MILWAUKEE — A federal watchdog agency and at least two key lawmakers are questioning the wisdom of the U.S. Navy’s $40 billion littoral combat ship program, which is supporting thousands of jobs and has already injected hundreds of millions of dollars into Wisconsin’s economy.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office says the warships — which cost up to $480 million each and are under construction in Marinette and in Mobile, Ala. — might not perform as expected. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is among the lawmakers expressing serious reservations about the program.
So far, two of the ships have been built by Wisconsin’s Marinette Marine under a contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. Four more are under construction in Marinette, and two more are under contract for construction there in 2015.
The littoral program has been dogged by problems, including early cost overruns. The completed ships have suffered from mechanical problems as well as from delays in producing switchable mission modules aimed at making the ships adaptable to varied types of warfare.
Testing has revealed deficiencies with “core ship systems,” according to the July 25 GAO report, which says Congress should consider restricting funding for additional littoral combat ships until the Navy completes technical and design studies.
Littoral combat ships are meant to be fast and capable of operating in shallow waters close to shore in places such as the Persian Gulf.
“We continue to believe that the acquisition approach for this program, with large quantities of ships and modules being bought ahead of key test events, is risky, especially for a new class of ship like LCS,” Paul Francis, a GAO official, said in recent testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee looking into the program.
“The current LCS program is not the program envisioned over a decade ago,” Francis said, adding the Navy still doesn’t know how well the ships will perform their missions, how well the unique crew and maintenance concepts will work, or how much it will cost to equip and support the ships.
Further, the Navy is still considering changes to the ships and determining whether there are advantages to having two radically different designs – one built by Lockheed and Marinette, and the other by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.
“These are things the Navy and Congress should know before contracting for more than half of the ships,” Francis said.
The Navy wants to buy 52 of the high-speed warships over 15 years at a cost of more than $40 billion, including the expense of add-on mission modules.
For the initial 20 ships, the work is being divided between Marinette and Austal, creating thousands of jobs at the shipyards and their suppliers, and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the surrounding communities.
Initially, the program experienced cost overruns that doubled the cost per vessel. USS Freedom, the first littoral ship built by Marinette, suffered several setbacks, including a 6-inch crack in the hull, a failed gas turbine, problems with the jet propulsion system and a leak in the port-shaft seal that caused flooding inside the vessel.
In late July, USS Freedom took another hit when it was forced back to its base in Singapore for maintenance while participating in international training exercises.
The ship briefly lost propulsion but never lost complete power, according to the Navy, which later said the problem resulted from the diesel generators’ overheating and shutting down.
McCain took aim at the program in July 30 remarks on the Senate floor. The Navy plans to purchase many, if not most, of the ships before knowing whether they will work as advertised, he said.
“The decision to deploy USS Freedom prior to the completion of critical developmental and operational testing may be good salesmanship on the part of the Navy. But the current plan to buy more than half of the total LCS fleet prior to the completion of operational testing plainly contradicts defense acquisition guidelines and best procurement practices – and amounts to a case of ‘buy before you fly,’ to borrow a phrase from aircraft acquisitions,” McCain said.
“In terms of actual cost and cost to our national security, we simply cannot afford to continue committing our limited resources to an unproven program that may eventually account for more than a third of the surface-combatant fleet,” McCain said.
Another key lawmaker, U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, also questioned the program, noting that concerns have been raised about the “survivability” of the ships in combat.
The Navy, however, says it’s not backing away from the littoral combat ship and its plug-and-play mission modules, which are to be loaded on the vessels for specific missions such as sweeping for mines, hunting submarines and defeating fast attack boats in coastal waters.
Even if the modules can’t be switched out in several days, as originally anticipated, the ships will be adaptable to new tactics and technologies, according to Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, who has defended the program.
Some of the cost overruns and mechanical problems with USS Freedom were to be expected for a ship that’s the first of its kind, Marinette Marine says.
About 80 percent of the improvements the Navy wanted after early reviews of the Freedom were included in the construction of the next ship, USS Fort Worth, said Joe North, vice president of the LCS program at Lockheed Martin.
The Fort Worth was delivered two months ahead of schedule in June 2012 and was on budget at a price of $360 million, according to North.
The shipbuilding program has resulted in thousands of jobs at Marinette and 700 suppliers in 43 states, including more than 120 Wisconsin companies. At its peak in 2014, the program is expected to support up to 13, 000 jobs.
About 90 percent of the 1,400 Marinette Marine shipyard employees are working on the littoral combat ships, according to the company, which has only one other ship, an Alaskan fisheries research vessel, under construction.
“We are basically focused on giving the Navy what we promised. I can’t speculate on what Congress might decide to do or not do, but we are going to deliver ships as promised and continue to make improvements and increase efficiencies,” North said.
The GAO report is the latest red flag that’s been raised about the program.
A confidential Navy report completed last year, and obtained by Bloomberg News, warned that the ships may not be able to perform their missions because they’re too lightly staffed and armed. The Navy has since increased staffing levels on the ship by 25 percent, to 50 crew members.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., says the Navy has told him the LCS program is a high priority even as the Department of Defense faces billions of dollars in sequestration-related budget cuts.
“They acknowledged there were problems with the first ships built, but they’re still very supportive of the mission,” Johnson said.
It would take a lot to sink the program at this point, given that the Navy has already committed billions of dollars and years worth of work, according to some Washington insiders.
“Everyone agrees there are important issues that need to be worked out. But I think the Navy is confident they can remedy them over time,” said John Rogers, a former high-ranking Department of Defense official and now president of Capstone National Partners, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm.
Slowing down the program would be the worst mistake the Navy could make, said Robert Work, former undersecretary of the Navy from 2009 to 2013.
“Everything about this ship is different. So we shouldn’t be surprised that we are learning as we go, because it’s such a different kettle of fish,” Work said.
But some other experts disagree, including Norman Polmar, who has been an adviser or consultant to three U.S. secretaries of the Navy and two chiefs of Naval Operations.
The littoral combat ship was a great concept that’s been poorly executed, according to Polmar, who says that nine years into the program, none of the original three mission modules is ready for production.
“I am really opposed to this project because of the way it has been managed. We should stop producing the ships right now, put the program on hold, and immediately convene an objective Navy and civilian review group to look at the whole program and decide what to do,” Polmar said.
Canceling the program, or putting it on hold, could result in heavy job losses at the shipyards and their suppliers. It would have a significant impact throughout northeast Wisconsin, said Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board in Green Bay.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, in a recent letter to Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, underscored the importance of the program and urged that it not be canceled.
“Some in Congress are considering amending the National Defense Authorization Act to stop or disrupt production of the littoral combat ships. I respectfully request that you oppose those efforts,” Walker wrote.
But it doesn’t make sense to continue pouring billions of dollars into a flawed program just because the Navy is already deep into it, according to Polmar.
“The basic concept is flawed,” he said. “And when you add to that the costs, the delays, and the fact that the Navy is buying two designs of these ships . I am far from impressed.”
For now, the program continues: Last Friday, the Navy announced that the next littoral ship to be built in Marinette — contingent on congressional approval — will be named USS Indianapolis, after the World War II ship famous for escorting convoys and attacking submarines.