A detail in this story has been clarified.
In the nearly eight years since the first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was delivered to the Navy, it hasn’t won many ardent fans outside the Navy, its home-state lawmakers, or the employees of the two shipbuilders producing dueling models. The ships’ maiden voyages have been marked by cracked hulls, engine failures, unexpected rusting, software snafus, weapons glitches, and persistent criticism of how vulnerable they are to an attack.
“The ship is not reliable,” the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation director said in a report released in January 2016, only the most recent such judgment it has made. During 113 days of testing on one ship last year, some of the engines and water jets responsible for propelling the ship forward were out of commission for 45 days.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expressed his concern last December by ordering the overall number of new ships trimmed from 52 to 40, saving billions of dollars. The department’s leaders also ordered production scaled back from three to two ships in 2017 and said all the work should eventually go to just one of the two shipyards.
But lawmakers on Capitol Hill — provoked or perhaps inspired by a steady stream of contractor donations and unusually determined Navy lobbying — are now on the verge of ordering the Pentagon to build more than Carter wanted.
A defense appropriations bill moving towards Senate approval in coming days or weeks directs that $475 million be spent by the Navy to procure an extra LCS next year. The House of Representatives has already passed legislation ordering that $384 million be spent on the extra ship. So it’s virtually certain to happen, a prospect that cheers the Navy greatly but has evoked dismay among the ships’ many critics.
The extra spending is a direct repudiation of the Secretary of Defense, putting the Navy back on track with its original three-ship production schedule for 2017 — and pushing the decision about the fate and total size of the LCS fleet off to the next president.
The Obama administration “strongly objects” to buying the extra ship, the White House said in a budget message to Congress on June 14. It said just two are needed now to preserve a competition that “ensures the best price for the taxpayer on the remaining ships” and that spending more would needlessly drain funds from other military priorities, including undersea, surface and aviation programs. Carter made clear at the time he cut the program back that that there’s no love lost between his office and the Navy’s command, which he accused in a blunt letter of ignoring technical risks, neglecting warfighting needs, and prioritizing warship “quantity over lethality.”
The extra ship, which is part of a program with an estimated lifecycle cost of at least $45 billion, is just one in a long list of armaments that Congress is about to force the Pentagon to buy against its will — following an annual ritual that routinely pads spending for the nation’s defense by billions of dollars and sometimes gives U.S. soldiers equipment that doesn’t work or they don’t need.
According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit spending watchdog based in Washington, D.C., the House bill passed on June 16 contains at least $6.7 billion worth of research and armaments that the Defense Department’s leaders did not request in their February budget proposal. That’s even higher than the $4.6 billion in unwanted expenditures that Congress approved last year, the group says.
The House bill, for example, includes $1.5 billion for an unrequested modern “amphibious” warship for dual land and sea missions, $400 million for four unrequested C-40 aircraft to carry cargo and commanders, and $1 billion worth of unrequested National Guard equipment, a perennial pork-barrel favorite, the Taxpayers’ report said. The Senate bill itself would add almost $4.3 billion for 49 unrequested programs, including $1 billion for a coast guard ship to break ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, $130 million extra for an unspecified classified program, and $900 million worth of unrequested National Guard equipment.
“Congress wants to pass out the cash and look like they’re being strong on defense,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense and a former U.S. Coast Guard officer. He adds that members are also keen to help home-state contractors, including some that earn billions of dollars annually from Pentagon spending and whose employees in turn give generously to key lawmakers that support the weapons systems they make or service.
Struggling to meet minimal requirements
The LCS was conceived as an unusual multi-mission ship platform, capable of being used in shallow water to help fight battles on shore (“littoral” denotes a region along a shore) as well as in deep-water engagements, as a replacement for existing mine sweepers, frigates, and coastal patrol craft. It was to be equipped to counter armed boats, submarines or mines by reconfiguring the ships’ weapon systems, sensors and crews according to needs of the moment.
In that sense, according to critics, it is unfortunately the sea-going equivalent of the Air Force’s trillion-dollar F-35 fighter plane: designed too ambitiously to fulfill too many roles and as a consequence well over its budget, flawed in its execution, and struggling to meet even minimal operational requirements.
Among its more notorious missteps, the first of the new littoral combat ships to be deployed, named the USS Freedom, was immobilized in the South China Sea — a key future operating area — during a trial run in 2013, after also experiencing a cracked hull and unexpected rusting. A year later, auditors at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the USS Freedom had spent 58% of its 10-month deployment idle in port in Singapore.
Last December, a second ship, the USS Milwaukee, broke down and had to be towed 40 miles after a software malfunction failed to allow the clutch to transfer between the warship’s gas turbines and diesel engines, spewing metallic debris into the gears. Another ship, the USS Fort Worth, was sidelined in January — and remains in Singapore today — because its operators failed to follow proper maintenance procedures and adequate lubricants did not reach those same gears, which are vital to the operation of waterjets needed for high-speed operation.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy captain, told the service’s officials in a February letter cosigned by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Jack Reed (R.I.), that LCS “seaframe failures and system reliability shortfalls” as well as its weak armaments had made him highly skeptical that the ships could defeat anything more than “a small number of lightly armed boats” — well short of what he cited as the Navy’s boasts that it could put “the enemy fleet on the bottom of the ocean.”
McCain said the program had “significant design, testing, integration, and deployment challenges.” And his committee eventually approved a defense authorization bill that supported the Obama administration’s LCS production cutback. But it wasn’t the last word.
Despite the ship’s troubles, the Navy wanted more. In March, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told the House Armed Services Committee that the military branch had a “validated need” for 52 littoral combat ships, 12 more than his boss at the Pentagon said it did. Mabus went on to say that Carter’s plan to choose one shipyard to make most of the ships instead of two would drive up the price. At an industry conference in January, he called the overall program a “success story.”
Key congressmen rushed to support Mabus. Led by Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., and Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisc., who represent districts that house the two competing shipbuilders, roughly 40 House lawmakers signed two April letters to the House Armed Services Committee and House Committee on Appropriations applauding the ship’s “production efficiencies and cost savings,” and stating that reductions to the fleet would “hinder the Navy’s ability to respond to threats around the globe.”
Financial backers of the shipyards in question — Austal USA, in Mobile, Alabama, and Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin — reinforced this message in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lobbying from January 2016 to March 2016 according to reports filed by them with the House and Senate clerks. Lockheed, a prime contractor on the LCS that says it is also a minority investor in the Marinette shipyard, said it spent $3.65 million to lobby Congress on all issues between January and March 2016, with an unspecified portion related to shipbuilding. Austal USA –which has narrower interests — separately spent $189,096 lobbying just on the shipbuilding provisions in House and Senate defense appropriations bills.
Austal USA employed 12 lobbyists, almost all of which previously worked in government, including on appropriations committees, according to information gathered by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. Lockheed employed 70 lobbyists, according to the Center’s data, of which over two-thirds had previously been in government posts, including at the Department of Defense and on appropriations committees. At least six of Lockheed’s lobbyists formerly worked with the Navy; one of Austal USA’s lobbyists was a naval captain and another previously worked for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a strong supporter of the LCS.
The two contractors’ home-state lawmakers didn’t stop at signing the letters. “Congress should not allow a Secretary of Defense with less than a year left in office to decide the fate of a critical Navy program like the LCS,” Rep. Byrne said in a statement before the amendment passed in April. A provision he successfully inserted in the House-passed bill would block Carter’s plan to give all the work to just one shipyard.
“The LCS is critical to our Navy’s ability to respond to current and future threats across the world,” Sen. Shelby said in a statement after Carter announced his plan in December. “I will fight tooth and nail against this misguided attempt to needlessly undermine the security of our nation and the American people.”
It’s clear why home-state lawmakers would support the extra spending. But the influence of the shipbuilders runs far deeper at the Capitol. Lockheed Martin has given campaign funds to almost every current Senate and House defense appropriations subcommittee member, a total of at least $2.3 million from 1999 to 2015, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of Federal Election Commission filings and Center for Responsive Politics data. Though the contractor is not allowed to give directly to candidates, Lockheed Martin’s employees can contribute and its company-directed political action committee or PAC, which collects employee and other funds, can donate.
Since 1998, Rep. Frelinghuysen R-NJ, the key House subcommittee chairman, has received at least $151,850 from Lockheed Martin’s employees and PAC; the amounts rose after he assumed that role in late 2013. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Tx, the vice-chair, has received at least $341,850 in contributions from Lockheed Martin’s employees and PAC, including those to her leadership PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The ranking member, Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-IN, has received at least $102,100 in individual and PAC donations. The House Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-KY, also received at least $82,475 from Lockheed Martin’s PAC and employees.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, received more than $72,000 from Lockheed Martin’s employees and PAC since 1989. Senate defense appropriations chairman Thad Cochran, R-MS, received over $40,000. Austal USA, a subsidiary of an Australian defense firm that mainly makes ships and has a much narrower set of legislative interests, has given thousands of dollars to Sen. Shelby and to two House defense appropriators.
Spokesmen for Cochran, Granger, and Shelby said the contributions did not influence their support for the ship; the others did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“When you’re the chair or senior member of the defense appropriations committee you’re going to get a lot of money from various defense contractors…[that] hope that you act favorably on their wants,” Ellis said. If the contractors have been making campaign contributions “right along, they can potentially get to the senior members of the committee whether [the members]…represent them or not.”
Upgrades with scant impact
Supporters of the program say that future ships will be different than those produced so far. They’ve been formally rebranded (from “LCS”) as mere frigates — a less ambitious naval nomenclature referring generally to any fast and small ships. They are supposed to be equipped with a bit more armor, a better missile decoy system, improved electronic warfare gear, and a better air-search radar, which will boost their costs by an estimated 20 to 30 percent. But the troubled anti-mine warfare technology the ships were meant to have — which failed repeatedly in tests — will be dropped altogether, leaving that mission to more proven solutions.
The rebranding came in the aftermath of a special study ordered by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2014, which used statistical modeling to assess the potential capabilities, costs, and delivery dates of many possible new designs. The Navy decided as a result of the study to procure a version of the warship that was “not substantially different” from the littoral combat ship, according to a 56-page report issued June 9 by the GAO.
Due to space, weight, power, and cooling constraints, it chose the “least capable” design of all the available options, a frigate that could not fulfill all the anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare tasks that were previously considered important, the report said. Navy officials agreed their selection contained only minor modifications to the LCS but said their choice was dictated by a need to operate the ship militarily by 2020 and to avoid the higher expenses of a more sweeping redesign.
The GAO report nonetheless cited internal Pentagon warnings that, despite the technical fixes, the new frigates’ chance of surviving an attack is unlikely to be greatly improved. The report noted that its range will be as much as 30 percent lower and said it will not be capable of defending other ships in a pitched sea battle. It said the Navy, in its review of alternatives, had underestimated the new frigate’s likely costs, while overstating the costs of crew manning for rival ship designs.
“The Navy’s business case for the acquisition of the frigate is compromised,” the GAO said, “by unknowns related to the ship’s design, cost, and program oversight plans.”
The GAO report concluded moreover that proceeding with the production of additional ships without first conducting more testing is a mistake. The last of the Navy’s LCS survivability tests will be completed in 2018, by which time 18 of the ships will have been completed and delivered to the service. The ships are already a year or more behind schedule and over budget, and so the GAO suggested a “production pause” in which Congress would fund no new ships at all in 2017, not even the two that the Pentagon’s leadership says it wants.
Some of the ships’ supporters say these growing pains are common with any new ship. Ronald O’Rourke, a naval issues analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said in testimony for the House Armed Services Committee in 2014 that many naval acquisition programs stumble in the beginning. The Navy’s favorite ships today were often “not very well regarded in earlier years,” O’Rourke said.
But extensive mishaps with the LCS have called into question not just the ship, but the Navy’s ability to make decisions about what it really needs. In a report released June 14, O’Rourke cited naval officials’ admissions dating back to 2003 that it had not studied carefully enough whether the LCS is the right ship for warfare in shallow waters, an omission that he said explains many of its troubles today — but which don’t seem to undermine their confidence that they need to sail forward with the program, full speed ahead.
Lauren Chadwick is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Public Integrity. The Center’s news developer Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this article.
This article was co-published with Politico Magazine.
Clarification, July 6, 2016: The article initially described the Marinette shipyard as Lockheed Martin’s. It was changed to reflect Lockheed’s statement that it is only a minority investor in the shipyard.
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