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Navy Defends Littoral Ship Against Watchdog’s Criticism

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July 25 (Bloomberg) -- The Navy is defending its plan for building Littoral Combat Ships, disputing a pending Government Accountability Office recommendation to slow construction for further testing.

The Navy’s newest combat vessel will be under scrutiny at a U.S. House hearing today, where the GAO is set to present a report on the LCS. A draft report by Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm earlier this year said the Navy is risking as much as $40 billion by purchasing the ships faster than it can demonstrate their “militarily useful capability.”

The LCS program has generated a growing list of questions about the ships’ designs, firepower, defenses and survivability at a time when the Pentagon faces as much as $500 billion in additional budget cuts over the next nine years.

“We realize that these may be some rough waters,” Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, the Navy’s director of surface warfare, said during a July 23 conference call with reporters. “I’m confident we’ll be able to address these issues and get this significant capability to the fleet.”

Rowden said the Navy intends to stick to its current schedule for building the ships.

The GAO’s draft report said “a pause is needed” until additional testing can answer “fundamental questions about whether the program, as envisioned, will meet the Navy’s needs.”

Virginia Republican Representative Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee, which holds the hearing today, called the GAO’s findings “very concerning” and said in an earlier interview that “it is something we will be monitoring very, very carefully.”

Red Flags

The GAO’s final report represents the latest red flag that’s been raised inside and outside the Navy about the small and speedy ship designed for shallow waters close to shore, such as in the Persian Gulf.

A confidential Navy report completed last year warned the ships may not be able to perform their missions because they’re too lightly manned and armed.

The first Littoral Combat Ship to deploy overseas, the USS Freedom, lost propulsion on July 20 while heading to a military exercise and had to return to port in Singapore for repairs. The Navy determined the ship’s diesel generators overheated and shut down, said Lieutenant Caroline Hutcheson, a Navy spokeswoman.

After repairs that included the replacement of turbochargers in the generators and clogged fuel injectors, the Freedom got under way yesterday, she said.

Interchangeable Modules

The ship is designed to be adaptable by using interchangeable modules for various missions, such as clearing mines, hunting submarines and waging surface warfare.

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 can meet minimum performance requirements, the draft GAO report said.

“This disconnect between requirements and acquisitions increases the risk that the Navy is not wisely spending its resources,” the report obtained in May said.

Failure to slow the rate of construction “could lead to the Navy risking taxpayer investments of up to $40 billion in systems that may not provide the expected -- albeit not fully defined -- militarily useful capability,” it said.

Rowden defended the pace of construction, saying the ships are needed as planned “to deliver key capabilities in the littorals,” or coastal waters.

Reducing Price

Sustaining the production lines of two shipyards at current rates is important so the cost per vessel can continue “on a marked and steady decline,” he said.

The Navy is buying two versions of the ship. One, with a traditional steel hull, is being made in Marinette, Wisconsin, by a group led by Lockheed Martin Corp., based in Bethesda, Maryland. The second version is an aluminum trimaran, or three-hulled vessel, built by a group led by Austal Ltd., based in Henderson, Australia.

Building two versions comes with higher operating costs because of the need to maintain and supply two different types of ships. Rowden said the two-shipyard strategy delivers vessels to the fleet at a faster pace and allows the Navy to “get a very, very competitive price for these ships.”

The GAO draft recommended that the Navy buy only “the minimum quantities” of weapons packages, or “mission modules,” because “testing to date has shown considerable limitations in mission capabilities.”

Rowden said the Navy must buy mission modules at the rate it has planned to support all the needed operational testing.

“I’m not worried about the mission modules,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I’m very excited about them.”

To contact the reporter on this story: David Lerman in Washington at dlerman1@bloomberg.net

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

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