Littoral Ship to Get Close Scrutiny From Congress

Congress will take a close look at the Pentagon’s $34 billion Littoral Combat Ship program and may consider restrictions on the Navy’s $2 billion request to buy four vessels in fiscal 2014, Representative Randy Forbes said.

Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel, said today that any decisions would await the final report from an LCS review by the Government Accountability Office. A draft of the GAO study said Congress should consider slowing the program’s funding because the Navy is buying ships faster than it can test their design and performance.

“I’m not going to prejudge” the report, Forbes, a Virginia Republican, told reporters. “I’ll wait until we see it, but we are going to do some intensive oversight on this program, which will include hearings.”

The Littoral Combat Ship has continued to draw support from the Pentagon and lawmakers despite federal budget cuts and a growing list of questions about its designs, firepower, defenses and survivability. Estimated construction costs have doubled to $440 million per ship, and a Navy study last year found the vessels are too lightly armed and that plans to reconfigure the ships for different missions aren’t practical.

The GAO’s draft report “is very concerning,” because “of the intensity” of its content, Forbes said. “It is something we will be monitoring very, very carefully.”

Restricting Funding

The GAO, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm, said in the draft report that Congress “should consider restricting future funding” until the Navy completes technical and design studies and determines whether the results require redesigns of 24 ships already under contract, out of a planned total of 52.

Forbes said he’s not prepared to act based on the draft, which the Navy is reviewing. When the final report is published, he said, “we are going to take some action.” Any definitive congressional action is probably months away, he said.

Forbes’s seapower panel approved the Navy’s fiscal 2014 request for four ships on May 21, before the GAO draft said the Navy is buying vessels before it’s completed “technical studies that raise fundamental questions” about the ship.

The full House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to act tomorrow on a measure that includes money for the additional four vessels. The House defense appropriations subcommittee, in its draft version of the Pentagon’s spending plan, approves the four vessels, according to a congressional aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

‘Substantial Unknowns’

The GAO report obtained by Bloomberg News is entitled “Navy Shipbuilding: Significant Investments in the Littoral Combat Ship Continue Amid Substantial Unknowns About Capabilities, Use and Cost.”

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the chief of naval information, said in an e-mailed statement that the LCS program “is vital to our current and future fleet.”

“We look forward to continuing to work with the GAO and Congress,” Kirby said. “ A productive dialogue remains key to successfully integrating LCS into the surface force and reaching our stated shipbuilding goals.”

The GAO draft was submitted to the Navy last week for comment. Forbes said it would be issued in final form in about two months. That’s before the House and Senate are likely to finish work on the fiscal 2014 defense budget.

“If, based on that report and the hearings, we need to do something, we will have time to do it” before final action on the defense authorization for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, he said.

Shallow Waters

The LCS is to be a small, speedy, adaptable ship for patrolling shallow waters close to shore, such as in the Persian Gulf. It’s designed to use interchangeable modules for different missions, such as clearing mines, hunting submarines or waging surface warfare.

The Navy is buying two versions of the ship. One, with a steel hull, is being made in Marinette, Wisconsin, by a group led by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) A group led by Austal Ltd. (ASB) is building an aluminum trimaran in Mobile, Alabama.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the Navy’s first Littoral Combat Ship on its deployment to Singapore June 2, saying the ship represents “a new era of partnership” as the U.S. military shifts focus toward Asia.

“You’re all making history out here,” Hagel told the crew of the USS Freedom, built by a team led by Lockheed Martin Corp. “A new ship, new capacity, new opportunities,” Hagel said from the ship’s pilot house via intercom.

The GAO draft said the Navy’s “expectations of LCS capability have weakened over time.”

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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