The raids should have been a gold star for the Navy. A trial run for a newly designed ship turned into a series of successful missions against cocaine smugglers, resulting in the capture of nine smugglers and over five tons of cocaine. But the early 2010 victories were darkened, quite literally, by a power failure on March 6 that left the ship briefly adrift at sea. The mechanical failure was not the last challenge that would face the crew of the USS Freedom, the first of a new breed of Navy vessels meant to become a core part of its fleet over the next decade. A series of test runs caused cracked hulls that forced the ship to limit its speed; engines that simply failed; and over 600 failures of equipment around the ship, leading to a number of dry-dockings at its home base in San Diego, according to data released by the nonprofit Washington-based watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
The Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) already had a troubled reputation. The Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) notoriously concluded in a 2011 report that the Freedom was unlikely to be “survivable in a hostile combat environment.”
But POGO disclosed new details of the Freedom’s shortcomings in a letter to the Chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate armed services committees accompanying the data. The group also raised concerns about what the group calls the Navy’s “pattern of obfuscation” regarding the achievements of the first ship.
Navy officials such as former Secretary Donald C. Winter have praised the LCS as cost-efficient and necessary for global security. “In this platform, we are making the right investments in our future security and prosperity,” Winter said at the commissioning ceremony for the USS Freedom. “Our nation needs this ship.”
More nimble than larger vessels, the LCS has been developed to help hunt for submarines, clear out mines, and be available for missions around shallow waters. The ships can be equipped with different “packages” depending on the needs of the mission, theoretically giving the Navy more flexibility in their use.
Two littoral ships are currently active in the fleet. The ship featured in POGO’s letter, the USS Freedom, was built and designed in a team effort of Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine Corp at a cost of $357.5 million. A different design, used on the USS Independence, was developed by Austal Ltd and General Dynamics at a cost of $345.8 million per ship. Both models have been active for trial runs.
All told, the estimated cost for the LCS program is $120 billion for 55 littoral ships meant to be used on missions around the globe. Both design teams have contracts from the Navy to build 10 ships each before another bidding process in 2014. But POGO called for a shutdown of the “dual-development” track, where the two teams are simultaneously developing the models, in favor of the service settling on just one of the designs. POGO also highlighted what it depicted as the Navy’s lack of candor with both DoD and Congressional officials. The service has been “reluctant” to share information about the ship with the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, which reports on defense and technological acquisitions, according to the watchdog group. Meanwhile, the Navy has consistently gone to Congress regarding LCS issues late in the budget cycle, making it difficult for those on the Hill to properly judge the future of the program.
The failures on board the Freedom were not limited to power outages. During the two month deployment where the ship traveled from Mayport, Florida to San Diego, California, it experienced over 80 equipment failures. A trial mission in 2011 resulted in 17 cracks in the hull, including one longer than 18 inches. Another crack, below the water line, allowed water into the ship and resulted in significant rusting. Some of the cracks were in similar spots on both sides of the ship—an issue that POGO asserts is indicative of a design flaw.
Due to the cracks, the ship was unable to safely motor at its top rated speed of 40 knots; instead, the LCS program manager issued guidance last year that the ship was not to travel above 20 knots and that it should avoid going into choppy “head seas”—where waves run directly against the ship’s course—at any speed. For a ship whose signature feature was to be its speed, this was a setback.
On a January 2012 trip, the ship’s four engines all suffered breakdowns, forcing the Freedom to limp back to port for repairs. A second trip in 2012 resulted in more flooding. Overall, there have been 640 equipment failures since the ship’s maiden voyage, according to the data. In a statement Navy spokesman Christopher Johnson said the service was “reviewing” the concerns raised in the letter. However, according to the statement, “nearly all of these issues were well-reported and have been corrected as warranted.” He added that, as the USS Freedom is the first of its kind, it was “expected” that the Navy would have to identify and correct problems with the design over time.
As to POGO’s charges that the service has not been forthcoming with DOT&E or Congress, Johnson said “that is not correct” and that the Navy works “very closely” with its oversight groups.
Lockheed spokeswoman Dana Casey said the POGO letter is “based on selective information that is more than a year old,” and argues that such problems are commonplace in new ships undergoing trial runs. “Any issue that has arisen in the development, testing and usage of this lead ship has been, or will be, addressed to ensure she and future Freedom-class ships meet or exceed the Navy’s needs. And our overall LCS program remains on cost and on schedule,” she said.
Last week Navy Undersecretary Bob Work defended the LCS at the annual SeaAirSpace symposium. While acknowledging there have been kinks, Work said lessons have been learned and improvements already made, and that the LCS will be a key component of the Navy’s operations in the coming years. “I know there are a lot of skeptics. But this ship is the right ship at the right time for the right fleet design,” Work said, according to the trade publication Inside the Navy. Work also said that he expects two new LCS ships to be in active service by “early next spring.”
Aaron Mehta writes for iWatch News, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, from where this article is reprinted.