This is no way to launch a combat ship program

Having returned from a recent cruise, I’m intrigued again by ships. This dates back to a childhood tour I had with my father aboard a carrier called the USS Wasp (CV-18), scrapped in 1972. No one who sees a big ship up close can fail to be amazed by it.

Lots of people wonder, ‘how do they float?’ Nah, to me the mystery is when they slide them down the chute out of dry dock for the first time. How are they so precisely balanced they don’t end up listing a few degrees or capsizing altogether?

Well sometimes they do. You can find loads of YouTube videos of vessels large and small going keel-up when slid or dropped by crane into the water. Design and build is a science, though, for those 1,000-foot cruise ships or the Navy. When floating an aircraft carrier, the yard brings the water to the ship, rather then shoving the carrier in the water. But once afloat, ships take on a mission, whether wining and dining overfed civilians or projecting a nation’s power all over the globe.

On cruise ships, an important metric is how many rooms have balconies and the mean distance between bars. Navy ships have two basic metrics: lethality and survivability. Lethality is the measure of how well they can locate and destroy targets. Survivability relates to how well they protect the crew and basic ship operations when damaged.

So I was intrigued by the latest Government Accountability Office report on the Navy’s long-troubled Littoral Combat Ship program. While every Navy ship is supposed to have lethality and survivability, the LSC ships were also designed for speed and flexibility. What’s been missing is predictability and affordability, according to numerous GAO reports, as well as questions about the combative and protective qualities of the vessels.

In the latest report, GAO recommends Congress force the issue by delaying funding beyond the couple of dozen ships the Navy already has, or are, under construction. The LCS program has been constantly morphing — first there was a single supplier, then two, and eventually headed back to one.

In a few years the program will be re-dubbed as a frigate program. Lockheed and Austal each build totally different vessels under the LCS flag; Lockheed’s is steel, Austral’s aluminum. The metal is a whole other story, according to the GAO’s Michelle Mackin, who headed up the new study. Plus, an LCS is not just one thing. Each is an underlying frame onto which the Navy bolts different components depending on the particular mission. The two variants, co-called Freedom and Independence, don’t behave the same way, so a test done with one isn’t valid for the other.

In earlier reports, GAO found “that until the Navy completes operational testing, the Navy could invest approximately $34 billion (in 2010 dollars) for up to 52 seaframes and 64 mission packages that may not provide a militarily useful capability. ”

Not good. Worse, in testing going on since last year, GAO charges the Navy still doesn’t have the lethality or survivability data it needs to continue. It won’t have it until 2017, GAO says. Its conclusion: “The actual lethality and survivability performance of LCS is still largely unproven through realistic testing, 6 years after delivery of the lead ships.”

If the LCS were unmanned, the spending levels on something so incomplete would be troubling enough. But the LCS carries live sailors being sent to increasingly sketchy places. It’s way past the time for the Navy, Pentagon leadership, Congress and the contractors to iron this out. GAO offers a long list of recommendations. There’s a task for everyone.

The LCSes don’t list when they’re launched. They can go from Point A to Point B. But can they survive combat and deliver a lickin’ to the enemy? Let’s find out already.

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