The Navy's $864 Million Underwater Drones Still Don't Work

On Board Littoral: How to Build a Warship for $528M
  • Pentagon test data show 24 major failures since September 2014
  • Crippled Lockheed drones towed to port seven times this year

The U.S. Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship would be ineffective at hunting for mines because an underwater drone made by Lockheed Martin Corp. that’s supposed to find them often fails to work, the Pentagon’s weapons-testing office found.

While mine-hunting is intended to be the primary combat mission of the ship, the drones required to detect underwater explosive devices from a safe distance have failed 24 times since September 2014, according to Navy test data provided to the Defense Department’s Office of Operational Test & Evaluation.

Remote Minehunting System
Remote Minehunting System
Source: Lockheed Martin via U.S. Navy

Most recently, the drones failed 14 times over 300 hours in a five-month round of preliminary trials at sea that ended Aug. 30, according to the data. Crippled drones were towed to port seven times, and the intense combat testing required for increased purchases has been delayed. The Navy plans to spend $864 million buying 54 drones from Lockheed, the biggest U.S. contractor.

Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, has scheduled a Jan. 19 review of the drone’s reliability woes, the latest setback for the troubled Littoral Combat Ship program. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of combat testing, prepared a 41-page classified assessment dated Nov. 12 for the review.

An independent team named by the Navy also is reviewing the drone program because the service realizes “reliability performance has not been acceptable,” Captain Thurraya Kent, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mail.

Lockheed’s Response

Lockheed spokesman Joe Dougherty said in an e-mail that the drone “exceeded or met key performance parameters during a Navy-led development test conducted in early 2015.’’ He said the Remote Minehunting System is “the only system on track for delivery that can fill” an “imminent capability gap.”

Equipped with a mobile sonar made by Raytheon Co., the drone is supposed to provide the ship with a system that can spot underwater explosive devices without sailing near them, as current Avenger-class mine-hunting ships must do.

“We remain confident the RMS is the most mature system to identify and destroy mines,” Dougherty said. A Lockheed brochure posted online and dated 2014 says the drone “meets or exceeds all key performance parameters and is available today.”

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the new report “only furthers my concerns about the testing and reliability performance of the Littoral Combat Ship’s troubled mine countermeasures capability. ”

The Arizona Republican said decisions over the next few months will set the course for U.S. maritime anti-mine capabilities for decades so“there should be no rush to failure.”

Previous Questions

The drone failures add to previous questions about how much value the U.S. will get from what’s now supposed to be a $23 billion program to build 32 Littoral Combat Ships in two versions made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed and Austal Ltd. based in Henderson, Australia. Both versions depend on the drones to detect mines from a safe distance.

The Remote Minehunting System
The Remote Minehunting System
Photographer: Ron Newsome/U.S. Navy

In 2014 then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel truncated the original plan to buy 52 Littoral Combat Ships, built to operate in shallow coastal waters, citing reservations about the vessel’s effectiveness in combat and vulnerability to attack. Later, he approved a Navy proposal to buy 20 modified ships after 2019 with improved armor, sensors and weapons.

The Navy spent $109 million buying the first eight drones, spare parts and logistics services from Lockheed in 2005. The drone was supposed to complete combat testing and be declared ready for combat by September of this year. Lockheed stands to gain more than $700 million in orders for the remaining 46 drones. That includes as much as $400 million in February for the next order of 18 that Kendall will review.

Gilmore, the testing chief, found there’s “sufficient information available, based on testing to date, to conclude” the Littoral Combat Ship “would not be operationally effective” or maintainable if deployed in combat with the current mine-sweeping modules, Marine Corps Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Gilmore’s spokesman, said in an e-mail describing the study’s unclassified conclusions.

The system’s “reliability remains far below what is needed to support” the mine-hunting mission, Rankine-Galloway said. It’s unclear whether the drone “will ever achieve its reliability goals” of operating 75 hours between major failures, “but given the history of the program, it may require more design changes than the Navy has been considering,” Rankine-Galloway said.

The Navy’s program to date “has not substantially grown the reliability,” he said. The conclusion was based on data showing not only that critical mine-hunting systems were unreliable but also that the drone was vulnerable to mines and possessed limited communications capability. 

Airborne System

Further, the Littoral Combat Ship’s separate, airborne-based AN/ASQ-235 mine neutralization system currently can’t disable “most of the mines contained in the Navy’s own real-world threat scenarios,” Rankine-Galloway said. The system, which would be deployed on MH-60S helicopters, is intended to destroy the mines found by the drones.

Kent, the Navy spokeswoman, said the mine-hunting system “has demonstrated the ability to meet operational requirements.” Still, “reliability performance has not been acceptable during the most recent” evaluation.

Since September 2014, the drone has experienced 24 “operational mission failures” blamed on poor workmanship, design deficiencies, wear and tear or training procedures, Kendall was told Nov. 3 in a memo from David C. Brown, his deputy for development testing.

“Considering the focused effort put into improving” the drone’s reliability since 2010, the latest poor performance “puts into question whether the current” design “will ever meet the Navy’s reliability requirement,” Brown wrote.