Littoral combat ship program struggles to push forward

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The Navy’s littoral combat ship program has never lived up to its promises. Although it scaled back, the Navy still plans to field 35 of the ships, but they have serious and persistent problems.  Federal Drive with Tom Temin  spoke with Diana Maurer,  the director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office, for an update on the program.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Diana, good to have you back.

Diana Maurer: It’s great to be back on the show, Tom.

Tom Temin: So the littoral combat ship program, it seems like we’ve been talking about it forever. What is the status of it now? It’s not going away. But it’s not expanding? It’s kind of a steady state at this point?

Diane Maurer: Right. Yes, this is a program that’s been around for going on 20 years. At this point, the Navy has awarded contracts to purchase a grand total of 35 of these ships. And just as a reminder to the folks listening that the littoral combat ship is a relatively small combat ship that’s designed to operate in relatively shallow waters. So the initial concept they are thinking a lot about, for example, the Persian Gulf, or the Caribbean, other places around the world. It’s designed to perform multiple missions. So some of them are meant to sweep up minds. Others are designed to hunt for enemy submarines, and others are designed to combat other naval ships of opposing forces. The program has had a lot of significant challenges along the way, there was essentially a near reset of the program back in 2016, and our report looked at the Navy status and addressing a number of significant changes to the program that came out of Navy review six years ago.

Tom Temin: Sure. And how many hulls do they actually have, at this point out of the planned 35?

Diana Maurer: They have about two dozen of those, the others are in production. And they’ll be continuing to be taking deliveries over the course of the next several years.

Tom Temin: And in this report, you found that they just have trouble on the sustainability of them, and also just basic performance.

Diana Maurer: Yeah, exactly. So our report was focused on how well is the littoral combat ship performing in the real world. And we found a number of significant challenges. The folks at the Defense Department who test weapons systems before they’re actually deployed had found a number of serious deficiencies pretty much across the board. So they found problems in the weapons that the LCS is designed to use, they found problems with reliability in key systems. The testing community within DOD had concerns about the fundamental ability of the LCS to perform its missions and survive in a combat situation. These were serious and significant problems that were identified during testing, we found that the Navy was picking sort of a whack-a-mole approach to address these problems. We recommended that the Navy take a more comprehensive approach to triage, focus on the areas of greatest concern, and start working through them in a comprehensive, coordinated way.

Tom Temin: And does the Navy in your opinion, know what to triage? What would come up in a triage? Because if there’s reliability, say with propulsion? Well, that’s pretty much a deal killer for everything else. And if the weapons don’t work? Well, in some sense, that’s a deal killer for everything else. So where do they begin? Do you think?

Diana Maurer: Well, I think that there’s a long list of problems that still need to be addressed and to give them some credit where credit is due, they are taking steps to address those problems, propulsion, I think would rise towards the top of the list. And one of the things that we found in our reported in our review was that 10 out of 11, recent operational missions had to be scrubbed early because of problems with engines. That’s a deal breaker. If your engines don’t work properly, then you can’t perform your mission. And big picture what that means is the LCS is still far from delivering the combat capability that was promised what the military wants it to do.

Tom Temin: I guess there’s no oars long enough fora littoral combat ship if the engine should fail. We’re speaking with Diana Mauer. She’s director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office, and is one of the issues trying to be new technology for everything? In other words, the littoral combat ship, the hull shape is unusual, there’s a couple of different ones. I think there’s even a double-hull in one of the series and different materials than conventional ships. But did they try to innovate everything, and therefore, maybe they could have used a conventional engine even in an unconventional hull and avoided that issue?

Diana Maurer: Well, certainly, if they could go back in a time machine, when this program started around 2004, I think they would do a lot of things differently. And the complexity that was baked into the system from day one is something that’s come to haunt the program for all the all the years since I mean, you’re right, there are multiple versions of the hull. There are multiple versions of these mission packages. There are different mission modules within mission packages. There were ways that they plan to actually maintain the ship that at the time were meant to be cutting edge, but in practice proved to be wildly impractical and expensive to implement. They’re trying to undo all of that, but it’s difficult to do. To some extent, this is a system that was designed to be a very complicated Swiss Army knife. And the problem is you couldn’t necessarily pull out the blades when you needed them, and it proved to be very expensive to maintain and operate. You know, the cost estimates on this ship, the lifetime lifecycle cost estimates of the ship went from $38 billion to over $60 billion from 2011 to 2018. And the final cost is probably likely to be much higher than that now.

Tom Temin: And looking at your list of recommendations this time from January of this year, I’m struck by who it is that you’re recommending to; secretary of the Navy, secretary of the Navy, secretary of the Navy, secretary of the Navy, and on and on, maybe the chief of Naval Operations, but that’s about as low as it goes. So I think, reading between the lines, you’re saying the Navy really should consider the whole program, whether to continue with it. If you have all these recommendations for the secretary level, and the chief of Naval Operations, to do these assessments.

Diana Maurer: Yes, we were very intentional about directing our recommendations at the very top of the Navy. And that’s a function of the concerns that we found not only in the ability of the system to perform operationally, but also in updating the cost estimates, right? Those are way out of whack and need to be updated to ensure good visibility within the Navy as well as with Congress. And also we had we had recommendations around ensuring that all of the findings from the 2016 review were fully implemented. Probably our most impactful recommendation was number six in our report, which was that they maybe think long and hard about deploying this system operationally, until it had figured out a way to close the gaps between what it wants to do with the LCS, and what the LCS can actually do in the real world.

Tom Temin: And at the start of the interview, you mentioned some of the original intentions for this that had to do with the war on terror era, if you will. And now we’re in the era of great powers competition and naval doctrine and military doctrine have all been updated. But it strikes me that the littoral combat ship could, as a concept, survive into the new era of competition, because you know, Taiwan, Odessa, there are lots of areas where we have conflict with mainly with China, but who knows with Russia, other countries, Iran, that are littoral in nature, so it’s not as if the idea is obsolete.

Diana Maurer: No, the idea is definitely not obsolete. And it’s certainly a critical capability that the Navy needs to develop. The Navy, for example, currently has MCM mine countermeasure ships that are extremely old and extremely difficult to maintain, and it needs the capability to find mines and sweep them out of the way. The LCS was designed in part to address that vital mission need. The LCS has not demonstrated the ability to perform that mission. That’s a major problem. It’s also not clear whether the LCS in its current state, and what its current capabilities would be able to fully execute its desired missions and the high-end conflict. And that sort of gets to the heart of the testing problems the duty testing community has identified. And that’s the heart of our of our recommendations that the Navy take serious and significant actions to address those problems. And the Navy to its credit, agreed and is in the process of doing that. But it’s gonna take some years before everything is completely wrapped up.

Tom Temin: Diana Mauer is director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office. As always, thanks so much.

Diana Maurer: Thank you very much.

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