May 7 (Bloomberg) — U.S. Navy leaders were warned last year that a $37 billion program to build Littoral Combat Ships can’t meet its promised mission because the vessels are too lightly manned and armed, according to a confidential report.
“This review highlights the gap between ship capabilities and the missions the Navy will need LCS to execute,” said the report prepared last year for the Navy by Rear Admiral Samuel Perez. “Failure to adequately address LCS requirements and capabilities will result in a large number of ships that are ill-suited to execute” regional commanders’ warfighting needs.
The 36-page report obtained by Bloomberg News is at odds with assurances from Navy leaders that their project is on course to deliver a small, speedy and adaptable ship intended to patrol waters close to shore.
The review, requested by Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, echoes findings by critics inside the Pentagon who deride the vessel. The report, stamped “confidential draft,” found that the plans to swap equipment needed for different missions are impractical, the vessel’s width may prevent it from docking in some ports, and the decision to proceed with two versions complicates logistics and maintenance.
A steel-hulled version of the vessel is being made in Marinette, Wisconsin, by a team led by Lockheed Martin Corp., and an aluminum trimaran is being built in Mobile, Alabama, by a group led by Austal Ltd.
The review is dated March 9, 2012, and labeled as “not subject to” disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. It remains relevant today because its findings, and those of three other internal reviews, formed the nucleus of an “LCS Council” that Greenert set up last year to improve the program. The council’s charter was renewed and expanded in March of this year.
Representative James Moran cited the Bloomberg News report on the LCS assessment at a hearing today of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, saying Perez “addresses some of the issues that some of us have raised.”
The combat ships “are only marginally useful,” said Moran, a Virginia Democrat. “We are now in the context of sequestration where we’re furloughing folks, we’re cutting back on programs, so I do think we need to address the appropriateness of putting this much money” into the Littoral Combat Ship.
Asked by lawmakers about the Perez report, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the ship started out as a “mess” and has “become one of our best-performing programs.” He praised “two great shipbuilders” and said the vessels are now “coming out under budget and on time.”
Greenert said the “study is over a year old — we’ve done a lot since then.”
In the report, Perez said “the first step in ‘getting LCS right’ is to determine the correct concept of operations.” He said the Navy advertises’’ the vessel as a replacement for frigates, patrol craft and countermine ships and “drafted the initial concept of operations accordingly.”
While the Perez report said the Navy must deal with the major problems outlined “as soon as practical,” it didn’t recommend canceling the program or cutting its numbers. The report said the LCS has “the potential to be a remarkable ship” and the use of mission modules to swap armaments can prove an “outstanding asset.”
The Perez review, along with the three other assessments and wargames, “identified areas where the program needed improvement and further development,” said Lieutenant Junior Grade Caroline Hutcheson, a Navy spokeswoman.
The Navy has 20 vessels under contract out of a planned fleet of 52. Construction costs have doubled to $440 million per ship from an original goal of $220 million.
The Navy is requesting $2 billion to buy four more in fiscal 2014, half from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed and half from Henderson, Australia-based Austal.
“LCS will stand up to the scrutiny,” Representative Jo Bonner, a Alabama Republican who represents Mobile where the Austal vessel is built, said today in an interview. “I welcome it.”
Key to the Littoral Combat Ship’s success is fulfilling its planned capability of switching within 96 hours the vessel’s weapons modules for missions, such as finding mines, conducting anti-submarine operations and waging surface warfare.
The confidential report found, though, that the 96-hour goal doesn’t represent the entire process of switching weapons modules. The clock only starts when the module and everything ready to support it are dockside, the report said.
One wargame demonstrated that “getting all of the right people and equipment on station to conduct the exchange could take several weeks,” according to the report, and that process “removed LCS from the tactical fight.”
The concept of swapping equipment modules “no longer has the tactical utility envisioned by the original designers,” it found.
A March 29 Navy memo expanding Greenert’s advisory council said the LCS’s “requirements, rapid acquisition and innovative manning and sustainment strategies pose unique challenges” as it’s introduced into the fleet.
The council “will rapidly and decisively resolve impediments” to the success of the LCS, “determine the way forward for the future evolution of capabilities and inform senior” leaders of “key issues which require decisions at the highest level,” according to the memo.
The Perez report recommends that the Navy reconsider its plan to have as few as 40 sailors per vessel whose mission is to run the ship because it “compounds the problems of executing” the service’s intended operations. Having so few produces a “very fragile” operating environment, according to the report.
“Crew interviews confirmed fatigue levels setting in by the third day of normal LCS operations,” the report found. “The minimal-manning level and subsequent fatigue result in significant operational and safety impacts, with notable degradation of crew readiness, performance levels and quality of life.”
The Navy’s LCS Council is reviewing the manpower requirement to include lessons from the current eight-month deployment to Singapore of the USS Freedom, the first completed Littoral Combat Ship.
The Perez report also highlights the vessel’s limited combat capability. The Navy has acknowledged that the vessels are being built to the service’s lowest level of survivability, a Pentagon-approved decision that sought to balance cost and performance.
The ship “is not expected to be survivable in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, said in a January report.
Even in its surface warfare role, when all armaments are working as intended, the vessel “is only capable of neutralizing” small, fast-attack boats and it “remains vulnerable to ships” with anti-ship cruise missiles that can travel more than five miles (8 kilometers), according to the Perez report. Iran has 67 such vessels, according to a chart in the report.
The Littoral Combat Ship is “ill-suited for combat operations against anything but” small, fast boats not armed with anti-ship missiles, the Perez report found.
Also, the 104-foot (32-meter) beam, or widest width, on the second LCS, a trimaran, “may be a navigational challenge in narrow waterways and tight harbors,” according to the report.
Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.