By Tony Capaccio
(Bloomberg) — Confronted with equipment breakdowns and harried crews, the U.S. Navy is moving to simply and stabilize operations of its troubled Littoral Combat Ship.
In its effort to revamp the $29 billion program, the service will use the first four ships for more extensive testing, reduce the rotation of crew members and de-emphasize the swapping of missions and equipment that was supposed to be a hallmark of the vessels.
“When I took a step back,” visited vessels and talked to sailors “I saw complexity, I saw instability” and saw commanders “pulled in 15 different directions,” Vice Admiral Tom Rowden, chief of Naval Surface Forces, said in an interview at the Pentagon after a briefing Thursday for reporters.
The ship, built in two versions by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Austal Ltd. and designed to operate in shallow coastal waters, has been criticized for its reliability flaws, limited combat power and uncertain ability to survive in combat.
Among steps Rowden announced:
To improve esprit de corps, the Navy will reduce to two from three the number of 70-member crews that will be rotated on and off ships every four to five months so they will spend more time on a vessel. The ships will be organized under divisions focusing on just one of three major missions — mine detection, land attacks and submarine-hunting. The original concept for the Littoral Combat Ship was for equipment “modules” that could be swiftly switched out as needed, an idea that so far has looked better on the drawing board than in operation. Each sailor involved in engineering on board a ship will be tested and retrained.
“The Navy needs to do this because the LCS is different from previous classes of Navy surface combatants, and because the LCS program was initiated years ago under a rapid-acquisition strategy, which left little time back then to work these issues out,” Ronald O’Rourke, the naval forces analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an e-mail.
“As the class expands and matures, the Navy will continue to refine its concept for how to crew, operate, and maintain these ships,” O’Rourke said.
Rowden was directed in February to undertake the program review — at least the fifth since 2012 — partly because two of the first vessels experienced propulsion-system failures, in December with the USS Milwaukee and in January with the USS Fort Worth. The Fort Worth was sidelined in port in Singapore for eight months.
Two more vessels experienced failures in July and August.
Rowden said it was timely to review the program as deliveries of vessels are set to accelerate. Six of 28 ships now planned have been delivered.
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