San Diego Union Tribune

March 22, 2004

Navy sails into untested waters
Rush order sought for untried vessel


WASHINGTON The road to operational deployment of major new weapons programs is littered with the wreckage of grand concepts that failed or belatedly limped into use after consuming billions of dollars.

A common factor in the most wasteful of these troubled programs was a failure to adequately test the proposed system before going into large-scale production.

Despite this long and costly record, the Navy appears determined to rush into production and use a radical new coastal warship that in design and operational concept is unlike anything it has ever done.

The proposed vessel is called the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS. The Navy wants to buy up to 56 of them as quickly as possible to reverse the steady reduction in the size of its fleet and to take on an array of tough missions in the congested waters close to shore.

"I need LCS tomorrow morning," Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, said recently. "If somebody says you're going at this too hard, I'm going to say I need LCS tomorrow morning."

If Clark gets his way, the Navy will have paid for at least three of the ships before the first one is in the water and seven before it is likely to have finished testing. The five-year shipbuilding plan calls for 13 ships, even though the Navy won't choose from among the three designs until May.

The goal is to have some of the ships ready for operation in 2008, six years after the concept was unveiled and about half the time usually required to design, test and produce a warship.

The program envisions a small ship perhaps one-third the size of the 3,500-ton Perry-class frigates that can dash at 50 knots and operate with a crew of less than 50.

The ship would be a relatively simple "truck" that could accept a variety of mission modules containing high-tech sensors and weapons with the required operators that would enable it to conduct different missions. Likely tasks would include clearing coastal waters of mines or diesel submarines in advance of the larger warships while defending against swarming attack boats and anti-ship missiles.

The ships and the system of sensors and weapons would be produced by different teams of contractors.

Competing for the ship production are teams led by General Dynamics, which is offering a three-hulled trimaran based on an Australian design; Lockheed Martin, which is proposing a more conventional monohull design; and Raytheon, which is suggesting a "surface effects ship" that rides on a cushion of air, like the Navy's Landing Craft Air Cushion.

The team, or teams, that survive the May selection would be expected to produce a ship for testing in about a year and go into multiship production by 2009.

But that ambitious plan has raised concerns among well-regarded analysts and some members of Congress.

The critics note the Navy leadership's sharp reversal from strongly opposing the idea of a small ship for coastal warfare as late as 2001, to embracing the ambitious program the next year.

Ronald O'Rourke, the naval systems expert at the Congressional Research Service, has repeatedly protested the Navy's high-speed schedule for the ship.

O'Rourke complained that the Navy revealed its plans for the new ship before it had produced any analysis to show there was a key mission that needed to be performed and that the coastal ship was the best solution.

He also complained that it was difficult to analyze the cost of the program because the Navy had not supplied a realistic estimate of the cost of an individual ship and its mission modules of sensors and weapons.

The Navy recently estimated that the first ships could cost about $250 million and later vessels much less. That is one-fifth the cost of current destroyers.

Robert York, a naval programs analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private think tank, produced a 180-page study that endorsed the ship and the missions it would fulfill.

But York objected to the plan to buy so many ships before rigorously testing the ship, its missions and the way the ship would operate as part of the fleet.

He recommended that the Navy build several ships, then delay further production until it can test all elements of the program, including how the ship's crew and the mission technicians would work together and how the ship would operate with its sister ships and the rest of a naval task force.

Perhaps more troubling for the Navy are the questions about the program from the usually supportive leaders of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on sea power: Sens. James Talent, R-Mo., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Talent, the panel's chairman, demanded that the Navy produce more details on the ship, its likely cost and analyses to justify the program.

Kennedy, the senior Democrat, also complained about the lack of studies on the ship and the perceived threats and asked why the Navy should jump into an expensive program "without the analysis that shows the LCS is the most effective way to deal with the problem."

Rear Adm. Raymond Spicer, the deputy for surface ship programs, argued that the Navy has mountains of studies showing the need for an LCS-type ship. He also downplayed the need for extensive testing, noting that the ship would be relatively simple and that the system of sensors and weapons would contain "off-the-shelf" systems already in use.

Spicer said that the systems could be updated relatively cheaply as new technology evolves, and that the ships built later could be improved.

With the advancement of computer technology, Clark said the Navy cannot stay with a decades-long procurement process that produces weapons that are outdated before they go into use.

He said of the ship, "This is the future."