GAO Urges U.S. Littoral Combat Ship Delay

LCS 3: USS Fort Worth

By MarEx 2015-12-19 21:37:27

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report calling for a delay to the funding of the nation’s 2016 Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program on Friday after reviewing the vessels’ capabilities. 

In the study, Littoral Combat Ship: Knowledge of Survivability and Lethality Capabilities Needed Prior to Making Major Funding Decisions, the GAO suggests Congress delay funding until the Navy submits a completed rough water trials report, an acquisition strategy and a backfit plan.

What the GAO Found

The lethality and survivability of the LCS is still largely unproven, six years after delivery of the lead ships. LCS was designed with reduced requirements compared to other surface combatants, and the Navy has since lowered several survivability and lethality requirements and removed several design features, making the ship both less survivable in its expected threat environments and less lethal than initially planned. The Navy is compensating for this by redefining how it plans to operate the ships.

In 2014, the Navy conducted its first operational test of an early increment of the surface warfare mission package on a Freedom variant LCS, demonstrating that LCS could meet an interim lethality requirement. The Navy declared LCS operationally effective. However, the Navy's test report stated that the ship did not meet some key requirements. 

Further, the Department of Defense's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation has stated that there is insufficient data to provide statistical confidence that LCS can meet its lethality requirements in future testing or operations, and further testing is needed to demonstrate both variants can meet requirements in varied threat environments.

The Navy also has not yet demonstrated that LCS will achieve its survivability requirements, and does not plan to complete survivability assessments until 2018 after more than 24 ships are either in the fleet or under construction. The Navy has identified unknowns related to the use of aluminum and the hull of the Independence variant, and plans to conduct testing in these areas in 2015 and 2016. However, the Navy does not plan to fully determine how the Independence variant will react to an underwater explosion. 

This variant also sustained some damage in a trial in rough sea conditions, but the Navy is still assessing the cause and severity of the damage, and GAO has not been provided with a copy of the test results. Results from air defense and cybersecurity testing also indicate concerns, but specific details are classified.

In February 2014 the former Secretary of Defense directed the Navy to assess options for a small surface combatant with more survivability and combat capability than LCS. The Navy conducted a study and recommended modifying the LCS to add additional survivability and lethality features. After approving the Navy's recommendation, the former Secretary of Defense directed the Navy to submit a new acquisition strategy for a modified LCS for his approval. He also directed the Navy to assess the cost and feasibility of backfitting lethality and survivability enhancements on current LCS. 

Nevertheless, the Navy has established a new frigate program office to manage this program, and the Navy has requested $1.4 billion for three LCS in the fiscal year 2016 President's budget, even though it is clear that the current ships fall short of identified survivability and lethality needs. GAO has an ongoing review of the Navy's small surface combatant study and future plans for the LCS program.

Sharp Words from Maybus

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the U.S. Navy in a sharply worded memo to buy 12 fewer small littoral combat ships and more fighter jets, electronic warfare equipment and other weapons in the upcoming budget year instead.

If approved by Congress, the changes would have a huge impact on many big weapons makers, including Lockheed Martin Corp and Australia's Austal Ltd, which would have to compete to build eight remaining LCS ships in fiscal 2019.

Carter told Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in the memo dated Tuesday the Navy's proposed budget plan for fiscal 2017 was "unbalanced."

LCS Variants

The LCS class consists of two variants, the Freedom variant and the Independence variant - designed and built by two industry teams. The Freedom variant team is led by Lockheed Martin (for the odd-numbered hulls, e.g. LCS 1). The Independence variant team is being led by Austal USA (for the subsequent even-numbered hulls) and was originally led by General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works (LCS 2 and LCS 4). 

General Characteristics, Freedom variant
Builder: Lockheed Martin
Length: 387.6 ft. (118.1 meters)
Beam: 57.7 ft. (17.6 meters)
Displacement: approximately 3,400 MT full load
Draft: 14.1 ft. (4.3 meters)
Speed: 40+ knots

The GAO report is available here.