June 14 (Bloomberg) -- The House panel that funds defense spending said it’s “disturbed by the number of problems” marring the deployment to Asia of the Navy’s first Littoral Combat Ship.
The troubles “appear to be beyond the crew’s capability to handle, especially given that the LCS should have been in an extremely high state of readiness,” the House Appropriations defense subcommittee said in a report approved this week by the full committee as part of its defense bill for fiscal 2014.
The problems on the USS Freedom, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., include seawater contamination and rust particles in lubrication components used by the main propulsion system. The ship was forced to return to port in Singapore for repairs after eight hours of sailing on May 21, before a visit to the ship by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on June 2.
The troubled Littoral Combat Ship is intended to be a small, speedy, adaptable ship for patrolling shallow waters close to shore in areas such as the Persian Gulf. The $34 billion program to build 52 ships has faced an expanding list of questions about its manning, mission, firepower, defenses and survivability even as projected construction costs have soared.
The Freedom arrived in Singapore April 18 for a deployment of as long as 10 months to test approaches to manning and maintaining the ships and to work with allied navies.
“You’re all making history out here,” Hagel told the ship’s crew via intercom from the pilot house. “A new ship, new capacity, new opportunities.”
The vessel departed June 11 for a Malaysia training exercise.
Repairs, performed in part by contractors, included “hot lube-oil flushes” of tubing, according to the Navy.
“Navy ships are normally deployed in top material condition,” the House committee said in its report. The incidents “imply either that the LCS is experiencing more than its share of maintenance problems, thus overwhelming the crew, or that the crew is unable to handle common problems and has come to rely” on on-board contractors.
While the panel approved the Navy’s request to build four more Littoral Combat Ships in fiscal 2014, it said it was “alarmed by the frequency and magnitude of temporary civilian contractors” on Freedom as it crossed the Pacific to Singapore -- to “trouble-shoot problems” with its propulsion, lubricating-oil and air conditioning systems.
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 Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed. A group led by Henderson, Australia-based Austal Ltd. is building an aluminum trimaran in Mobile, Alabama.
“Lockheed Martin is leveraging industry’s investment in the Marinette Marine Corp. shipyard, including new processes and infrastructure, to continue to drive cost out of ship construction,” company spokeswoman Dana Casey said in an e-mailed statement. “We’ve also incorporated sustainment technologies in the ships to help reduce the Navy’s maintenance and long-term sustainment costs.”
The Freedom is the first of as many as four Littoral Combat Ships that will rotate through Singapore as the U.S. seeks to increase its presence and deepen alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told reporters yesterday that troubles like those experienced by the Freedom, which the service has disclosed as they occur, are to be expected on the first ship in a class. The Navy took delivery of Freedom in September 2008.
“Freedom is an experimental ship” and such vessels “are built to see how the technology works, to see how the seaframe works,” Mabus said.
“If we wanted to play it safe we wouldn’t send it,” Mabus said. “First-of-a-class ships are going to have issues, and the fact that it’s the first ship of its class, the fact that we put sailors on there, the fact that it is now in Singapore -- those are pretty positive signs.”
In an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Peter Cook for “Capitol Gains” airing June 16, Mabus said “taxpayers ought to be proud of this program” because the construction costs for the final ships in the current contract are projected to drop to $350 million per vessel from $429 million.
That’s still far more than the original estimate of $220 million a ship, which Mabus has called an unrealistic projection from a program that was a “mess” initially.
“These ships are very fast, very shallow-draft and modular so that when technology changes, when we get new technology, we don’t have to change the whole ship,” Mabus said.
The LCS is designed to use interchangeable modules for different missions, such as clearing mines, hunting submarines and waging surface warfare.
While Mabus praised the Littoral Combat Ship, some senior officers view it as expendable beyond the 24 already under contract, including Vice Admiral Tom Copeman, the chief of naval surface forces.
The Navy should “reduce the buy of large surface combatants and end LCS beyond the current contract in favor of a medium-sized” vessel with a “high-end combat capability,” Copeman wrote in November in a confidential memo obtained by Bloomberg News.
The vessel faces more scrutiny in coming months. Representative Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican who heads the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel, said he will hold a hearing on the findings of a Government Accountability Office report on the program.
The draft GAO report disclosed in May by Bloomberg News said said Congress “should consider restricting future funding” until the Navy completes “ongoing technical and design studies” and “determines the impact of making any changes resulting from these studies on the cost and designs of future LCS seaframes.”
The GAO’s draft report “is very concerning,” because “of the intensity” of its content, Forbes told reporters June 4. “It is something we will be monitoring very, very carefully.”
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