If President-elect Donald Trump is going to go line by line through the Pentagon’s budget looking for waste, the first place Rep. Jackie Speier thinks he should examine is the Littoral Combat Ship program.
When the program began some 15 years ago, the Navy planned on purchasing 55 ships for $220 million each. But now with repeated problems, cost overruns and delays, it plans to buy 40 ships, each costing $478 million, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Speier, who called the ship a “dud” at House Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, isn’t the only one taking aim at the program. Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it “is an unfortunate, yet all too common example of defense acquisition gone awry.”
Bashing contractors and service secretaries for cost overruns is a longstanding tradition on Capitol Hill, a rite of passage that’s part accountability and part political theater. But Trump’s election, and his vows the further scrutinize major defense acquisition programs, have sent shock waves through the industrial base—and the politicians who represent the districts where those programs produce jobs.
Earlier this week, Trump tweeted that the cost of buying a pair of new presidential planes known as Air Force One was too high, and that the order with Boeing should be canceled. His spokesman said it was a warning that Trump planned to “focus on keeping costs down across the board with regard to government spending.”
The Air Force One program has only just begun, and is still in the development stages. So, unlike the Littoral Combat Ship, “it hasn’t had a chance to have any cost overruns yet,” Todd Harrison an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The ship, known as the LCS, could offer an early test of Trump’s views. Defense analysts think the program could figure prominently since Trump has said he wants to strengthen the military, and increase the size of the Navy’s fleet to 350 ships. But it also is the kind of program that could draw scrutiny.
“Programs that have had cost problems or performance problems are going to be subject to renegotiation,” said Bryan Clark, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The LCS program is “tailor-made for the new administration to revisit.”
That’s because, like many major Pentagon weapons systems, from aircraft carriers to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it’s had all sorts of cost and schedule problems. The ship comes in two variants, one that’s more narrow and able to maneuver quickly, another that has a larger deck for manned and unmanned aircraft. The prime contractor on the former is Lockheed Martin, the latter is Austal, which took the program over from General Dynamics.
“LCS’s failure followed predictably from an inability to define and stabilize requirements, unrealistic initial cost estimates, and unreliable assessments of technical and integration risk made worse by repeatedly buying ships and mission packages before proving they are effective and can be operated together,” McCain said.
Speier (D-Calif.) pointed to multiple engine failures, cracks in the hull, software malfunctions, and said, “we have a ship that the Chinese don’t even want to copy.”
J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, said that as part of his office’s review of the ship it surveyed many of the sailors charged with testing the ship’s capabilities. And he read aloud some of those comments Thursday. “The tasking would be easier to complete if the equipment didn’t constantly break,” he read. “As equipment breaks we are required to fix without any training.”
Then he told the congressional panel, “Those are not my words. Those are the words of the sailors who are doing the best they could to accomplish the mission we gave them in the testing.”
At the Senate hearing earlier this month, Paul Francis, the managing director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, said that the Pentagon has 26 ships under contract and “we still don’t know if the LCS can do its job.”
Sean Stackley, the Navy’s assistant secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and acquisition, said the “experience of the LCS, it broke the Navy.” But he said that in more recent years, the program has stabilized and “we retooled the entire way we do business when it comes to acquisition programs. And I think we are trying to pull best practices in.”
Program managers are “pretty much under a microscope right now” and Navy officials have made it clear “you don’t get to ignore cost while you’re chasing a requirement.”
Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden told the House committee Thursday that the Navy is “already seeing the benefits of our new approach on the waterfront.” The ships have spent 500 days at sea, testing with other nations and performing humanitarian and relief operations, he said.
“The ship works,” Stackley said. “We have reliability issues. We’ll get through those, but the ship works.”
Gilmore said he was pleased top Navy officials are taking a more aggressive approach.
“I’m glad the Navy is now acknowledging many of these problems,” he said. “But in the past that hasn’t always been true.”