and hard to win back. It has to be re-earned in increments. Even if you’ve got Assistant Secretary Sean Stackley making the case.

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