Top DOD weapons tester questions Navy ship's survival in attack

The littoral combat ship USS Independence demonstrates its maneuvering capabilities in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego in July. Some within the Pentagon are calling for the Navy's order of the ship to be dramatically reduced, raising questions about what the future surface fleet will look like.

WASHINGTON — The Navy's $23 billion littoral combat ship is less able to survive an attack than other U.S. warships, according to the Pentagon's top weapons tester.

Revised standards adopted for the vessel intended to operate in shallow coastal waters "continue to accept the risk the crew would need to abandon ship under circumstances that would not necessitate that action" on other vessels, Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department's director of operational testing and evaluation, said in a letter to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE | LCS development follows tumultuous path

Gilmore, rebutting the Navy's contention that he's misstating the ship's requirements, said they are "significantly different" from those for other ships that may face enemy forces. His stance adds to previous questions about the future of the vessel being built in two versions by Lockheed Martin and Austal.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in February that he was limiting purchases to 32 vessels, instead of the 52 originally planned, until the Navy developed alternatives for a more survivable ship. He has called for a more "capable and lethal" option that could include an upgraded littoral combat ship or a different design. Recommendations from defense contractors are due by the end of this month.

About $12 billion has been appropriated by Congress so far for 20 vessels.

In addition to $23 billion to build the ships, the Navy would spend $7.2 billion to buy mission modules that are supposed to be swapped out for mine-hunting, surface warfare and anti-submarine missions.

Gilmore offered his observations about the littoral combat ship's survivability in the June 26 letter to McCain, who is critical of the program. The senator sponsored a provision in this year's defense budget that mandated a Navy and test office report on the ship.

Gilmore also submitted a report dated June 26 outlining the ship's evolution and the status of its warfighting equipment.

The letter to McCain was intended to rebut material the Navy submitted to lawmakers on June 6. It said Gilmore's office "inaccurately defines LCS capabilities" and "mis- characterizes the requirements to which LCS was designed" and its capabilities.

The LCS, "for military and survivability features, was constructed in accordance with Navy specifications and standards comparable to all surface combatants," the service said.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said in a June 6 letter transmitting the service's congressionally mandated report on the ship that its survivability depended on a "total-ship concept."

The design will allow the vessel to "continue to perform its primary mission, exit the battle area under its own power or conduct an orderly abandon ship," depending on circumstances, Greenert said.

"In short, LCS is a survivable ship," Greenert wrote Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who heads the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. "Speed, maneuverability and modern weaponry aid LCS in avoiding a hit in the first place."

"If hit, LCS was designed to minimize vulnerability" and "with modern automated damage control systems" it will be able to "recover from causalities and withdraw to fight again," Greenert said.

The Navy also outlined the five-year record of equipment failures for the USS Freedom built by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed and the USS Independence built by Henderson, Australia- based Austal. It said the number of reports for each ship "is on average consistent with other surface combatants in the fleet," the Navy said.

Gilmore wrote McCain that the Freedom and Independence were built to a standard for vessels such as patrol and logistics ships that are "not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment and are not intended to be employed in a manner that puts them in harm's way."

"Combatants have traditionally been required to meet much more stringent survivability criteria," Gilmore said.

The littoral combat ship's 50-member crew — an increase of 10 over the original manning concept — "should be able to extinguish small fires and control minor damage" from a "minimally damaging weapons hit or collision but might not be able to restore full combat capability at sea," Gilmore said.

Even with its advanced firefighting capability "the crew will likely be unable to fight a major conflagration and would probably be forced to abandon ship," he said.

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