In written testimony for the Senate Armed Services committee, Dr. Michael Gilmore, director of operational testing under the Secretary of Defense, said that the shock trials for the Independence and Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships were conducted at "reduced severity" due to concerns about the possibility of damage.
"The Navy argued that the reduced severity approach was necessary because they lacked specific test data and a general understanding of how the non-Grade A systems . . . would respond to shock," he wrote.
In addition, for the test on the Freedom-class vessel, the Navy stopped the shock trials at the second of three shots. The third trial would have shocked the ship with a blast one-third less powerful than the vessel is designed to survive, but the Navy still deemed it to be too risky.
"The Navy viewed the third [Freedom-class] trial as not worthwhile because the Navy was concerned shocking the ship at the increased level of that trial would significantly damage substantial amounts of non-hardened equipment, as well as damage, potentially significantly, the limited amount of hardened equipment, thereby necessitating costly and lengthy repairs," he wrote. The service opted for a simulated third test instead.
Gilmore suggested that the shock trial results were consistent with the LCS' less-hardened design and construction. When combined with the cancelations and delays affecting the platforms' stand-off mission packages, he wrote, the vessels' limited survivability would make them vulnerable in a front-line combat environment.
While future development may improve the LCS, at present it "does not provide a lethal capability in the primary missions it was built for, and given the change in [its role in combat], its design is not survivable in those missions either," Gilmore wrote.
Gilmore asserted that the planned LCS-Frigate design would not yield much improvement over the base model.
Navy defends existing LCS design
The Navy has described the outcome of the shock trials in positive terms, and it has long asserted that the LCS is a critical component of its future fleet. In a joint statement to the Committee, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Commander of Naval Surface Forces, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley asserted that "the LCS program is of critical importance to our Navy." They cited its intended ability to free up other surface combatants for higher-level missions, in addition to its relatively low operating costs.
Rowden and Stackley also provided a detailed account of the two vessel classes' recent propulsion casualties. They reported that two of five occurred due to operator error: the first involved improper setup of a lube oil service system on the USS Fort Worth's combining gear; the second was attributed to a poor fix for a "routine failure" of an attached seawater pump's mechanical seal, which allowed saltwater to enter one of the diesel main engines on the USS Freedom.
Of the remaining three, one failure was due to saltwater contamination of a steering hydraulic system; one to improper shaft alignment; and one to a software control issue affecting a new model of high speed clutch.
Senator McCain calls for acquisition reform
Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services committee and a longtime skeptic of the Littoral Combat Ship program, criticized the Navy for allegedly providing incorrect information regarding the prospects of the LCS and its mission packages. He called on the service to prevent future overruns and shortfalls in its acquisition programs.
"The reason I'm frustrated and other members [of the committee] are is that we can only make decisions based on the information we get. If that information is incorrect or false . . . then how can we function effectively for the people we represent?" McCain said. "I hope that our witnesses understand that we have to bring this to a halt. And fooling around on the fringes has proven to be unsuccessful."
Stackley and Rowden broadly defended the program, and Stackley countered that despite critics' concerns, the LCS and the Frigate variants are the service’s best and most economical option – especially as President-Elect Donald Trump has proposed enlarging the Navy to a 350-vessel fleet.