In Washington, lawmakers want to know if the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship is worth the money and can survive a fight. In San Diego, officers say they’re finding it so agile it can do doughnuts in the water.
The ship is designed for shallow waters close to shore to hunt and clear mines, stalk submarines and take on small boats such as Iran’s in the Persian Gulf. Commanders and sailors, trying out two of the first vessels completed under the $34 billion program to build a 52-ship fleet, say they’re pleased with the early results.
“I can juke left, I can juke right,” Commander Hank Kim, 40, commanding officer of the USS Fort Worth, said on the bridge of the the ship built by Lockheed Martin Corp. “We can drive it like a sports car.”
The Navy has to overcome questions about the Littoral Combat Ship’s mission, firepower, crew size and survivability, as its projected cost has more than doubled to $440 million per vessel. More such criticism will come when the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower panel holds a hearing July 25 on a report by the Government Accountability Office.
In a draft of the report, the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended slowing production until lagging work on “mission modules” can catch up. The modules are equipment that can be swapped out for different missions, from mine hunting and sweeping to detecting submarines.
The GAO also cited the possibility that Navy studies now under way will lead to a redesign of the steel-hulled ship made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed or of a second version, an aluminum trimaran being built simultaneously by Henderson, Australia-based Austal Ltd.
Senator John McCain said he’ll seek an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill that would impose “more checkpoints and criteria they have to meet” on the ship.
“They are still developing the systems while in the test and evaluation stage, while they are making them operational,” McCain, an Arizona Republican who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “That’s always dangerous.”
The vessels are essentially floating helicopter decks with cavernous bays designed to store and operate aircraft and the mission modules hoisted on board via cranes in commercial containers.
For all of the criticism, the ships have “tons of potential,” Captain Randy Garner, 45, who commands the Navy’s first squadron of Littoral Combat Ships, said in an interview in his San Diego office overlooking the USS Independence, which was built by General Dynamics Corp. and Austal.
In addition to replacing the Navy’s aging frigates, the new vessels will spare multibillion-dollar warships from performing less intensive missions such as fighting piracy, he said. The LCS, as the ship is known, will give the U.S. a more cost-effective presence in Asia and the Persian Gulf and a test-bed for new weapons such as lasers, according to Garner and other officers.
They said the ship’s shallow draft of about 20 feet (6 meters) will prove valuable in narrow confines, such as the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil transits.
“We do high-speed maneuvers with very sharp turns” in a simulator at the San Diego base, Kim said. “We are capable of doing doughnuts if needed.”
The Navy set up an LCS Council last year to review all the major concerns and modify the vessels as required. Its head, Vice Admiral Richard Hunt, is scheduled to testify before the House panel at its hearing this week.
Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, said he doesn’t favor a production delay.
“The program is coming along, I think, reasonably well,” Kendall said in an interview. “We’ve got good prices,” and “there’s going to be a period of experimentation with these ships. They are kind of a new concept.”
A package for anti-mine missions, which is supposed to be the first module ready, has yet to undergo operational testing “so actual mission performance has not been measured,” Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s office of operational testing, said in a statement. “There are no data to project what capability will exist” when the equipment is declared combat-ready.
Simulators at the San Diego base -- replicating the bridges of the Fort Worth and Independence against the California city’s skyline in changing weather -- are designed to train a constant stream of sailors for the new vessels. The LCS is intended to have a core crew of 40 to 50 sailors, not including specialists for different missions, fewer than any major Navy ship.
Sailors showed off innovations allowing for the smaller crew, from automated sleds that let a single sailor move an SH-60 helicopter weighing 23,000 pounds (10,400 kilograms) to winches that reduce the number of personnel needed to take on fuel to four from 15.
Even the most mundane of mess-hall tasks -- washing dishes -- is done by officers and sailors, not a dedicated crew, as is Navy tradition.
“It was a very, very crazy experience for me to come from a carrier and used to us washing the dishes,” said Petty Officer Second Class Erica Miles, 23, the youngest sailor on the Fort Worth and one of four women on its crew. “I got here and thought it just made me more of a team. Everyone is helping each other out.”
Officers working on the ships say “criticism is not something we shy away from on LCS,” as Kim put it. “We are committed to making improvements on these vessels.”
Much of the criticism comes from the novelty of the LCS, said Commander David Back, 40, commanding officer of the Independence, the unpainted gray trimaran.
“Over time and with exposure, and with the ships coming into the operational fleet, that will go away in due course, just like it has for every other ship program since the Constitution,” Back said, referring to the vessel launched in 1797 and known as Old Ironsides.
Among the questions raised by naval analysts, lawmakers, advocacy groups and auditors is whether the LCS is too lightly built and armed to survive an attack.
The vessel “is not expected to be survivable in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief of weapons testing, said in a January report.
Officers in San Diego said the survivability of the LCS should be weighed against the threats the vessel is designed to go against and not the protection levels given to destroyers and other heavier vessels. The LCS is built to a Level 1 survivability standard, the Navy’s lowest.
The ship “has a lot of redundancy, such as four independent drive trains so that if one is hit three would be working,” Back said. “I could maneuver the ship effectively with three of my four engines down.”
As the debate over the LCS goes on, Garner, the squadron commander, keeps a daily reminder of the challenge he faces with the new ship in a frame on the wall outside his office. It’s from the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance political philosopher:
“There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”