Pentagon: Navy's $670 Million Fighting Ship Is 'Not Survivable'
January 16, 2013
Spencer Ackerman & David Axe / Danger Room, WIRED Magazine
In less than two months, the Navy will send the first of its newest class of fighting ships on its first major deployment overseas. Problem is, according to the Pentagon's chief weapons tester, the Navy will be deploying the $760 million "USS Freedom" before knowing if the so-called Littoral Combat Ship can survive combat. And what the Navy does know about the ship isn't encouraging: Among other problems, its guns don't work right.
Navy's $670 Million Fighting Ship Is 'Not Expected to Be Survivable,' Pentagon Says
Spencer Ackerman / Danger Room, WIRED Magazine
(January 15, 2013) -- In less than two months, the Navy will send the first of its newest class of fighting ships on its first major deployment overseas. Problem is, according to the Pentagon's chief weapons tester, the Navy will be deploying the USS Freedom before knowing if the so-called Littoral Combat Ship can survive, um, combat. And what the Navy does know about the ship isn't encouraging: Among other problems, its guns don't work right.
That's the judgment of J. Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department's director of operational test and evaluation, in an annual study sent to Congress on Friday and formally released Tuesday. Gilmore's bottom line is that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is still "not expected to be survivable" in combat. His office will punt on conducting a "Total Ship Survivability Test" for the first two LCSes to give the Navy time to complete a "pre-trial damage scenario analysis." In other words, the Freedom will head on its first big mission abroad -- maritime policing and counter-piracy around Singapore -- without passing a crucial exam.
The systems the LCSs will carry, from their weapons to their sensors, compound the problem. The helicopters scheduled to be aboard the ship can't tow its mine-hunting sensors, so the Navy is going to rely on robots instead -- only the robots won't be ready for years. And the faster the ship goes, the less accurate its guns become.
In fairness, the point of operational testing is to uncover and flag flaws in the military's expensive weapons systems. And first-in-class ships often have kinks that are worked out in later vessels. Plus, it's not like the Navy is rushing the Freedom to fight World War III. The local pirates there would never be confused for a serious navy. But the flaws Gilmore identifies go to the some of the core missions behind LCS' existence: to fight close to shore, at high speeds; and to clear minefields.
These words have haunted the Navy ever since Gilmore's office uttered them in December 2011: "LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment." At a Navy expo in April 2012, Secretary Ray Mabus insisted that LCS is "a warship and it is fully capable of going into combat situations," while heralding the LCS' 2013 deployment to Singapore.
Gilmore's new report stands by the 2011 assessment, though it sands down the rough edges. "LCS is not expected to be survivable," it finds, "in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment." Additionally, Gilmore discloses that the Navy has "knowledge gaps related to the vulnerability of an aluminum ship structure to weapon-induced blast and fire damage," but that it won't conduct tests for those vulnerabilities until later this year or next year.
It might also not be able to depend on all of its weapons in a fight. The 30mm gun on board the Freedom "exhibit[s] reliability problems." The 57mm gun on both the Freedom and its sister ship, the differently designed USS Independence, is apparently worse: "Ship operations at high speeds cause vibrations that make accurate use of the 57 mm gun very difficult," Gilmore finds. Worse news for the Freedom: Its integrated weapons systems and air/surface search radar have "performance deficiencies" that affect the ship's "tracking and engagement of contacts."
This is supposed to be a time of heraldry for the LCS. In March, the Freedom will head to Singapore for eight months as a harbinger of the Obama administration's much-touted strategic refocusing on Asia and the Pacific Ocean. It's also meant to spur confidence in the Navy's first new type of ship in two decades, an expensive design that still faces serious questions about just what its role in the Navy is. Its crew in San Diego is confident: "The guns shoot, we conduct [maritime interdiction] operations, and we move fast," Cmdr. Patrick Thien recently told Navy Times' Christopher Cavas. Vice Adm. Tom Copeland, who heads the Navy's surface fleet, last week called LCS an "integral and substantial part of our future force."
The Navy ultimately wants to buy 55 of the ships. When fully loaded with all its gear, the USS Freedom costs $670.4 million, according to an August report from the Congressional Research Service. (.pdf) The alternate design on the USS Independence runs $808.8 million
Fighting close to shore is only one of the missions that the LCS, a ship designed so the Navy can "plug and play" different sensors and weapons systems as technology improves, is expected to perform. Another is mine-hunting -- which the Freedom won't do in Singapore. Problem is, the Pentagon's weapons testers gave the LCS' mine-hunting package a failing grade last year, and this one isn't much better.
This time around, Gilmore's office found that the MH-60 Seahawks intended to launch from the LCS minehunters can't "safely tow" the sonar suites that scan for underwater mines. So the Navy has scrapped the plan to put the "underpowered" helicopters aboard the LCS for minehunting. That's left a "gap in organic mine sweeping capability" on the LCS, the report states.
The Navy's plan to address that gap depends on the Unmanned Influence Sweep System, a semi-autonomous undersea robot that will spoof the acoustic and magnetic signals of big ships to compel the mines to detonate when Navy ships aren't in range. Problem is, as Danger Room reported earlier this month, the Navy is just getting ready to solicit industry bids to build the robot. That gap in mine-sweeping capability is likely to last years -- and that's if the robot successfully speeds through the development and acquisition process.
The report isn't all bad news for the LCS. It finds that the Navy has fixed a crack in the hull of the Freedom. And it's installing an anti-corrosion system on the Independence that should prevent a strange and aggressive corrosion discovered in 2011.
The Navy said it couldn't reply to the report by Danger Room's press time, so we'll update this report if and when we receive a response. It's not as if the Navy isn't aware of the problems with the ship: Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, appointed a high-ranking panel in August to get the LCS up to snuff (.pdf); its action plan is due at the end of January.
Singapore isn't exactly a combat zone. But the testing report makes clear that grounds for skepticism about the Navy's newest warship remain -- especially if pirates decide to challenge it on the open water.
Builder Blames Navy as Brand-New Warship Disintegrates
David Axe / Danger Room, WIRED Magazine
(June 23. 2011) -- The Navy's newest warship is slowly disappearing, one molecule at a time.
This isn't a sequel to the 1984 sci-fi flick The Philadelphia Experiment, in which a Navy destroyer-escort vanishes through a time portal in Pennsylvania only to reappear in Nevada, 40 years later.
No, this time the disintegration is real. And so is the resulting tension between the Navy and the disappearing warship's upstart builder.
The afflicted vessel is USS Independence, the second in the sailing branch's fleet of fast, reconfigurable Littoral Combat Ships. Eventually, these ships are supposed to be the workhorses" of tomorrow's Navy.
As Bloomberg reported, the Navy has discovered "aggressive" corrosion around Independence's engines. The problem is so bad that the barely year-old ship will have to be laid up in a San Diego drydock so workers can replace whole chunks of her hull.
In contrast to the first LCS, the steel-hulled USS Freedom, Independence is made mostly of aluminum. And that's one root of the ship's ailment.
Corrosion is a $23-billion-a-year problem in the equipment-heavy U.S. military. But Independence's decay isn't a case of mere oxidation, which can usually be prevented by careful maintenance and cleaning. No, the 418-foot-long warship is dissolving due to one whopper of a design flaw.
There are technical terms for this kind of disintegration. Austal USA, Independence's Alabama-based builder, calls it "galvanic corrosion." Civilian scientists know it as "electrolysis." It's what occurs when "two dissimilar metals, after being in electrical contact with one another, corrode at different rates," Austal explained in a statement.
"That suggests to me the metal is completely gone, not rusted," naval analyst Raymond Pritchett wrote of Independence's problem.
Independence's corrosion is concentrated in her water jets -- shipboard versions of airplane engines -- where steel "impeller housings" come in contact with the surrounding aluminum structure. Electrical charges possibly originating in the ship's combat systems apparently sparked the electrolysis.
It's not clear why Austal and the Navy didn't see this coming. Austal has built hundreds of aluminum ferries for civilian customers. The Navy, for its part, has operated mixed aluminum-and-steel warships in the past.
But Independence -- the Navy's first triple-hull combatant -- could be a special case for both the builder and the operator. For all Austal's chops building civilian ferries, the Australian company is new to the warship business. Austal set up shop near Mobile in 1999. Today, the shipyard has contracts to build 10 LCS, plus several catamaran transports for the Navy.
From the Navy's point of view, Independence and the other Littoral Combat Ships are unique. As in, uniquely cheap. Each vessel is supposed to cost just $400 million, compared to more than a billion bucks for a larger, all-steel Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
Lots of things -- major weapons, for one -- have been left off the LCS in order to keep the price down. The list of deleted items includes something called a "Cathodic Protection System," which is designed to prevent electrolysis.
Independence will get the protection system installed at the first opportunity, and future LCSs will include it from the beginning, according to Pritchett.
But instead of simply filing the corrosion issue under "lessons learned," Austal seems determined to blame its customer. "Galvanic corrosion has not been a factor on any Austal-built and fully maintained vessel," Austal stressed, implying that Independence hasn't been "fully maintained" by a negligent Navy.
That's an, ahem, interesting approach to customer relations for America's newest warship-builder.
And things could get worse, as more LCSs enter the fleet. "I suspect there will be other public problems revealed over time that will require relatively simple, albeit costly, solutions," Pritchett wrote. Will Austal also blame the Navy the next time a glitch appears in the ships it builds?
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