Lawmaker concerned that Navy fleet isn’t ready for combat

A longtime supporter of the Navy’s new fleet of shallow-water ships is beginning to question whether the vessels are truly fit for combat.

The Navy plans to buy 55 Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) vessels, but unless the service can show it can survive in hostilities, “I’m not sure we can justify that,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said Wednesday during a House Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing.

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Moran’s sudden concern about the program — he has long been a proponent — was triggered by a recent report from the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation office (DOT&E).

“LCS is not expected to be survivable in terms of maintaining a mission capability in a hostile combat environment,” the report concluded. 

The Navy designated LCS a Survivability Level 1 ship, meaning the design of the ship only allows for crew evacuation during combat.

DOT&E acknowledged the testing on the ships is “not conclusive,” but said the finding “raises concerns about the effects weapons will have on the crew and critical equipment.”

The DOT&E report said more testing is needed to draw a final conclusion about the littoral ships in combat. 

In the meantime, Moran is worried. Asked following the hearing whether he is souring on the LCS program, Moran told The Hill he is “not there yet.” 

“The thing is, in a combat situation, the Navy would have to pull the crew out,” he said after the hearing. “So what’s the point, if you have to do that? This is the Pentagon’s own finding … and it is a disturbing finding.”

During the hearing, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, did not address the DOT&E finding directly. Instead, Roughead noted the shallow-water ships “can go where other ships cannot. … It’s going to be a real workhorse for us.”

In a recent report, Congressional Research Service analyst Ronald O’Rourke noted that when the sea service awarded contracts for two models in December, it stated both ships would “have an average unit cost of about $440 million.”

Congress in 2010 placed a $480 million price cap on each littoral war ship, a figure the Navy pegs at $538 million after an inflation adjustment.

Despite Moran’s concerns, other House appropriators held up the Navy’s LCS acquisition plan as a model for buying new weapon systems faster.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member — later joined by others — said he was increasingly concerned the Pentagon is “wasting billions in development” and “years of effort” on some weapon programs.

When the Pentagon has set out to develop and field a new combat system “in an expedited way … we’ve saved money” and gotten those platforms to deployed forces faster than following the military’s cumbersome acquisition process, Dicks said.

“And I think LCS is an example of doing it right,” he said.

Asked after the hearing about Moran’s concerns, Dicks told The Hill he is standing by the program.

Roughead told the panel that too often, programs drag on and breach cost estimates because they become a “slave to a process.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus added the existing Pentagon acquisition system causes military program managers and industry to work “toward an expectation” of what a system could be. 

On future programs, “we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Mabus, borrowing a favorite quote used on the same topic by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Dicks said the Pentagon should not put off fielding new systems until they meet 100 percent of their technical potential. Instead, the “80 percent solution” likely will be good enough initially — “and then you can do an upgrade,” he added.

This aspect of Pentagon weapons buying can stretch out the most technically ambitious development programs longer than a decade. 

Moving faster than that is a top goal of the Marine Corps’ replacement for the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), a program the service and Pentagon brass are proposing to kill because it is too costly.

Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, says he wants to drive a prototype of a less-ambitious, cheaper vehicle by the time his stint as the top Marine ends in three and a half years.

Naval officials admit this is a lofty goal, but Mabus told the subcommittee: “I think we can get there.”