GAO Continues its Criticism of Littoral Combat Ships
On Friday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a skeptical review of the current state of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and its derivative, an up-armored "frigate" version still in planning.
In past studies the GAO has been unsparing in its criticism of the LCS acquisition process and the latest report continues the trend: its recommendation to Congress is to not fund the Navy's two requested LCS ships for procurement in FY2017 on the grounds that "these ships have not demonstrated lethality and survivability capabilities." The office also calls on Congress to require the Department of Defense to strengthen reporting and oversight on the frigate program: "Without adequate oversight, federal funds may not be effectively spent," GAO warns. (As of June 10, both the Senate and House versions of the NDAA fund LCS procurement and frigate development for 2017; neither include language for additional oversight of the frigate program, though the Senate version calls for a complete report on delayed mission package development for the LCS.)
In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Navy to reduce the LCS buy from 52 vessels of two designs to 32, citing declining Navy estimates of the ships' capabilities, and directed the service to look into alternatives "consistent with a frigate." A Navy task force formed to review frigate options, and considered four different options, including new designs, modifications of existing platforms, and a revised LCS-based craft. It selected an LCS with armor and armament additions as a frigate and received his approval to proceed with 52 orders of both the frigate edition and LCS craft.
Last year, Congress asked GAO to study the selection process leading to the revised "frigate;" GAO writes that the task force selected the least capable of the options it studied, a "minor modified" LCS that did not meet the Navy leadership's original, preferred capability concept for the frigate mission. To reach this decision, they traded off some of the LCS' existing equipment for armor and weaponry, making it "marginally feasible to meet a revised version of [the frigate capability concept] that was less capable than the original concept." It would also retain the hybrid commercial / Navy standard scantlings and hull of the LCS, "which results in the ship having fewer vulnerability mitigation features than a ship built fully to Navy specifications," GAO said.
The Navy frigate task force cited factors of manning costs, construction costs and speed of delivery in choosing the LCS-based options over other available choices, and proponents have noted these points in arguing for the program. Some suggest that it is the best, least costly available option; that previous Navy shipbuilding programs have also been criticized as costly or ineffective at first only to be celebrated later as positive examples; and that the platform will allow for future upgrades to keep up with technological development. RAdm. Peter Fanta, director of surface warfare, has called on the Navy community to "sell the story" of the LCS and frigate program, and to carry on. "It's like every other ship," he said at a symposium in January. "We're building it, we're deploying it and we're figuring out what it can do."
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.