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LCS is on 'path to success,' SecNav says

The littoral combat ship program is just encountering some early-in-the-class teething problems, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says, but overall the Navy is headed in the right direction and it would be too complicated and costly to change course now. That's according to a report this week by the dean of America's shiperati, Christopher P. Cavas, quoting a letter Mabus sent to California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a San Diego-area Republican who asked Mabus to "review" LCS after reports of the ships' ongoing problems.

Wrote Cavas:

Hunter, reacting to reports earlier this year of problems with both LCS designs, charged that the Navy, “instead of enacting proper oversight of this program and development of the ship design … was concerned with appeasing Congress and what has been referred to in Congressional hearings as ‘industrial base stabilization.’ ” The result, Hunter wrote, was a “toxic environment where the Navy needed to contract to build more ships at a faster rate despite major technical design flaws.”

Congress, Hunter added, “was just as complicit in this failed program” when, late last year, it approved the Navy’s plan to buy both LCS designs instead of just one, despite risks identified by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Hunter called on the Navy “to immediately conduct a formal review of the entire LCS program, provide an assessment of the technical design flaws of the current fleet and determine the best way forward to include the possibility of rebidding this contract so that the program can be put back on a fiscally responsible path to procurement.”

No dice, said Mabus. Navy engineers have learned a lot about what caused the problems on the littoral combat ships Freedom and Independence, he said, and future copies will incorporate those lessons -- but it would cause too many problems to make these kinds of major changes to the program. And here's something else: Although officials with manufacturer Austal have said the Navy is to blame for the corrosion problems that have sidelined the Independence, Mabus says those issues in fact “have been attributed to a design approach undertaken by General Dynamics and Austal USA that proved not as effective as anticipated.”

Continued Cavas:

An “interim repair” has been prepared for the ship, Mabus wrote, and a permanent fix will be installed next year during a scheduled maintenance period. A cathodic protection system will be installed on the next ship in the class and is included in the design for subsequent ships, he added.
Ultimately, they're both right: Mabus is correct that it would be very expensive and complicated for the Navy to try anything else but going forward with its LCS strategy. And Duncan is right that the Navy's main goal last year was to placate Congress by giving it a plan in which literally everyone won: The Navy bought both LCSes, protecting both shipyards, and got them cheaper than it ever could've imagined. The Navy saw a scenario in which LCS became the next Air Force tanker, and it was willing to do anything to avoid that fate.

Still, for all its past enthusiasm, the service seems to have no sense of urgency for LCS anymore. A few years ago, officials kept saying they needed LCS "yesterday," and they made much of the Freedom's homeport change from Florida to California, which was billed as an "early deployment" that showed the maturity of the program. And yet it'll be years before the Navy has anything like complete sets of the mission equipment that LCS needs to function. What's more, neither the Freedom nor the Independence has actually done any real Navy missions -- probably in part because of the problems both ships have encountered. Where once the Navy wanted to push LCS out into the world to go fight pirates, or visit all those shallow-water ports only it can enter, the service seems to have resigned itself to waiting.

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