The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) mission-module-and-package components are much further along than the U.S. Navy has publicly acknowledged. But government analysts worry the integration work for those systems will be more difficult than anticipated and operational testing could reveal problems that could prove costly and time-consuming, especially over the life of the ship class.
While Navy officials agree integration will be hard and more issues will likely surface during testing, they say the program has already surmounted the truly tough technology hurdles and they see no problems in bringing the LCS mission modules, packages and equipment to the fleet as scheduled.
“In general, I feel pretty good about technical risk,” says Capt. John Ailes, the Navy officer recently selected to be admiral who is in charge of LCS integration efforts. “Are there problems? Sure. But are there any violations of physics here? The answer is no.”
Aviation Week conducted a series of on-site interviews in late July with Navy officials and contractor, the prime contractor for the first-of-class LCS, the , and also the provider of the linchpin technology and equipment for the mine countermeasures (MCM) module packages the Navy is focusing on now.
LCS is slated to comprise about half the Navy’s future surface fleet. The service plans to buy 52 LCS ships at an estimated procurement cost of $40 billion. The odd-numbered LCS seaframes are produced by Lockheed Martin, while the even-numbered ships are manufactured by a team led by Austal USA and.
The mission modules, packages and equipment have become the focus of LCS scrutiny in recent weeks. At a July 25 House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing on the LCS program, Navy officials, analysts and lawmakers made it clear that as the seaframes move more into a production run, the emphasis is shifting toward making sure the mission modules and related equipment can meet their requirements, cost goals and schedules.
Without successful mission-module development and integration, LCS vessels are little more than pumped-up, nice-looking ships that can go fast. The design for the class calls for relatively small, light hulls that can be outfitted for a variety of missions with module packages that can be switched in and out within 72 hr. No other naval ship is designed and built to be operated this way.
The success of LCS rests upon a tripod of seaframes, mission modules and operational concepts. “Of the three, the seaframes are the furthest along,” Paul Francis, U.S.(GAO) managing director for acquisition and sourcing management, testified before the HASC.
GAO’s LCS report, released the day of the hearing, called the Navy’s acquisition approach “risky.” The service, GAO notes, is buying early increments of LCS mission modules without defined requirements or a clear idea of their cost, schedule, and performance goals. This is despite the fact that developmental testing had already identified problems with system performance. “Concerns persist about the overall effectiveness of each module,” GAO said.
GAO acknowledges the Navy is buying LCS vessels and modules under “an evolutionary” strategy that adds upgrades and improvements over time. But, investigators warn, “By the time the Navy demonstrates that it can meet the threshold requirements identified in the LCS programs’ capability development document in the final increments, it will have already bought 24 MCM (mine warfare) and SUW (surface warfare) mission modules.”
The Navy continues to buy LCS seaframes and modules, GAO says, “even as significant questions remain about the program and its underlying business case .... By the time key tests of integrated LCS capability and survivability are completed in several years, the Navy will have procured or put under contract more than half of the planned number of seaframes ... Key elements of the business case on which the LCS program was predicated have degraded, remain unproven, and continue to evolve.”
As a result, GAO says, the Navy’s estimate for LCS total life cycle costs ranges from approximately $108 billion to $170 billion. Despite all of this, GAO’s Francis agrees with Navy officials that ship production and costs are under control, and the design is “in pretty good shape.”
However, he says, “On the mission modules, they’ve had a much tougher go of it. They have not done that well in testing. There’s quite a bit to go yet on the mission modules. And I wouldn’t say that the configuration of the modules, particularly the mine countermeasures, is stable at this point.”
At the Florida facilities working on the module equipment, Navy and Lockheed officials spoke candidly to Aviation Week about the major obstacles they have had to overcome, their successes thus far and the significant issues they still have to face. They acknowledge they still have a long way to go, but they say it will not be as difficult as the GAO and others say it will be.
As with many things in the LCS program, mission module development is haunted by the past.
“Oh my God did we do the requirements quickly, and did we deliver it fast,” Ailes says. The problem, he says, is that systems weren’t as mature as Navy officials had believed. “We’ve had do to some work finishing them.”
One module-related setback LCS suffered early on was the loss of its surface warfare missile when the Army canceled the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS) program.
“I take a lot of flak because of [the] Army’s NLOS program,” Ailes says. “NLOS was always was going to deliver in 2017. People say, ‘14 is over and NLOS is gone.’ But I say, NLOS was never [scheduled] to be there [by] now.”
The Navy now has plans to use the Griffin missile, which, Ailes says, recently proved it can do the job during Patrol Craft (PC) tests. “We have the Griffin launchers,” Ailes says. “They’re the same as PCs, so we could go drop them in.”
The program is still open to other missile contenders, however. “There is no shortage of people knocking on the door saying, ‘Hey, you should use my missile. Here’s what it does,’” Ailes says. “What we like about Griffin is it was proven and it was cheap, and I could do [it] very quickly. But what we really want to go with is longer range, more capability and more firepower. By the end of this calendar year we’ll decide. When the new budget goes out, we’ll see.”
Some program officials say certain missile system candidates come from classified programs.
Other module components, like the remote mine-hunting system (RMS) — a centerpiece of the MCM package — have been programs of record for several years without getting into the fleet. “We lost a lot of credibility on that,” Ailes says. “People said the RMS was supposed to be on DDGs [destroyers] years ago. But they changed the plan. The RMV [remote mine-hunting vehicle] we have today is very different than that RMV in terms of the sonar it’s going to bring [and] the radio it’s going to have, but mostly in the reliability it’s going to demonstrate.”
The RMS suffered a Nunn-McCurdy unit cost-growth breach a few years ago when the Navy halved the buy after it decided against using the RMV for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions off LCS. “Their quantities went down and their price went up,” Ailes says. “At the same time, they did have some problems with availability.”
The RMV is performing better now, he says, but the Navy is looking to receive and test sonar upgrades this year. “The Q20 sonar is pretty old,” Ailes says. “It finds mines; the problem is reliability. The thing’s just terrible, after 35 hours, it would die.”
The Navy is also working on improvements to the RMV capture spine — the equipment that helps launch and recover the RMV. “It was designed for DDGs,” he says. “It just didn’t have all the degrees of freedom you need to have [for LCS].”
“The Navy was looking for capability,” says Stephen Froelich, director and general manager of mission and unmanned systems for Lockheed Martin, which developed the RMV. “The decision was made [about five years ago] to move it off the DDGs.”
While the essential operations are the same, Froelich says, he points out that the DDGs are larger and had more sailors to maneuver the RMV. The unmanned underwater vehicle also was recovered via a side door on the destroyer, while LCS operations call for it to be brought aboard the stern, where interaction between the ship and sea is different.
After some early public miscues during launches and recoveries off, the USS Independence, operations are going more smoothly now, Froelich says. “The sailors are now trained and they are much more comfortable with the system,” he says.
The LCS-1/USS Freedom class of ships is configured differently, he says, and will require some tweaks in the operations.
Ailes now points to the RMV as an example of an LCS module turnaround success story. “It’s come a long, long way,” he says.
Froelich says, “They put together a reliability growth program about three years ago. We modeled the entire system, and rerouted the cable and rerouted the hydraulics to make it more accessible for maintenance purposes so technicians could reach in there a lot easier to make it a lot more maintenance-friendly. It’s a much cleaner system, much more open. We’ve meet every milestone that’s been put in front of us.”
Lockheed has also made launch-and-recovery improvements, Froelich says. “The sail is very much better. We’ve upgraded the software to ensure it comes in on a much smoother glide. It’s much more controllable. And the sailors are getting better.” That said, “No shipboard evolution doesn’t have an element of danger,” he adds. “It’s about minimizing your risk.”
Tracy Nye, Navy warfare analyst, says in recent tests the Navy operated RMVs andSea Hawk helicopters outfitted with different MCM sensors. “Most of the launches were missions,” she says. “We deployed the sonar and looked for mines. We changed out the head on the sonar.”
The tests show, she says, that LCS can conduct detect-to-engage mine warfare with the current module equipment.
Ailes adds, “We have high confidence the RMS will find the mines. ... But it isn’t enough to have any one of your subcomponents working. It has to work all together on the ships.”
That is happening now with the surface warfare package on Freedom, he says, which is now in Asia. “We’re out in deployment, we’re shooting the guns — the 30 mm gun off the.”
The ship’s large Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat, he says, has also been a big hit in naval circles. And even the components for ASW, he says, are performing better in developmental testing.
There are some issues, though. Lockheed, for example, now has to get its RMV wired up for the Navy’s new Multivehicle Communications System (MVCS), which is meant to better link service ships and assets.
“It’s like an adaptive Wi-Fi,” Ailes says. “It’s a little fancier, We’re sea testing right now. We’ll work through all of that.”
He says, “You will often hear, ‘This is now an integration program.’ [Some may wonder], what the heck does that mean? Integration can mean a thousand things. In our program, we mean all of them. We mean software integration. We mean hardware integration. We mean seams between different organizations.”
One of the biggest concerns now, Navy officials say, is training. That is especially important for an LCS that features a core hull crew, a mission-module crew and an aviation crew that often do not get a chance to work together until they arrive on the ship.
But Ailes likens the LCS program to a woebegone college football team that has finally begun to string some victories together. “Our team has started to win, but no one believes [it],” he says. “We really believe we are going to the Rose Bowl.”
GAO and the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (&E) say significant issues still remain. The biggest problem, they say, is that LCS vessels and modules have failed to complete the tests necessary to make sure they can operate as they are supposed to, that they do indeed meet Navy requirements and are worth the investment. And all systems are behind schedule for initially planned fielding dates, GAO notes.
Neither the Freedom-class nor the Independence-class ships have gone through Combat System Ship Qualification Trials, which can be part of operational testing. These tests represent an opportunity to verify and validate combat and weapon systems performance for new ships.
Navy program officials say they conducted many of these same activities during the developmental testing phase. DOT&E officials disagree, emphasizing that operational effectiveness and suitability can only be assessed through operational testing.
“Survivability testing is important because it can reveal equipment or system failures that may necessitate class-wide design changes,” GAO says. “The Navy is not satisfied that it understands how the aluminum used on both variants will respond to shock and fire, or how the Independence-class trimaran hull will react to underwater shocks.”
Meanwhile, the “limited testing” so far has revealed deficiencies with core ship systems on both variants, GAO says, such as performance problems with the 57-mm guns, the integrated capability of the combat systems and the radars’ ability to identify and maintain a fix on targets.
Testing also has revealed multiple “single points of failure” — i.e., systems lacking redundancy that could result in a system shutdown — on both LCS versions, GAO says. This problem could become more pronounced in mission module testing, the auditors say.
Developmental testing thus far — specially for the systems comprising the MCM module — has shown continued performance problems, according to GAO. Some of these systems do not meet their own performance requirements, which does not provide assurance that LCS-specific threshold requirement targets will be met when they are operated together in a mission module.
Internal Navy studies and wargames have also raised concerns about the overall effectiveness of each module based on inherent seaframe or module limitations, according to GAO.
While the Navy program office believes that each module increment will provide more capability than the systems they are slated to replace — with the MCM and SUW modules expected to improve significantly between increments I and IV — DOT&E officials told GAO they do not believe the Navy has adequate knowledge about how integrated mission module systems onboard an LCS will perform in an operational environment to be certain.
Very few of the MCM module capabilities have been effectively demonstrated, GAO says, adding that the Navy has canceled two key systems due to safety concerns, reduced key performance requirement thresholds for average mine clearance rates in early increments, and modified operational tactics, such as requiring multiple searches to correlate results, which makes it longer to do the missions. GAO also notes the Navy is using a new mine-clearance metric that makes the system’s performance difficult to compare with legacy systems.
Ailes acknowledges the Navy altered tactics because of helicopter safety concerns — after first proving it could operate systems as initially planned. And the Navy says the multiple searches are meant to do the mission more effectively. As for the new metric, the Navy says it is a proven, more reliable system for confidently predicting a mine-clearing rate and it is what the acquisition community wanted.
“It has nothing to do with mission packages,” Ailes says. “It has everything to do with mine warfare.”
While Navy and Lockheed officials acknowledge some risk with further LCS mission module development, they say the payoff will be worth the price, allowing for more effective mine-warfare missions, for example, than could be dreamed of with current equipment. They also say their testing proves they are on course.
“Increment 1, that’s what we have today,” Ailes says. “By Increment 3, we’ll be able to neutralize mines throughout the water column and then sweep. Increment 4 will give us another capability we don’t have today: finding buried mines.”
GAO notes that ships can sweep for mines now, but Ailes points out the vessels have to go into the minefield to do the mission. “We’ll get those ships out of the minefield. That’s what we’re talking about. RMS and helicopters — that’s what makes it possible.”
The Navy is also looking to add synthetic aperture sonars to its MCM package, Lockheed’s Froelich says.”It’s just like a SAR [synthetic aperture radar], only it’s a SAS. It’s more information, so it needs a larger pipe.”
Navy officials say GAO is nitpicking, overstating issues and failing to acknowledge the success the service and Lockheed have made thus far. Not only has the service and contractor solved significant problems — like RMS reliability — but they have also resolved nuts-and-bolts integration issues.
“All of the equipment in the mission bay — that was first integrated on LCS on [presentation] slides,” Nye says. “But we get on the ship, the door doesn’t open far enough because it bangs into something we didn’t know was there. That was our first series of LCS functionality tests. Those went on for about a year. You really do find some little things that you have to work around or work over.”
Ailes agrees. “On every ship, when you bring anything on, it’s never in accordance with the drawing,” he says. “In integration, that’s what you discover.”
Navy officials say GAO, and sometimes the DOT&E, simply do not understand or appreciate some of the technological underpinnings of the LCS systems, and the real importance of that technology to mine warfare.
“The hard part is in peacetime to know what will happen in wartime,” Ailes says. “That’s what their job is — to hold you accountable so that when war comes we can feel good about it.”
He agrees that there is a risk of equipment not working as planned. But the testing the LCS program has done thus far indicates the ship and modules will function, he says.
“When I was in ballistic missile defense, they said, ‘You’ll never hit a bullet with a bullet,’” he recalls. “And when we did it, they said, ‘You’re never do it again.’ What’s the GAO say? ‘You did it 26 times, but you’ll never do it the 27th. Then, ‘It’s not threat-representative.’ Now we got the real threat. Then it was, ‘Well, they might change.’ Yeah, they might.”
He says, “DOT&E guys — they’re smart, but they don’t know anything about mine warfare. There’s basic knowledge you’ve got to have.” Also, he says, DOT&E reports often fail to acknowledge the progress the program has made through the years.
One senior Navy LCS official characterizes GAO as made up of auditors who fail to grasp the technical aspects of the program and only concern themselves with saving money.
GAO officials note members of Congress are not technical experts either, but they need to understand the ships, systems and operations well enough to approve or disapprove of funding and program plans. Part of that understanding comes from advice, guidance and reviews by organizations like GAO. The congressional auditing agency says it is only recommending that lawmakers take prudent steps to safeguard taxpayer money while the Navy continues to buy LCS vessels and related equipment.
GAO wants the Navy and Congress to slow down LCS acquisitions until the ships and modules complete the testing deemed necessary by the agency, DOT&E and federal law. Based on those tests and related reviews, the service and lawmakers should study the program to see which hulls, systems and modules are worth the investment.
But the Navy contends the GAO recommendations are not that different from the course the service is following. “How many should we buy?” Ailes asks. “They say, ‘Maybe a couple a year.’ Well, that’s what we’re doing.”
GAO says Navy officials will not commit to a slower production rate, and investigators worry there could be significant problems that require rework found during module testing.