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Senate Questions Littoral Combat Ship Upgrades

Congress and independent evaluators, including the Project On Government Oversight, have long had concerns about the Littoral Combat Ship’s mission and ability to survive in combat.

Unfortunately, the special task force created last year to review the troubled ship has recommended an up-armored Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), leaving many questions unanswered. The Senate Armed Services Committee included language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2016 that will require the Navy to address these issues or lose most of the funding for upgrades to the LCS.

In February 2014, after years of negative reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congressional Research Service , and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel suspended LCS purchases and established the “Small Surface Combatant Task Force” to review the LCS’s performance and prepare alternative proposals for “a capable and lethal small surface combatant [SSC], generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.” In December, the Pentagon announced it was sticking with the basic LCS design. Subsequent analyses by the Congressional Research Service and DOT&E have raised questions about how this plan solves the problems that prompted the review.

Section 115 of the SASC markup of this year’s NDAA threatens a 75 percent funding cut unless outstanding questions about the ship are answered. The bill would require, “A description of capabilities that the LCS program delivers, and a description of how these relate to the characteristics,” of the mission the LCS is supposed to perform.

Specifically, the Navy is asked to address questions raised by the Congressional Research Service about the lack of analysis done on the original program, and concerns about meeting the concept of operations voiced by GAO. If the Navy can answer the conceptual questions, it will still have to answer DOT&E’s technical concerns. That will include an assessment of “capability gaps and associated capability requirements and risks for the upgraded Littoral Combat Ship,” as well as how the LCS is expected to perform against enemy weapons.

In other words, the Navy has to prove the LCS can survive the conditions a frigate will face in combat. Finally, the bill goes beyond raising doubts about the ship to raising doubts about the Navy’s commitment to getting it right. By requiring, “a summary of analyses and studies conducted on LCS modernization,” SASC is attempting to understand how the SSC task force concluded the LCS was the best-fit option without answering the questions of Congress and watchdogs.

Concerns about the comprehensiveness of the process existed from the outset. The task force did not include any flag officers, and only one person outside of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. An advisory group led by the Navy’s chief surface ship acquisition officer was also comprised almost entirely of OPNAV personnel.

“What is perhaps unusual,” wrote Christopher Cavas of Defense News, “is that neither group features a representative from the active-duty Naval Surface Force command,” even though the head of the command had been a member of the panel that oversaw the LCS before the task force, and had, “previously identified the need to study alternatives to the LCS designs.”

Nor was the task force asked to address the technical concerns of Congress or weapons testers, just provide a plan for a new ship. Cavas observed on a separate occasion that, “there seems to be little likelihood a new design will be chosen,” reasoning that the review lacked the time, money, and political will to make substantial changes. “A cone of silence” and numerous non-disclosure agreements characterized the review, which makes it hard to assess the process directly. However, the task force ultimately concluded an up-gunned and up-armored version of the LCS was the best fit for the service (despite the existence of numerous alternatives). Hagel approved the panel’s recommendation for 30 LCS-frigates at an estimated cost increase of $75 million per ship. As one former naval officer remarked, they seemed “afraid to make changes for fear of being seen as admitting there were faults with the original design.”

According to CRS, the task force’s work failed to clarify the LCS mission, or how the ship’s capabilities meet the mission’s needs. As CRS pointed out, “The original LCS program arguably had a weakness in its analytical foundation… weakness [that] may have led to some of the controversy that the program experienced in subsequent years, which in turn” led to Secretary Hagel’s review. Specifically, the Navy never fully analyzed the “capability gaps and/or mission needs” of the LCS, or if the LCS was “best or most promising way, to fill those capability gaps or mission needs.” According to CRS, the task force “apparently did not have enough time to conduct either of the two above analyses.”

Even more damning criticism came from DOT&E, which has long claimed that the LCS could not survive combat conditions. This is not simply a function of armor: survivability ratings also incorporate crew size, ship size, critical functions, and passive defense systems. Taking each of these factors into account, in 2013 DOT&E found that “LCS is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat,” and lacks the “survivability features necessary to conduct sustained combat operations in a major conflict as expected for the Navy’s other surface combatants.” The Navy’s SSC Task force should have addressed these issues, but according to DOT&E, the panel’s results indicate “the multimission combat capabilities and survivability design features of a modern frigate could be provided only by a new ship design or a major modification to the LCS design.”

Last week, the Navy missed its deadline for submitting an acquisition strategy for the new ships. Now the task force has not only failed to make necessary technical improvements, the Navy has failed to come up with a plan for buying those upgrades.

POGO is glad to see the Senate is adopting our recommendation from our Bakers Dozen to Congress written in February, “Congress should closely examine the Navy’s new plan and pause the LCS program until the Navy can show that this ship can survive combat at a price taxpayers can afford.” Because a number of LCS are already been authorized without the frigate upgrades, Section 115 won’t impact the program before 2019. The White House has objected to the provisions, which are a step in the right direction, and should be passed.