The ghosts of the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship's (LCS) past still haunt the program – with the specter of LCS-yet-to-come striking fear among some in Congress about what may be in store for the fleet in terms of costs and operational relevance.
Over the past year or so, the Navy has done a yeoman’s job of exorcising some of the evil spirits that seem to have possessed the program, acknowledging soaring cost growth, shoddy shipbuilding, poor quality assurance and a dismal public relations performance.
With the LCS-1 USS Freedom’s deployment to Singapore this spring, it seemed that the Navy had rounded a corner – that it would be able to get the "water under the keel” and the programmatic data it would need to develop the right operational estimates, logistics train and anecdotes it required to re-develop the ship's concept of operations (conops) and arrive at a truer lifecycle cost picture for the program.
But now, with a recent draft U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the program’s progress thus far, some scabs are being peeled back and the Navy is finding itself again in LCS-defense mode as some in Congress seek to call the service to task and even, as GAO suggests, “pause” funding to get a better handle on the situation.
Particularly galling to some in Congress is the report’s Table 5 – “Evolution of Navy Statements About Littoral Combat Ship Capability,” which chronicles the changing narrative of the ship’s concepts and capabilities.
What the table shows, Congressional sources say, is how the Navy has changed its tune throughout the program – so much so, that it may be difficult to trust what service officials have to say now, especially in light of some of the unknowns highlighted in the other tables detailing potential factors that could affect LCS costs and operations.
Here’s the gist of the GAO report Table 5:
Concept: LCS’s capability against adversaries
Early (2004-2008): Primarily developed for use in major combat operations. Will gain initial entry and provide assured access—or ability to enter contested spaces—and be employable and sustainable throughout the battlespace regardless of anti-access or area-denial environments.
Current (2011-2012): Current LCS weapon systems are under-performing and offer little chance of survival in a combat scenario. Not to be employed outside a benign, low-threat environment unless escorted by a multi-mission combatant providing credible anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine protection.
Concept: How LCS will deploy
Early (2004-2008): Will be a self-sufficient combatant.
Current (2011-2012): Lacks the ability to operate independently in combat. Will have to be well protected by multi-mission combatants. Multiple LCSs will likely have to operate in a coordinated strike attack group fashion for mutual support.
Concept: How mission packages swaps will be utilized
Early (2004-2008): Mission packages will be quickly swapped out in an expeditionary theater in a matter of days.
Current (2011-2012): Though a mission package can be swapped within 72 hours if all the equipment and personnel are in theater, swapping out mission packages overseas presents manning and potentially expensive logistical challenges. An LCS executing a package swap could be unavailable for between 12-29 days, and it may take 30-60 days or more for equipment and personnel to arrive in theater.
As the GAO notes, there are some basic developmental differences between LCS and other ship programs.
“LCS 1 and LCS 2 followed an unusual trial and acceptance process. According to the seaframe program office, this was because they were funded as research, development, test, and evaluation ships that were intended for experimentation and the Navy wanted to get them fielded as soon as possible,” GAO says.
“In addition, neither LCS 1 nor LCS 2 has gone through Combat System Ship Qualification Trials, which can be part of operational testing,” GAO says. “These tests represent an opportunity to verify and validate combat and weapon systems performance for new ships, and the Navy and test entities use data collected to issue warfare qualifications and certifications. Navy program officials believe that they have conducted many of these same activities during the developmental testing phase. DOT&E (director of operational testing and evaluation) officials disagree, emphasizing that operational effectiveness and suitability can only be assessed through operational testing.”
Furthermore, GAO points out, DOT&E has reported concerns that the Navy deployed LCS-1 without completing shock qualification of many components, including gas turbines, diesel generators, and switchboards.”
Some of these very systems are those that have been experiencing problems during Freedom deployments.
“Survivability testing is important because it can reveal equipment or system failures that may necessitate class-wide design changes,” GAO says. “The program office’s technical experts have also identified knowledge gaps in areas related to the LCS designs and structure. In particular, 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. It also lacks credible modeling and simulation tools for assessing the vulnerabilities of ships constructed to primarily commercial standards, particularly for aluminum. The Navy plans to complete surrogate tests with aluminum structures in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 to help mitigate these knowledge gaps.”
GAO observes, “LCS is built to a limited survivability standard, and like material support ships, mine countermeasures ships, and patrol combatants, it is not expected to operate in the most severe or hostile environments. DOT&E has reported that the LCS is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment. Program officials state that LCSs meet the survivability requirements to which the ship was designed.”
But also worrisome, Congressional sources say, are potential future issues raised by other tables in the report.
Like this one – “Major Littoral Combat Ship Conceptual Questions Regarding Ship Operations and Seaframe Variants,” which says the following:
Conceptual question: Relative advantages of each seaframe design
Issue: Because the Navy changed its approach from what was to be a limited initial purchase of seaframes followed by experimentation to concurrent acquisition and experimentation, it is currently unknown if the unique design attributes of each seaframe make one or the other more suited to specific mission sets and/or theaters of operation. The Navy acknowledges that the two seaframes are different ship classes with distinct capabilities and limitations that will affect mission tasking and deployment. For example, the former Undersecretary of the Navy and others have posited that the Freedom variant may be better suited to the Middle East region and the SUW (surface warfare) mission given its maneuverability, while the Independence variant may be better suited to the western Pacific region and the ASW (antisubmarine) and MCM (mine countermeasure) missions given its longer range and larger helicopter deck. The Navy has not yet determined if it will down-select to one variant or contract for mission-specific variants.
Conceptual question: Feasibility of the reduced manning
Issue: LCS is intended to operate with a crew that is one-fourth to one-fifth the size of other comparable-sized ships. LCS currently has a core crew of 40, plus 23 aviation detachment crew and 15-19 mission package crew. Internal Navy analysis has shown a concern with high levels of crew fatigue on the LCS due to the higher workload required to compensate for the fewer crew members. The LCS-1 core crew was increased to 50 for the Singapore deployment, and the Navy is considering permanently increasing the core crews to 50 or potentially more to address crew fatigue and workload concerns. The mission module crews may also need to be increased as the Navy gains experience using all three modules.
Conceptual question: Feasibility and mechanics for the novel shore-based contractor maintenance approach
Issue: The Navy is implementing a new maintenance concept for LCS, whereby it will heavily rely upon shore-based contractor and civilian personnel to support and maintain the LCS. The seaframe crew itself will conduct very little preventative maintenance; the Navy envisions doing this work pierside. This approach will result in more complex logistics than is usually required for forward deployed ships, since parts and personnel will have to be forward deployed. This approach is unproven; data gathered on the LCS-1 Singapore deployment will help the Navy to determine whether it will be feasible and cost-effective. If the Navy elects to have the crews conduct more preventative maintenance onboard, it may require additional crew and seaframe design changes to accommodate spare parts storage.
Conceptual question: Mechanics of mission module swaps
Issue: The Navy has not yet determined where mission modules might be forward-staged and how frequently they may be swapped out. In addition to recent wargames demonstrating that these swaps may take longer than initially planned, there is still deliberation on what types of crew qualification testing may be necessary after a swap occurs. Additional qualification testing could in turn require more time after a swap to get the ship back out to sea
And then there’s this table – “Potential Areas of Littoral Combat Ship Operation and Support Cost Uncertainty,” which says:
Reasons for Cost Uncertainty: Evolving support plans
Issue: DOD has not yet approved a revised version of the Navy’s LCS Life Cycle Sustainment Plan. This plan is a summary of the LCS sustainment strategy being developed by the LCS seaframes program office, and it includes discussion about how the LCS will address issues including shore support; replenishment and refueling; maintenance; and training. Changes to any of these areas could impact O&S costs.
Reasons for Cost Uncertainty: Evolving manning levels
Issue: The manpower concept for LCS is a departure from traditional Navy operations. For example, LCS will be the first ship to use such a degree of minimal manning, and one of the first surface combatants to use a rotational crew concept. The Navy has not yet finalized the manning for the different LCS variants and mission modules, and assumptions are still changing. In advance of deployment of LCS 1 to Singapore the Navy added 20 berths to LCS 1 and 10 additional billets to the ship. Manning is the most significant life cycle cost driver for ships.
Reasons for Cost Uncertainty: Heavy reliance on contractor-based maintenance
Issue: Instead of having the ship’s crew perform most preventative maintenance while underway like other ship classes, LCS will return to port periodically for contractor-led maintenance periods. The ship will be unable to conduct most forms of preventative and corrective maintenance at sea, including basic activities like corrosion removal and painting, and will not have many spare parts on board or crew tasked to conducting repairs. For the initial deployments, contractor maintenance personnel will be flown in from the United States. The Navy is operating under an interim support plan contract for this work, but it plans to competitively award a longer-term contract that more fully reflects its support strategy in 2014. Until these contracts are negotiated and signed, the exact scope of work to be performed and the cost of performing it will be unknown. At the same time, the Navy is evaluating shifting some maintenance back to the ship’s crew, which indicates that its strategy is still evolving. Adding crew to conduct maintenance would add to O&S costs, though costs may be offset by reducing reliance on contractors. Further, it is unknown how mission module sensors and systems will be maintained. Some of these systems are sealed units containing sensitive electronics, and the LCS is not envisioned to be equipped with electronics repair technicians or appropriate parts to conduct repairs. It may be that any damaged or malfunctioning systems will have to be removed from the ship and returned to the contractor in the U.S. for repair.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says of course there have been problems with the lead ship of a new class and a totally new concept of building and operating ships. He says it would not surprise him if there are more issues yet to come.
But, he says, the ship’s potential utility and relatively inexpensive cost make the LCS worth the risk.
“The main thing about the LCS is how different it is,” Mabus says. "It’s a matter of difference in how the Navy is acquiring, building and planning to employ the ship.”
But some in Congress can’t help feeling they’ve heard it all before – or at least some version of it. The question now is whether lawmakers are willing to make the same bet again, hoping the Navy is on the right course this time.