U.S. Navy leaders have taken to Capitol Hill to defend the Littoral Combat Ship after an internal service report described the next-generation surface ship as “ill-suited to execute regional commander’s warfighting needs.”
Navy officials have responded by describing the $37 billion program as “solid” and tried to shift the focus to strategic elements of the acquisition effort and highlight areas of improvement within the program that is in its eleventh year of development.
The report in question, which is highly critical of the LCS program, was requested by Navy leadership and completed more than a year ago by Navy Rear Adm. Samuel Perez, according to a May 7 report by Bloomberg News.
The report’s principle findings, echoed in some instances by lawmakers at recent Congressional hearings, suggest that the LCS does not have the manning or armament to meet combat requirements, according to reports.
However, Navy leaders have said it’s unfair to judge the program on a report that is a year old.
“I think LCS is solid. The demand for these ships is strong,” said Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, director of Navy Staff, who told reporters May 8 that the platform is still pretty early in the test phase.
The LCS, in development since 2002, is a next-generation surface-ship aimed at delivering a fast, agile, near shore vessel equipped with technologically advanced “mission packages” engineered for surface warfare, anti-submarine and mine-countermeasure missions, among others.
Overall, the Navy plans to acquire as many as 52 LCS vessels. The LCS class consists of two variants, the Freedom and Independence - designed and built by two industry teams, respectively led by Lockheed Martin and an Austal USA-led team. Contracts were awarded to Lockheed Martin and Austal USA on December 29, 2010, for the construction of up to 10 ships.
Some critics have questioned the two-vendor team approach.
Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., recently questioned Navy and Marine Corps leaders about the “usefulness” of the ship and the service’s LCS strategy during a hearing Tuesday.
Sen. John McCain, (R) - Ariz., also raised concerns about the LCS Wednesday at a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee hearing on Sea Power.
“The Navy plans for the Littoral Combat Ship to comprise over one-third of the nation’s total surface combatant fleet by 2028, and yet the Littoral Combat Ship has not yet demonstrated adequate performance of assigned missions. We need to fix it or find something else rapidly,” McCain told Navy leaders.
Navy officials point to major progress with the LCS effort since the report was completed. In addition, the Navy leaders stressed that internal reports are, by design, intended to be as tough and critical as the one authored by Perez.
“I told [Perez] that his tasking was to provide an independent assessment of what he thought the LCS would be able to deliver. He provided some good insights,” Hunt explained, while adding that he and other Navy leaders do not necessarily agree with everything in the report.
Hunt said that criticisms, adjustments and revisions of requirements and concepts of operation for a ship-class of this kind are often subject to change or alter slightly throughout the evolution of an acquisition program such as this.
However, it is rare for high level service leaders to question the ability for a major weapons programs such as LCS to complete its mission this far along in development.
The current deployment of the USS Freedom, the first LCS variant, is designed to produce and help harvest” lessons learned” and inform the overall program’s acquisition goals, Navy officials said.
“The reason we pushed hard to get the USS Freedom to operate forward is that we are really going to learn the things on how to build the right concept of employment and concept of operations for that ship class,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, a Navy spokesman.
Navy leaders also told lawmakers that adjustments and improvements to the program will be incorporated as the effort evolves.
“We’re confident of the development at this point in terms of bringing the LCS into the fleet. What you are seeing is a new platform that we’re having a proof-of-concept deployment so that we can understand the concept of operations and how we are going to maintain it,” Vice Adm. Allen Myers, deputy chief of Naval Operations, told Congress Wednesday.
He explained that the LCS is a “transformational approach” and the Navy expects to discover more issues before it enters the fleet at full operational capability.
Navy officials pointed to the service’s creation over this past year of an “LCS Council,” an elite group of admirals assembled to analyze, assess and improve the LCS procurement effort.
“That is what the council will do with the Freedom deployment. We very much wanted to get this ship in the water to operate from the first time it was flashed up on a power point. This is how we will advance the class, by operating it,” Servello added.
Hunt said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has decided to extend the LCS Council. Also, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told lawmakers on Tuesday that the LCS program has made substantial progress in recent years.
“This has become one of our best performing programs. It did not start that way. By having the two variants compete against each other, based mainly on price, the price came down dramatically,” he said.
In particular, Mabus explained that while the first variant cost $439 million, the last ship of that same purchase order will wind up costing $350 million.
“When Congress was briefed in the early part of the last decade, the cost of the ship was $220 million, but that was with a commercial hull, and without a combat hull. It was also seen that the weapons systems would be far more costly. These ships are coming in at almost exactly the total price that Congress was briefed on more than a decade ago,” he told the subcommittee.
Navy leaders also responded to criticisms and questions from lawmakers regarding the ship’s vulnerability and offensive and defensive capabilities.
“The ship is designed at what we call level three. What that means is if the ship takes a hit, it is able to survive and then it returns to base. It doesn’t stay and fight. It is designed for and has met the criteria for that level, and it is testing appropriately. I could design a scenario wherein all of our ships could be overwhelmed by cruise missiles, even the very best which are quite capable,” Greenert told lawmakers.
The CNO also emphasized that the LCS’ capabilities are being engineered with a mind to an overall fleet strategy and survivability.
“We don’t send ships out alone as sole platforms to do it all -- we send them out in packages. We are improving the armament on the ship and we will continue to do so,” he added.
Hunt expressed support for the LCS’ survivability.
“She’s got speed – she’s got some degree of stealthyness – I would be absolutely comfortable commanding one of these ships in the environment where we are going to operate them,” Hunt said.
The LCS “mission packages” are fundamental to the ship’s offensive and defensive capabilities, as they are engineered to bring a new level of technical capability and integration to the Navy fleet, service officials explained.
The packages are designed to be modular, meaning they are integrated suites of technological capability which can be added or removed to LCS platforms depending upon mission requirements, Hunt explained.
For example, the mission packages will likely accommodate technological advances in areas such as electronic systems, weapons, Electronic Warfare equipment and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as they emerge, Hunt said.
“You have a modular ability to plug in and pull out capability relatively quickly,” he added.
The mine countermeasures mission package draws upon air capabilities such as the MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter and Fire Scout vertical-take-off-and-landing UAS to locate mines from the air – as well as underwater sensors and off-board surface sensors such as mine-hunting sonar and unmanned mine-detecting vehicles.
The surface warfare mission package draws upon air assets such as the MH-60S but also brings specific capabilities such as 11-meter Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats and a full suite of on-board weaponry and munitions. The mission package contains Gun Mission Modules firing a MK 46 Gun Weapons System as well as a MK 44 30mm Automatic Cannon and surface-to-surface missiles capable of engaging fast-moving small boat threats.
The anti-submarine mission package draws upon helicopters and UAS, combining the sensor input from the air with sonar and acoustic sensors from beneath the surface. In addition, the mission package includes and ability to fire a MK54 Lightweight Hybrid Torpedo, according to Navy figures.
The LCS is also configured with a next-generation on-board maintenance and sensor system called Oculus-X, a computer-informed ship-maintenance system able to compile information and monitor about 10,000 different signals on board the ship, according to Joe North, Lockheed Martin’s vice-president of Littoral ship systems.
“This helps predict the maintenance issues we need to follow. I look at it as a black box on an aircraft where you are recording everything. It is a predictability tool because of the way we monitor the equipment. We can use that data and determine trends within the equipment and determine what maintenance we need to do,” North explained.
The system, which feeds information into a database via satellite, monitors electrical, mechanical and navigational systems as well as safety gear, cameras and environmental systems, North added. The LCS also uses a system called LaserNet Fines-Online, an embedded laser that is capable of providing fluid-level analysis for things like engines and propulsion thrusters, North said.
“It is an embedded laser inserted into the tank or a pipe leading to a tank,” North explained. “It provides you the ID, the size of any non-metallic substance or any fiber, sand, rust particles. It basically is a laser diode with a TV camera that processes the images.”
Reducing manpower is a key element of the rationale for the technology, North added.
“The crew goes down hourly to check oil samples. This allows technology to do that for them, taking as much time off of the crew as possible. It is also predictive and it can show you the trends of what’s going on. Predictive capability helps you prevent failures,” he said.