NavWeek: Déjà Vu All Over Again



By now the recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) findings on a certain U.S. Navy small-ship program are pretty well known.

Costs and concerns about survivability keep rising and confidence keeps waning in the ship’s capability to fill national defense needs.

Oh, lord, you may be thinking – not another piece about the GAO and the Littoral Combat Ship. But not so fast.

The GAO report in question is the Jan. 3, 1979, statement to Congress on “The Navy's FFG-7 Class Frigate  Shipbuilding Program, and Other Ship Program Issues.”

That’s right – we’re talking about the FFG-7s here, the now-noble Oliver Hazard Perry guided missile frigate-class ships slated to become the backbone of the Navy's sea control in the  mid-1980s and whose missions, or some of them, the LCS vessels are supposed to assume.

“We  have  been  greatly  concerned  over  the  serious  difficulties that  the  Navy's  shipbuilding  program  has  been  experiencing over  the  past  several  years,” the 1979 report says. “As you know, the program has been  characterized by significant cost growth, schedule delays, shipbuilding claims, and deficiencies in the performance  of naval ships. This situation has raised considerable concern about the effectiveness of the program and has resulted in numerous congressional inquiries into the reasons and possible solutions. The lack of significant progress in recent years has affected the Navy's ability to get approval and funding for its recommended ship program and has resulted in concern over the shrinking number of active combat ships.”

Those who have followed the LCS program will note the familiar tone of the FFG-7 report done by the agency then known as the General Accounting Office.

The 1973 estimate for a total program of 50 frigates, GAO notes, was $3.2 billion, with an average unit cost of $63.8 million. The Department of Defense estimated at September 30, 1978, that the cost of a 52-ship FFG-7 program would be $10.1 billion, an average cost per ship of $194 million.

Again, sound familiar? A fleet of 30-60 LCS, the Congressional Research Service said in 2005, might cost $7.5-15 billion. Last year, the Pentagon estimated the price of 55 LCS hulls to be $37.4 billion. Now, a draft GAO report on the program puts the cost as high as $40 billion, with the hull count dropping to 52.

The Cold War-era FFG-7s would cost more, GAO says, because of additional equipment – like a towed sonar, fin stabilizers and electronics – as well as a redesigned stern. The new stern would enable the ships to accommodate the LAMPS-MK III helicopter and related equipment.

Indeed, frigate operations would be developed to depend quite heavily on the helicopter and its associated systems – just like the LCS.

“From the inception of the FFG-7 program, the Navy has recognized a need for a large number of these frigates to replace World War II destroyers retiring from the fleet,” GAO says.  “In order to meet this numerical requirement, stringent design controls were placed on the size and cost of the FFG-7. Keeping down size and cost naturally led to some sacrifices in operational effectiveness.”

For example, instead of the highly capable AN/SQQ-23 sonar initially meant for the ship, the Navy went with the cheaper and less effective AN/SQS-56 sonar – of particular concern for potential antisubmarine missions, GAO points out.

Then there’s this:

The FFG-7 is designed under a logistics support concept that emphasizes reduced shipboard manning. The ship will have a crew of about 70 fewer personnel than the comparable-size frigate currently in operation. The lower manning is attained partly through (1) the use of gas turbine propulsion versus steam power used on previous combatants, and (2) the centralization and automation of the control of weaponry and other equipment.

Again – except for some of the specifics – it sounds like the same tune for a different ship. LCS started with a core crew of 40, which has now been bumped up to about 50.

This sounds familiar as well:

The FFG-7 class frigate was designed under strict cost and weight constraints.  This resulted in a minimum emphasis on providing the ship with protection for carrying out its missions after a ‘low’ level enemy attack (such as aircraft rockets and 3-inch and 5-inch surface ship projectiles.

LCS supporters point to this GAO report about the FFG-7 as an example of a ship that went through some of the same questioning, controversy and growing pains as the would-be lord of the littorals is going through now.

It’s a valid point, but keep this in mind. With the frigates, the Navy had a pretty solid concept of operations (conops) in mind and then added to that as sailors learned what they could do with the ship. LCS has had only a very general and constantly morphing conops that has proven hard to sell even to the officers who would operate the ships.

Another point LCS supporters like to make is that for all of the “survivability” concerns that weighed on the FFG-7s, the ships proved quite robust.

One FFG, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, survived a mine hit in the first Persian Gulf war that crippled but did not sink it.

What saved the ship was the number of people, even in the “reduced” frigate crew, that formed bucket brigades, as well as certain ship designs.

The Congressional Research Service highlights the ship’s mine hit as a reminder of the potential risk facing an LCS with fewer crew members, and a design whose survivability is questioned even by some in the Pentagon.

Navy officials say part of ship survivability is to operate the vessel in such a manner as to keep it mostly out of harm’s way, and that’s what they plan for the LCS.

The Samuel B. Roberts, though, found itself in a minefield despite its best efforts to avoid such a danger. Sometimes risks cannot be altogether avoided – that is the nature of military operations.

Navy officials also brag about the automated systems that would save the LCS, or at least warn the ship’s officers and crew of certain dangers.

“We have thousands of sensors scattered about the ship,” says Cmdr. Timothy Wilke, commanding officer of LCS-1, the USS Freedom, which is deployed in Singapore. “We have redundancies upon redundancies.”

But when a mine or some other weapon takes out the ship’s power, some of those systems may not be as useful as intended, at least not for some time, something else discovered with the Roberts.

One could do this point-and-counter-point exercise all day. Despite all the plans and theories, no one will know how survivable the LCS will be until one of the ships is put to the test, as the FFG-7s were.

And, like the FFG-7, only time will tell if the LCS investment has been worth it. The Navy says the ships and program are a safe bet. It’s up to Congress to decide whether to ante up.

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