Amid Breakdowns, Navy Struggles To Make New Ships Work
The Navy continues struggling to get its new class of warships to work right.
When the USS Coronado set sail last week from Pearl Harbor for a planned deployment across the Pacific Ocean, it suffered engine problems and had to turn back. Before that, the Navy acknowledged that a diesel engine on another ship, the USS Freedom, was in such bad shape, it needs to be rebuilt or replaced.
Both of these are littoral combat ships, known as LCS, which are intended for operations taking place close to shore.
Other littoral combat ships have suffered problems as well. The USS Milwaukee lost power in the middle of a trip to Norfolk in December and had to be towed ashore. And before that, the USS Fort Worth sat idle for months in Singapore, crippled by its own machinery problems. Now it's limping home across the Pacific for more repairs.
The Navy acknowledged all the failures this week in a statement after the Coronado turned back to port.
"Some of these were caused by personnel and some were due to design and engineering," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. "These issues are all receiving our full and immediate attention, both individually and in the aggregate."
The most recent string of embarrassments follows years of work by the Navy to get its new class of littoral combat ships to perform as advertised. Richardson's acknowledgement that they've fallen short is further evidence that a lasting solution may still be a long way off.
From the early 2000s, the Navy set out to make these new vessels different from traditional warships — smaller, much faster and with the ability to swap out mission equipment rather than carry built-in weapons or sensors like previous ships. Leaders wanted a ship that could hunt for submarines, for example, dash back into port, swap out its mission modules and then head back out to clear sea mines.
The problems, however, began almost immediately: Design changes to the first two LCS meant changes while they were still being built, which more than tripled their cost from a planned $200 million to closer to $700 million apiece. Since then, the cost per LCS has stabilized around $560 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Meanwhile, problems in making the ships' mission equipment work mean that none of it is ready for action.
And all along, the Navy has had to scale back its original aspirations for the ships. It is increasing the size of crews, shortening the amount of time for planned deployments and reviewing the way ships might be deployed in the real world. Richardson said that all the sailors in the ships' engineering departments are being retrained and recertified — ideally to avoid more breakdowns or problems at sea.
John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been among the Washington voices who have criticized the Navy's LCS program, along with congressional watchdog groups, outside reform groups and the Pentagon's own top weapons tester, Michael Gilmore.
"The ship is not reliable," Gilmore wrote, and neither are its mission systems. Gilmore's office also concluded that it did not expect the ships to be "survivable in high-intensity combat."
In fact, the Government Accountability Office has urged members of Congress to slow or pause the Navy's purchases of the ship until the Navy addresses what the GAO calls the uncertainties about and unproven qualities of the program.
The Navy, however, says slowing or stopping construction would wreak havoc with production lines that are only now hitting their stride in building ships on time and on budget.
The Navy brass say they believe the service can make the littoral combat ships program work and that these ships answer a demand for larger numbers of high-tech units around the world.
"The entire leadership team is focused on ensuring our ships are properly designed and built, and that our sailors have the tools and training they need to safely and effectively operate these ships," Richardson said. "These ships bring needed capability to our combatant and theater commanders — we must get these problems fixed now."
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