Corroding Littoral Combat Ship Faces Lawmakers’ Questions

Lawmakers say they want Congress’s auditing agency to investigate how the Navy has handled failings with its new Littoral Combat Ship, including when the service learned of cracks and corrosion.

“It’s disturbing the Navy would accept a ship that fails to meet the basic requirements for a tugboat,” Representative Jackie Speier said in a statement yesterday as the House Armed Services Committee endorsed her request that the Government Accountability Office review the $37 billion, 55-ship program. “The future of the fleet is corroding before our eyes.”

The Littoral Combat Ship is intended to clear mines, hunt for submarines, defend itself against swarming small vessels and provide humanitarian relief in shallow coastal waters. Cracks were found in a version being built by a team led by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) Corrosion was found in the first vessel made by Austal Ltd. (ASB) and General Dynamics Corp. (GD) The review would involve both models.

The amendment by Speier, a California Democrat, was adopted during the House committee’s consideration of legislation to authorize defense programs for fiscal 2013. The Senate has yet to take up its version of the bill.

Even with demands for more scrutiny of the Littoral Combat Ship, the full committee supported the $2.2 billion requested by the Navy for the next four vessels, including $429.4 million in development funds, in the defense authorization measure it approved today. The House defense appropriations subcommittee also has approved funding for the four ships.

Support ‘Remains Solid’

“Our impression is that congressional support remains solid,” Rear Admiral James Murdoch, the program executive officer, told reporters yesterday on a conference call. “Obviously, I am held accountable for any concerns about ship construction issues, and I welcome the scrutiny. We take all issues seriously.”

Republican Representative Reid Ribble, whose Wisconsin district includes the shipyard where the Lockheed Martin vessels are built and many of the workers, issued a statement to “rebuff baseless claims that undermine their work.” He said “the small issues that are normal for any newly designed vessel” have been corrected.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Dana Casey said questions raised about its first vessel, the USS Freedom, “appear to be based on selective information that is outdated or inaccurate.” The vessel was deployed two years ahead of schedule and “is providing important lessons that are being incorporated into future ships,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Getting Job Done’

Austal USA spokesman Craig Hooper said his company’s first vessel, the USS Independence, “has been quietly getting the job done, doing the critical yet low-profile work required to deploy cutting-edge mine warfare tools and sensors.”

Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, also have requested that the GAO assess concerns about the ship’s sea frame and mission equipment.

“Sure, there are criticisms and we kind of welcome those, but it helps us kind of sharpen our focus on what it is we need to go work on,” Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s director of surface warfare, told reporters yesterday. “But these are incredibly capable ships, and we are finding the issues and addressing them.”

Lockheed, General Dynamics

Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland, is leading construction of its ship model in Marinette Marine Corp.’s shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin. The other version is being built in Mobile, Alabama, by a team led by Austal, based in Henderson, Australia, and General Dynamics, based in Falls Church, Virginia.

Completion of 55 ships in the class would represent about 17 percent of a surface fleet with aircraft carriers, destroyers and amphibious assault ships.

The Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan group that has criticized the ship, issued a report last month using year-old Navy documents to highlight construction difficulties.

McCain said cracks, flooding and corrosion problems on the first ships have been corrected, and construction costs have declined from a peak of more than $700 million a ship to less than $360 million.

Mission Modules

“Over the last year, nearly all of the reported deficiencies have been fixed on the lead ships and design changes have been integrated into the follow-ships with minor cost impact,” McCain said in an April 30 statement. He said his concern now is with the ship’s “mission modules,” equipment that can be installed depending on the combat assignment.

A lack of progress in developing the modules may “throw the program out of sync and threaten its success,” McCain said in the statement.

The equipment includes an $89.4 million “mine- countermine” module designed to detect and neutralize mines at varying depths. Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) is the prime contractor for the modules.

The mine detection system isn’t meeting its combat specifications for distinguishing between mines and other objects in a search area as well as detecting and pinpointing a mine’s depth, according to the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation.

The Navy program office rates the counter-mine module’s performance characteristics as “yellow,” the middle category in a grading system with green for best and red for worst, according to program review documents.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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