GAO: US Navy’s LCS still largely unproven

GAO, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, issued a report which said the lethality and survivability of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) were still largely unproven, six years after delivery of the lead ships.

It said that the U.S. Navy had lowered several survivability and lethality requirements and removed several design features—making the ship both less survivable in its expected threat environments and less lethal than initially planned. GAO also said the Navy was compensating for this by redefining how it plans to operate the ships.

In 2014, the Navy conducted its first operational test of an early increment of the surface warfare mission package on a Freedom variant LCS, demonstrating that LCS could meet an interim lethality requirement. The Navy declared LCS operationally effective.

According to DAO, the Navy’s test report stated that the ship did not meet some key requirements. Further, the Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation has stated that there is insufficient data to provide statistical confidence that LCS can meet its lethality requirements in future testing or operations, and further testing is needed to demonstrate both variants can meet requirements in varied threat environments.

The Navy also has not yet demonstrated that LCS will achieve its survivability requirements, and does not plan to complete survivability assessments until 2018—after more than 24 ships are either in the fleet or under construction.

The Navy has identified unknowns related to the use of aluminum and the hull of the Independence variant, and plans to conduct testing in these areas in 2015 and 2016. However, the Navy does not plan to fully determine how the Independence variant will react to an underwater explosion.

GAO further said this variant also sustained some damage in a trial in rough sea conditions, but the Navy is still assessing the cause and severity of the damage and GAO has not been provided with a copy of the test results. Results from air defense and cybersecurity testing also indicate concerns, but specific details are classified.

In February 2014 the former Secretary of Defense directed the Navy to assess options for a small surface combatant with more survivability and combat capability than LCS. The Navy conducted a study and recommended modifying the LCS to add additional survivability and lethality features.

After approving the Navy’s recommendation, the former Secretary of Defense directed the Navy to submit a new acquisition strategy for a modified LCS for his approval. He also directed the Navy to assess the cost and feasibility of backfitting lethality and survivability enhancements on current LCS.

Nevertheless, the Navy has established a new frigate program office to manage this program, and the Navy has requested $1.4 billion for three LCS in the fiscal year 2016 President’s budget, even though it is clear that the current ships fall short of identified survivability and lethality needs. GAO has an ongoing review of the Navy’s small surface combatant study and future plans for the LCS program.

As a response to these issues, the GAO recommended Congress to delay funding for fiscal year 2016 LCS until the Navy submits a completed rough water trials report, acquisition strategy, and backfit plan; and consider not fully funding some or all LCS procurement pending analysis of these documents and the final survivability assessments.

Additionally, the current U.S. Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter on December 14, instructed the Chief of Navy, Ray Mabus, to cut the LCS to 40 units and choose only one shipbuilder. Carter said that funds saved should be directed at the acquisition of other Navy assets like aircraft and armament.