Congress Blocks the Navy’s Plans to Retire Underperforming Ships | Citizens Against Government Waste

Congress Blocks the Navy’s Plans to Retire Underperforming Ships

The WasteWatcher

The Department of Defense (DOD) has more than its share of underperforming programs.  While Pentagon planners shoulder the burden of responsibility for poor decisions leading to cost overruns and delays in some programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, members of Congress often play a major role in sustaining the agency’s woeful acquisition track record.  Such is the case with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

The LCS has been a disaster since its inception, with problems that include a vaguely defined mission, a lack of firepower and survivability, and design flaws causing corrosion.  Ship breakdowns and high maintenance costs led the Navy to release plans to retire nine Freedom class vessels in fiscal year (FY) 2023 – every ship of this LCS variant that has entered into service.  The plan would have seen the vessels exit well before their expected end-of-service date.  The Freedom variant was intended to operate for 25 years, but the nine ships targeted for retirement range between less than two years and ten years old.

The initial House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Version of the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) followed the Navy’s lead in retiring the nine vessels.  However, HASC members Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.) successfully included an amendment to the NDAA that blocked the retirement of five of the ships in the version the House passed on July 14, 2022.  Senators will have a chance to restore the Navy’s plans when the upper chamber considers its version of the NDAA later this Summer.

When you stack up the evidence against the LCS, it’s no wonder the DOD wishes to divest itself of the program.  The latest setback surfaced in May 2022, when an internal Navy report revealed that half of the ships have been impacted by structural defects leading to hull cracks.  To mitigate the damage, the LCS, whose purpose is to perform high-speed patrols, will be limited to lower speeds, especially in rough waters.

A February 24, 2022, Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated that the LCS fleet, “has not demonstrated the operational capabilities it needs to perform its mission.”  The report found that operating and maintaining the 35 LCS the Navy intends to purchase, including the 17 already delivered, will cost more than $60 billion.

Problems with the LCS crop up annually.  On January 19, 2021, when the DOD announced that it had halted deliveries of the Freedom-class LCS because of a transmission design flaw, a Defense News article cited a defect in the ship’s combining gear, “a complex transmission that transmits power generated by the ship’s engines to its waterjet propulsion system.”  The Navy believes that the contractor, Lockheed Martin, should be responsible for paying for repairs, which will likely take months for each ship.

Freedom-class LCS transmission issues are nothing new.  In 2015, the maiden voyage of the LCS Milwaukee was cut short when the transmission broke down and the vessel required a tow to reach port.

The many and varied problems in the LCS program strongly indicate that it may be time to pull the plug.  These issues have caused lengthy delays.  A June 2018 GAO report noted that “deliveries of almost all LCS under contract have been delayed by several months, and, in some cases, a year or longer.” 

The program has become so troubled that the Pentagon took active measures to undermine the bad press.  According to a March 2017 GAO report, the DOD Office of Prepublication and Security Review, which is charged with reviewing information to be released to the public, blocked critical information regarding cost growth within the LCS program.

As is so often the case with deeply flawed DOD programs, the justification for additional LCS funding can be boiled down to a desire to protect jobs, a motivation that likely spurred the House amendment to protect the five LCS vessels.  In a March 20, 2018 HASC hearing, then-HASC member Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), whose former district hosts the Austal USA shipyard that builds one of the two versions of the LCS, reproached then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer for requesting only one LCS in FY 2019.  Rep. Byrne stated in the hearing, “Unfortunately, your acquisition plan for small surface combatants fails to provide for an enduring industrial base.  In fact, it will erode the industrial base for those ships,” and reducing the program to one annual ship will result in “thousands of shipyard workers” being laid off. 

The LCS functioning as a jobs program remains the sole possible argument for its continued existence.  Legislators should follow the Navy’s lead and allow the retirement of all nine vessels.  Given the persistent problems with the LCS, a strong case can be made that the program should be scrapped entirely.

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