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Off Course: Did Navy Underplay Steering Problem Before Awarding Ship Contract?

In late 2010, the future of one of the U.S. Navy’s prized new weapons systems hung in the balance.

Instead of choosing between competing versions of a warship designed to operate in shallow coastal waters, the Navy wanted Congress’s blessing to buy both of them – one by Lockheed Martin and another by General Dynamics.

Internal Navy records obtained by the Project On Government Oversight and Aviation Week show that, before Congress granted the Navy’s request, tests of the version developed by Lockheed Martin had identified a problem.

“Ship is inherently directionally unstable,” one Navy document said.

The vessel, known as a “littoral combat ship,” was difficult to steer and “requires many… adjustments to maintain a straight course,” the document said.

That information does not seem to have been shared widely at the time.

In response to questions from POGO, a Navy spokeswoman said Navy personnel “limited discussion” of test results, partly because they doubted the findings and partly because the assessments could have influenced the competition.

The spokeswoman, Lieutenant Courtney Hillson, said the directional instability was normal.

“Although seemingly counter-intuitive, all ships actually need some amount of directional instability inherent to the hull in order to maneuver tactically through the water,” Hillson said in a written statement.

However, a source close to the LCS program told POGO that the directional instability affected the crew’s ability to operate the Lockheed ship.

The documents obtained by POGO and Aviation Week show that Navy officials urged personnel involved in the littoral combat ship program to contain or reword the results of the so-called calm water trials conducted in October and November of 2010.

One Navy officer explicitly tied his concern to “the down select”—the moment of truth when the government was supposed to choose between the two rival models, declaring one team of shipbuilders the winner and another the loser in this multi-billion dollar shipbuilding competition.

James R. Garner, who at the time was commanding officer of the USS Freedom, the first littoral combat ship (LCS) delivered by the Lockheed consortium, emailed a subordinate about a summary of lessons learned in the calm water trials. Garner described a discussion he had had with Dan Brintzinghoffer, who worked on the LCS for the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NAVSEA).

“I had a healthy conversation with Dan Brintzinghoffer today and he asked that we not use terms directional instability or the like in any briefings or discussions,” Garner wrote on Dec. 15, 2010.

Garner relayed two reasons he was given to avoid the phrase. The definition of the term was “in question,” he wrote. The government’s pending decision about the future course of the program was also a factor.

“The bottom line is concern with respect to the down select,” Garner wrote.

On Dec. 22, 2010, one week after those emails were written, Congress authorized the Navy to buy both the Lockheed model and another designed by General Dynamics’s partner, Austal.

One week later, on Dec. 29, 2010, the Navy awarded each team of shipbuilders a contract for as many as 10 of their vessels. The Navy anticipated spending an average of $440 million per ship, about twice the price it had originally envisioned, according to a Congressional Research Service report on the program’s history.

Directional instability is one of many problems the program has encountered. For example, a 2011 analysis by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation concluded that the littoral combat ship “is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment.”

In many ways, the long-troubled littoral combat ship has been emblematic of Pentagon procurement and modern weapons systems. Costs mushroom. Progress is delayed. Performance falls short of expectations, and big defense contractors developing the hardware get do-over after do-over.

The internal Navy documents obtained by POGO and Aviation Week shed light on another dimension: the reaction of military personnel when problems surface.

Congressional overseers of the combat ship program were not made aware of the ship’s testing results before the December 2010 legislative action, according to congressional sources intimately familiar with that action.

In a written statement to POGO, the Navy spokeswoman said that in late 2010 Navy personnel involved in the littoral combat ship program “limited discussion of” calm water trial results “because some of these initial results appeared to be invalid.”

The spokeswoman also suggested that publicizing the results could have put the Lockheed ship at an unfair disadvantage in the competition.

“[A]llowing widespread discussion of preliminary trial results for USS FREEDOM before USS INDEPENDENCE” – the General Dynamics ship – “underwent her trials could potentially impact . . . source selection by creating unfair comparisons between the ships,” Hillson said.

POGO asked the Navy who if anyone in Congress was told about the directional instability, when they were told, and what if anything members of Congress knew about the matter when they gave the Navy authority to buy both versions of the ship. The written statement the Navy provided did not explicitly address those questions.

Among the other unanswered questions: How high up the military chain of command did knowledge of the issue go?

Even after Congress had authorized funding for both versions of the ship, information from the calm water trials was contained, according to internal Navy correspondence. When an LCS officer inquired about it in January 2011, a Navy test official wrote that the data was “still under a gag order.”

According to a person close to the LCS program, even people directly involved in the program were unable to obtain calm water test results until more than a year after the trials were concluded. The person spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Navy spokeswoman told POGO that both versions of the littoral combat ship “meet performance requirements.” As the Navy spokeswoman tells it, directional instability isn’t a serious problem with the Lockheed ship.

“Based on the ship design, the directional instability observed in USS FREEDOM’s calm water trials was normal and has no impact on the operator’s ability to maintain ship’s heading,” Hillson said.

“At no point during or after these trials have there been any concerns that USS FREEDOM is unsafe to operate or has undue difficulty in maneuvering or maintaining heading,” she said.

Navy records obtained by POGO and Aviation Week provide a different perspective. A “Calm Water Trials Lessons Learned” brief from late 2010 described observations made as the Freedom was put through its paces. That document said the ship was “inherently directionally unstable.”

“Difficult to steer ‘in-hand’, requires many, many bucket angle adjustments to maintain a straight course,” it added. The document was attached to a chain of emails on Dec. 15, 2010.

“OK, this is a really good brief. Problem is it’s a bit TOO good,” a trial director at NAVSEA’s Carderock division, which oversaw the calm water trials, wrote in response on the same date.

The trial director appeared concerned that the internal report could provide legal ammunition for Lockheed’s rivals.

“Please don’t send this brief anywhere else outside your lifelines, as I think the main issue is potential lawsuits between shipbuilders,” he wrote.

On December 14, 2010, one day before those emails were written, Navy leaders were on Capitol Hill testifying in defense of the vessel and urging lawmakers to pay for both the Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics versions.

“Both the lead ships of each variant are currently in service and already performing well, while also conducting a comprehensive test and evaluation program,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Do both of these vessels in their current configuration meet the Navy’s requirements?” Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) asked the chief of naval operations.

“Yes, Senator, they do. Both ships do,” Admiral Gary Roughead replied.

Days later, Congress agreed to set aside the competition and allow the Navy to buy both versions of the ship instead of forcing the Navy to choose between them.

Six months later, Navy Secretary Mabus named the “Competition Excellence Acquisition Team of the Year.” The honor went to the Littoral Combat Ship Price Analysis Team, which included the person who reportedly opposed using the “terms directional instability or the like in any briefings or discussions.”

POGO made multiple attempts to obtain comment from the individual participants in the LCS program whose correspondence is cited in this report. Those efforts were made via email, LinkedIn, or phone listings. POGO received no response to its messages. Lockheed spokeswomen did not respond to POGO’s requests for comment.

Weeks after the congressional decision to suspend the competition, a member of the Freedom crew wrote to officials at NAVSEA asking about the potential release of the data gathered aboard Freedom during the calm water trials.

“I was told by PMS 501 [the LCS Program Office] not to show our results to anyone else until they gave permission,” an official at NAVSEA, Grant Rossignol, wrote back.

“The bottom line,” he wrote, “is that they didn’t like what the results said.”

Click here to read the full Navy statement.