The open secret, inside and outside the United States Navy, is that many have dared call the path-breaking “Littoral Combat Ship” (LCS) by another name. Those close to the process – perhaps especially those – have glibly called it the “Little Crappy Ship,” twisting the acronym to express truth to power. Only power has not been listening. Not within or outside the Navy – not even in Congress.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus should be halfway home by now – probably should have been years ago. Beyond torpedoing Navy morale, dabbling in unilateral ship naming, imposing unnecessary social policies, rejecting US Marine Corps studies and failing to bring procurement reform around, he oversaw large programs that have been permitted to under-deliver and overcharge. None of this, as they say, is really rocket science. But it does matter – to sailors and taxpayers. It also matters to America’s mid- and long-range national security.
Recently, the oversight parts of Congress caught on. While some members have pushed more money at LCS, benefiting of their districts and States, others have started waking up – and asking hard questions. Better late than never. The picture emerging is of civilian leadership either disinterested in outcomes, or asleep in the wheelhouse. The effect on LCS has been to leave future sailors unequipped for sustained combat, and taxpayers in deep debt.
Admittedly, original specifications were muddy, another government failure. But the process has not gotten cleaner with time. Caught in dangerous waters with insufficient defenses, facing ammunition misfits, poor training protocols, and inadequate “legs,” the LCS trajectory for achieving success needs a rethink. If the goal was longer reach, better force projection, greater agility and stronger end game – we are not yet there. Needed is a working, effective, reliable new generation of Navy Patrol Torpedo (PT) or swift boat, not what we got.
Already in September, news was getting worse. As one report confessed, LCS Coronado had to be recalled after a “high-profile engineering snafu” days a different “LCS breakdown.” In context, that report noted LCS “failures have put new urgency behind big changes that will alter the training pipeline, as well as the way ships are crewed and employed in the fleet.”
Beyond these failures, more are likely. That report noted, “Navy leadership faces an even more daunting challenge: Fixing the ships that will in coming years become a substantial swath of the fleet.” True, it must be done. But the poor oversight, unsustainable costs, rolling errors, and continuing forward stumble must stop. Since December 2015, four of eight LCS ships have broken down, three from Freedom-class.
This week, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, reported that the present fleet of eight LCS ships has “a near-zero chance of completing a 30-day mission, the Navy’s requirement, without critical failure of one or more sea-frame subsystems essential for wartime operations.” Said the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “we are 26 ships into the contract, and we still do not know if it can do its job.” Translation, another jaw-dropping Navy leadership – misfire.
After some in Congress fed the beast, others are now alert to the dangers of pork. Congress in November 2016, started asking tougher questions. Even Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), watching operational failures and a doubling of costs to $478 million per copy, started to grumble.
How did all this happen – to program after program? A world of threats does not wait for effective responses. They do not handicap America for poor leadership. World antagonists and provocateurs do not forgive avoidable errors. Nevertheless, here we are. The real issue is not weak congressional oversight or pork politics. It is cultural, the tendency toward a collective “Big Shrug” at cost overruns, losses of time and capability. “Group think” allows collective misjudgment and mismanagement, with no accountability.
Good contractors can create capable ships, making them work, matching performance to specifications, delivering on time and at cost – if properly managed. If, however, the government fails to live up to basic leadership and contract management, failure should be expected. Consequences are now due – including for government. Absent accountability, we will keep contracting for ships and get pricey misfires.
America’s Navy is not an experiment in anything – not in asset convergence, unproven platform integration, threat minimization, social experimentation, or political correctness. It is also not an experiment in contracting. We know how to do this – we just need to do it. Congress has repeatedly failed to insist on accountability, but Navy has been no better. That goes to the top. Contractors should be held accountable, balancing performance against costs, time, and risk. That is a leadership role.
In the end, contracting missteps, lost opportunities, and operational failings are endemic. They must be fixed without delay – as must the system that permits a collective shrug and lack of accountability. The last eight years have been a wild ride for the Navy, replete with failures of management and leadership. The next administration is in a tight channel as it takes the wheel – but they need to get it right.