- One Navy secretary and his allies in Congress fought to build more littoral combat ships even as they broke down at sea and their weapons systems failed. The Navy wound up with more ships than it wanted, at an estimated lifetime cost that could reach $100 billion or more.
- The Navy’s haste to deliver ships took precedence over combat ability. Without functioning weapons systems the vessels are like a “box floating in the ocean,” one former officer said.
- Sailors and officers complained they spent more time fixing the ships than sailing them. The stress led many to seek mental health care.
- Top Navy commanders placed pressure on subordinates to sail the ships even when the crews and vessels were not fully prepared to go to sea.
- Several major breakdowns in 2016 exposed the limits of the ships and their crews, each adding fresh embarrassment to a program meant to propel the Navy into a more technologically advanced future.
In reality, the LCS was well on the way to becoming one of the worst boondoggles in the military’s long history of buying overpriced and underperforming weapons systems. Two of the $500 million ships had suffered embarrassing breakdowns in previous months. The Freedom’s performance during the exercise, showing off its ability to destroy underwater mines, was meant to rejuvenate the ships’ record on the world stage. The ship was historically important too; it was the first LCS built, the first in the water, commissioned just eight years prior.
But like the LCS program’s reputation, the Freedom was in bad shape. Dozens of pieces of equipment on board were undergoing repairs. Training crews for the new class of ships had proven more difficult than anticipated. The sailors aboard the Freedom had not passed an exam demonstrating their ability to operate some of the ship’s most important systems.
As the day to launch approached, the pressure mounted. Top officers visited the ship repeatedly. The Freedom’s sailors understood that theirs was a “no fail mission” with “‘no appetite’ to remain in port,” according to Navy documents obtained by ProPublica.
The Freedom’s Capt. Michael Wohnhaas consulted with his officers. Despite crippling problems that had left one of the ship’s engines inoperable, he and his superiors decided the vessel could rely on its three others for the exercise.
The Freedom completed its mission, but the accomplishment proved hollow. Five days after the ship returned to port, a maintenance check revealed that the faltering engine had suffered “galloping corrosion” from saltwater during the exercise. A sailor described the engine room as “a horror show” with rust eating away at the machinery. One of the Navy’s newest ships would spend the next two years undergoing repairs at a cost of millions.
It took investigators months to unravel the mystery of the engine’s breakdown. But this much was clear at the outset: The Freedom’s collapse was another unmistakable sign that the Navy had spent billions of dollars and more than a decade on warships with rampant and crippling flaws.
The ongoing problems with the LCS have been well documented for years, in news articles, government reports and congressional hearings. Each ship ultimately cost more than twice the original estimate. Worse, they were hobbled by an array of mechanical failures and were never able to carry out the missions envisaged by their champions.
Our examination revealed new details on why the LCS never delivered on its promises. Top Navy leaders repeatedly dismissed or ignored warnings about the ships’ flaws. One Navy secretary and his allies in Congress fought to build more of the ships even as they broke down at sea and their weapons systems failed. Staunch advocates in the Navy circumvented checks meant to ensure that ships that cost billions can do what they are supposed to do.
The Navy has tried to retire many of the littoral combat ships years before they reach their expected lifespan. Ships designed to last 25 years are being mothballed after seeing less than a decade of service.
In response to questions, the Navy acknowledged the LCS was not suitable for fighting peer competitors such as China. The LCS “does not provide the lethality or survivability needed in a high-end fight.”
The cost of the program has gnawed at John Pendleton, who for years was a top military analyst at the Government Accountability Office and has studied the rise and fall of the LCS as closely as anyone in Washington.
Now retired, but unable to shake what he views as one of the most wasteful projects he’d encountered in his nearly 35-year career, Pendleton reviewed budgetary documents and GAO reports for ProPublica going back decades. His conclusion: The lifetime cost of the LCS class may reach $100 billion or more.
The Problems With the Littoral Combat Ship
One former admiral who worked on plans for the ship said Clark’s insistence on speed — up to 45 knots, or about 50 miles per hour — created immediate problems. A ship cannot go that fast for very long without running out of gas, which meant it could never stray far from its fuel supply. Its small size — many in the Navy joked that LCS stood for Little Crappy Ship — limited the weapons it could carry.
With an emphasis on speed and dexterity, the ships were not designed to withstand much damage. Clark saw them fighting under the protection of larger, more lethal ships. To him, investing too much in protecting the ship with extensive armor would make it too heavy to operate near shore.
“Show me a ship that can take a direct hit with today’s modern weaponry and survive,” he said. “Why spend all this money pretending?”
A “Foreseeable” Disaster
In a press tour days before the launch, Cmdr. Kendall Bridgewater evinced confidence, proclaiming that the enemy “would be hard pressed to find a vessel that could come up against us.”
But the ship wouldn’t need a fight to suffer its first defeat. Its worst enemy would be its own engine.
On Dec. 11, about three weeks into the two-month journey, a software failure severely damaged the Milwaukee’s combining gear — a complex mechanism that connects the ship’s diesel engines and its gas turbines to the propulsion shafts, producing the power necessary for it to reach top speeds.
A Navy salvage ship had to tow it some 40 miles for repairs at a base near Norfolk, Virginia. The ship hadn’t made it halfway down the East Coast — let alone to the South China Sea — before breaking down. If the Milwaukee were a brand new car, this would be the equivalent of stalling on its way out of the dealership.
Some former officers look back on the breakdown and those that followed as a clear violation of a cardinal principle in Navy shipbuilding: to “buy a few and test a lot.” But with the LCS, the Navy was doing the opposite. Commanders were learning about the flaws of the ships as they were being deployed.
“This is a totally foreseeable outcome,” said Jay Bynum, a former rear admiral who served as an assistant to the vice chief of naval operations as the ships were entering the fleet. “Just think about it, Toyota checks out all of this before the car hits the showroom floor. What if the engineering guys there said, ‘Well, we think this is how the engine will work, but let’s just start selling them.’”
“We Ask for Help, but There Isn’t Enough”
Just a month after the USS Milwaukee stalled in Virginia, the ship it was supposed to join in the South China Sea suffered its own embarrassing breakdown.
The USS Fort Worth was nearing the end of an otherwise successful deployment. It had helped with a search-and-rescue operation following an Indonesian commercial plane crash and participated in joint exercises with several allied navies.
But the Navy had decided to frequently rotate the small LCS crews in order to reduce burnout and, in November 2015, a new, inexperienced crew took over.
Even the commanding officer, Michael Atwell, had “few opportunities to gain valuable at sea experience” before his deployment, according to a later Navy investigation.
On Jan. 5, hundreds of gallons of fuel spilled into the ship’s main machinery room. The sailors had to spray chemical foam on the fuel to prevent it from catching fire. Then, in grueling, filthy shifts, they took turns crawling into the tight compartment to clean it up with rags and pumps.
The day after the spill, the Fort Worth pulled into a port in Singapore for a week of scheduled maintenance.
There it became clear that the ship had been “ridden hard,” according to officers interviewed in the Navy investigation. Leaks had sprung out of various parts, the engines were in bad shape, the electric generators needed work and the crew was exhausted. There was “no break, no reprieve, just increasing daily tasking,” one sailor said of their time on board.
The ship’s executive officer, the second in command, complained of a lack of support from superiors.
“We ask for help, but there isn’t enough,” he said, adding that he was told “they don’t have the bodies.”
The ship was originally supposed to leave by Jan. 12 for a “high visibility” port visit in Hong Kong. Atwell and his executive officer described a “tremendous amount of pressure” to make it happen, according to the Navy investigation.
The crew took shortcuts as it scrambled to test the engine. One of the sailors in charge of starting it skipped a routine step, failing to properly lubricate the combining gears.
“I messed up everything because I was going too fast,” the sailor later explained.
The mistake damaged the ship’s combining gear, forcing it to sit for seven months while waiting on replacement parts.
Navy leaders deemed Atwell unfit for command and removed him from his position.
Reached by phone, Atwell declined to comment.
The breakdowns on the Milwaukee and Fort Worth formed the beginning of a pattern that came to punctuate the life of the LCS program:
Ships were rushed to sea with faltering equipment. Shorthanded crews and captains without sufficient training or support tried to make them work. Breakdowns ensued. Then, the pressure to perform and restore the reputation of the program intensified anew and the cycle repeated itself.
“We Were Essentially Telling a Lie”
Comparing the LCS to the fleets of potential adversaries, Perez concluded that the vessels were only capable of fighting against lightly armed small, fast attack boats.
A fellow officer warned him that painting this kind of damning portrait for the highest ranking officer in the Navy, the chief naval officer, could hurt his career. At that point, the Navy had already committed to buying at least 20 more ships worth billions of dollars.
Perez had already shared some of his findings with Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson, the second highest ranking official in the Navy.
According to a former senior officer familiar with the events, Ferguson told Perez that he was looking at the vessels the wrong way. The small ship’s performance should be compared to a patrol boat.
Perez objected. Patrol boats aren’t supposed to clear mines, fight submarines or attack surface warships. They are far smaller, designed primarily for surveillance and interdiction.
The staffers worked on the comparison for about two weeks before they began “tearing each other up because we were essentially telling a lie,” according to the former officer who worked on the project. After a vote, they decided to stop comparing the LCS to a patrol boat.
Immediately after Perez delivered the report, he received a call from Bynum, a former rear admiral who at the time worked for Ferguson. Bynum told Perez to classify the report secret.
“That was absolutely my recommendation,” Bynum said in an interview with ProPublica. The report, he said, included a “host of vulnerabilities that didn’t need to be shared in the open press.”
But on July 7, 2016, the day before the ship was supposed to begin its part in the global Navy exercise, a string of equipment failures forced its captain into a bad spot: Wohnhaas had to submit a “fail to sail” message to his superiors — an embarrassing signal that the ship was not ready to go.
Working through the night, engineers on the Freedom eventually realized a part called a cannon plug used in the ship’s complicated propulsion system needed to be replaced. Without it, the ship couldn’t go anywhere.
They discovered one in Port Hueneme, about an hour north of Los Angeles. The engineer battled through five hours of Southern California traffic to pick it up and bring it back. The ship departed its port in San Diego a day late, then suffered another setback.
Three miles outside Mexican territorial waters, a loud metallic noise clanged out, startling the crew. Wohnhaas slowed the ship down but it began to drift. The crew dropped anchor to stop the ship and then steamed back to port.
He was sent back out to sea and senior officers later criticized him for holding up the mission.
Then on the evening of July 11, a leak erupted inside the main machinery room, the mechanical heart of the ship, spraying the electrical system with seawater. An inch or two pooled on the floor. If the leak wasn’t stopped immediately, it could cause short-circuiting or even a fire.
One sailor searched for the source of the leak by hand, burning his arm on a hot pipe before finding a hole seeping water. The sailors plugged the hole, but the repair backfired. It forced water to burst through a rubber seal that kept seawater out of the ship’s lubrication oil system. The water mixed with the oil, pumping a kind of emulsified goo through one of the ship’s four engines.
Two days later, the crew, again, had to return the ship to dock in San Diego. The engineer responsible for the ship while in port determined that a full repair of the engine could take as long as two weeks. Wohnhaas’ superiors rejected the idea. Time was running out for the ship to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC.
“It Just Felt Like a Big Joke”
By early 2017, Lt. Jett Watson was beginning to wonder whether he had signed up to squander his naval career.
He was in the middle of training to serve as an LCS officer, spending hours inside virtual reality simulators set up in San Diego to make participants feel as if they were driving the ship.
The digital experience was impressive, but getting a real LCS out to sea was more complicated.
“I’m sure it was funny to watch us get underway just to have a big cloud of smoke go out because an engine went down and then have the tugboats pull us right back into the pier, which happened very often,” he said in an interview with ProPublica. “I mean, it was almost a game just to watch.”
Becoming a full-fledged surface warfare officer in the Navy requires hundreds of hours at sea. In interviews with current and former officers, the LCS program was described as a place where careers go to die. The ships broke down so frequently that officers spent key years in which they were supposed to gain experience at sea sitting around waiting for repairs to be completed.
Watson felt deceived.
A couple of years earlier, he had come under the spell of the LCS as a student at the Naval Academy.
There, recruiters for the program spread the gospel of its small crew size and purportedly aggressive deployment schedule, convincing him that the ship suited only the most elite sailors and officers.
The ships needed constant repairs. But technical manuals were sometimes written only in the native language of the contractor that built the equipment. One former officer said that a manual for a davit, a type of crane used to lower a search-and-rescue boat, was written in Norwegian. He said the Navy had to spend thousands of dollars to fly in a contractor from Norway to change two fuses.
The Navy has recently increased the amount of maintenance performed by sailors.
“It just felt like a big joke,” said Watson, who left the Navy in 2021. He said many of the highly qualified sailors he worked with sought mental health assistance because they felt that their time on an LCS was a waste, affording them little opportunity to apply their skills or learn new ones.
“An average week would consist of 90 to 100 hours in port doing, honestly, nothing,” Watson said. “It felt ridiculous. Many times we were there just because we had to be there.”
A Fight over the Future
The ships’ mounting problems drew attention from the highest reaches of the Pentagon, eventually prompting two successive defense secretaries to try to halt their construction.
The first, in 2014, was Chuck Hagel, a former Army infantry squad leader and U.S. senator. The military was fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it also needed to save money. Hagel’s advisers told him he could do that by keeping the LCS fleet to 32 ships, abandoning plans to build 52 of them.
He’d be cutting what was already understood to be a deeply troubled vessel. Studies showed that the ship couldn’t continue to fight after a missile strike and that the interchangeable warfighting packages — an idea originally at the heart of the LCS — were failing to perform.
“Do we want one-fifth of the future Navy fleet to be a ship that can’t take a hit and continue its mission?” one adviser recalled thinking at the time.
Australian-based shipbuilder Austal, which constructs the Independence class of ships, and General Dynamics, which built the infrastructure for the ship’s computers, both declined to comment for this story.
The weapons systems were failing as badly as the ship’s engines.
Without them, the LCS was “only a box floating in the ocean,” said former Lt. Cmdr. Mark West, who helped lead the Navy’s development of the warfighting packages for years in uniform and as a civilian.
To help the LCS find mines, an important mission in 21st-century warfare, the Navy built a remotely operated minisubmarine designed to detect underwater explosives. West and others said it turned out to be too difficult to operate. The Navy is now dependent on an aging fleet of minesweepers that often cannot deploy.
“Imagine a 25-year-old sailor trying to remotely control a [minisubmarine] in the water that weighs 20,000 pounds as the ship is going 4 or 5 knots,” one current senior enlisted sailor said. “Then trying to bring it to the surface as a crane lowers a saddle on top of it to get it out of the water. It was damn near impossible.”
Coronado and Montgomery
About a month after the Freedom’s engine failed, a fourth LCS, the USS Coronado, broke down on its way to Singapore and had to limp back to Hawaii.
The breakdowns had become routine by this point. First came the fanfare over a newly christened ship, with all the requisite flag waving, handshaking, speechmaking and celebratory Champagne bottle breaking. Later, a perilous journey: a few days or weeks at sea, followed by another busted part and another tow back to port.
This time, on the Coronado, a part called a coupling would be the culprit. The device, which helped connect the water jets to the engine, had failed, hindering the ship’s complicated propulsion system. The Navy discovered it was a problem on several other littoral combat ships, too.
The GAO, which has produced dozens of reports criticizing the ships, later learned that the Coronado failed to sail six times between 2016 and 2017 because “it did not have correct parts on board to fix simple problems.”
Important items like “circuit card assemblies, washers, bolts, gaskets, and diaphragms for air conditioning units were not on board,” the report found. “The LCS may not have adequate space onboard to stock these items.”
In August 2016, the Navy ordered a 30-day stand down of all littoral combat ships to retrain the engineering crews and improve the fleet’s performance.
A month later, a fifth ship, the USS Montgomery, suffered a series of mishaps. Over a two-month stretch, its engine malfunctioned, it collided with a tugboat and it then cracked its hull after striking a lock in the Panama Canal.
“The Navy doesn’t want them”
On May 4, 2017, about three months into the administration of President Donald Trump, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget at the time, Mick Mulvaney, sat for an interview with conservative talk radio show host Hugh Hewitt.
They talked about “Game of Thrones,” the repeal of Obamacare and a new hire at the OMB before turning to Trump’s promise to increase the Navy’s fleet to 350 ships. How, Hewitt wanted to know, was the president going to achieve that?
Mulvaney said that the day before he had missed a meeting on the Paris Agreement — the international treaty to avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change — in order to discuss whether to buy more littoral combat ships.
“The Navy doesn’t want them,” Mulvaney said.
With the Navy on its way toward building the more powerful frigate, it appeared that the LCS program was on its last legs.
Source : Pro Publica