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Report: Delay littoral ship funding until survivability testing is complete

The littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, and USS Coronado (LCS 4) underway in the Pacific Ocean in April 2014.

KEITH DEVINNEY/U.S. NAVY

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 18, 2015

A government watchdog agency has recommended that Congress delay funding the littoral combat ship project until the Navy completes testing on how well the ships endure after being attacked.

With six ships already delivered and 20 more under construction, the "actual lethality and survivability performance of LCS is still largely unproven through realistic testing," concluded the Government Accountability Office in a report released Friday. A classified version was completed in July.

The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship/Frigate program aims to procure 52 LCSs and frigates. Two dozen LCSs have been funded since 2005, according to a report issued this week by the Congressional Research Service. The Navy’s FY 2016 budget requests procurement of three more LCSs, at a cost of just over $1.4 billion, the CRS report said.

Bloomberg News on Thursday reported that Defense Secretary Ash Carter advised Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a memo that the Navy should reduce the number of littoral combat ships and frigates being purchased from 52 to 40 – and invest instead in aircraft.

Friday’s GAO report said that since the LCS program was initially authorized and funded, costs have increased and "the Navy has further reduced the ship’s lethality and survivability requirements."

Survivability is the ability of a ship to avoid, withstand and recover from damage.

The GAO had questioned the survivability of LCSs in previous reports, leading then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to order the program revamped in February 2014 to make a more survivable ship.

Two shipyards are constructing two different design variations, the GAO report said. The Navy has planned to buy another 28 ships, and the final 20 will be designated as frigates that will use modified versions of the two types of frames now being used for the LCSs, the GAO report said.

Procurement of those ships is slated to begin in 2019.
The Navy, however, has not yet demonstrated that the LCS will achieve the required survivability, and assessments for that won’t be completed until 2018, after 24 ships are in the fleet or under construction, the report said.

Among the risks to the LCSs is vulnerability due to the use of an aluminum alloy that’s unlike any used on other Navy ships, the report said. Using aluminum rather than steel helps the LCS achieve high speeds due to less weight.

Aluminum, however, loses its stiffness more quickly than steel in the high temperatures of fire — a vulnerability that the Navy has identified as needing more study on the LCS, the report said.

Testing has been done using modeling and simulated attacks on surrogate vessels, such as two decommissioned Finnish fast-attack craft and other aluminum structures.

But the Navy still lacks adequate data on how fire or underwater explosions will affect the ships’ aluminum. Navy officials told the GAO that its technical experts would not complete analysis on this vulnerability until 2018, the report said.

The GAO said that technical experts from the Naval Sea Systems Command say they don’t fully understand how the hull would react to whipping caused by the shock wave of an underwater explosion. Significant whipping can cause a ship to break apart.

"The vulnerability of the ship’s hulls to various sea conditions also remains unknown," the report said. "Due to the dynamic nature of waves, the Navy cannot rely on modeling and simulation alone to provide an accurate assessment of a ship’s performance in rough seas."

The GAO recommended Congress consider not funding the LCS ships at all beyond 2016 "given the uncertainties over the longterm about the ship’s survivability and lethality and proposed changes to future ships."

olson.wyatt@stripes.com

Twitter: @WyattWOlson

An employee welds a component of a U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ship during production at Marinette Marine Corp., in Marinette, Wisc., on February 11, 2013.
DANIEL ACKER/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL/MCT

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