June 2 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the Navy’s first Littoral Combat Ship on its maiden deployment to Singapore today, 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.
Federal investigators, some Navy officials and lawmakers have said the small, speedy warship designed to operate close to shore may need a redesign or at least more thorough testing. It’s the first of as many as four Littoral Combat Ships that will rotate through Singapore as the U.S. tries to increase its presence and deepen alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
The $34 billion LCS program has been beset by troubles, including cracks and corrosion, a doubling of its price per vessel and a decision to build two alternative versions that will add to long-term costs.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is urging lawmakers to consider slowing funding for ship construction because the Pentagon is buying them faster than it can test their design and performance, according to a draft report obtained by Bloomberg News.
The program has continued to draw support from lawmakers and the Pentagon despite federal budget cuts and a growing list of questions about the ship’s design, firepower, defenses and survivability.
A confidential 2012 Navy study found that the ships are too lightly armed, that plans to swap equipment for different missions are impractical, and that the decision to build two versions simultaneously complicates logistics and maintenance. Meanwhile, construction costs have doubled to $440 million per ship from an original goal of $220 million.
Failure to resolve such issues will result in ships that are ill-suited to war-fighting needs, Rear Admiral Samuel Perez wrote in the March 2012 report.
Still, the Navy will be under contract for at least 24 of the planned 52 ships before it completes tests in 2019 to see whether mission modules designed to quickly reconfigure the vessels for different tasks can meet minimum performance requirements, the GAO report said.
“We need to fix it, or find something else quickly,” Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican and former Navy pilot, said of the ship last month.
Hagel expressed no doubts about the LCS as he took a tour and chatted with the Freedom’s crew members. George Little, a spokesman for Hagel, said the defense secretary is impressed by the ship’s “pioneering naval capability” and is confident that any issues with it will be resolved.
Hagel, who today wrapped up a three-day visit to Singapore for an annual Asian security conference, pointed to the Littoral Combat Ship in an address to several hundred defense officials and analysts as evidence of the U.S. commitment to the region.
“We are pushing forward with plans for innovative rotational deployments in the region,” he said in his prepared remarks.
While the Freedom is based in San Diego, it’s on a 10-month deployment to Singapore, the first of several rotations planned for such ships, said Lieutenant Commander Clayton Doss, a Navy spokesman aboard the Freedom. By mid-2015, two Littoral Combat Ships will be operating in Singapore simultaneously, Doss said.
Conceived in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the ship was designed to be a small, speedy, and adaptable vessel to patrol shallow coastal waters and replace aging frigates. It’s designed to use interchangeable modules for various missions, such as surface combat. The Freedom is equipped with a surface-warfare mission module that can be used for search-and-rescue or anti-piracy operations, Doss said. Other modules for anti-submarine warfare and mine clearing aren’t yet operational.
The Navy is buying two versions of the ship. Lockheed’s steel-hulled vessel, led by the Freedom, is being built in Marinette, Wisconsin. A group led by Austal Ltd. is building an aluminum trimaran in Mobile, Alabama.
The Navy has asked for funding to purchase four ships, two of each type, in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
“We understand what is at stake and will get this right,” Vice Admiral Richard Hunt, the head of a Navy task force for the ship, said in a statement last month, when asked what the Navy needs to show Congress to keep lawmakers’ support.
If Hagel had any concerns about the ship, he didn’t express them publicly on his tour. The one question he had for the Freedom’s officers was: “Do I get to drive it?”
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