Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., long has been a critic of the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. In Senate hearings last December and this spring, he lambasted Navy leaders for a series of problems with the LCS and decried the pressure put on Congress late last year to permit the Navy to change course and buy both, rather than only one, of the LCS variants.
And McCain is leading a new assault on the program in a letter sent to Ashton Carter, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer. The July 12 letter, on U.S. Senate letterhead, is co-signed by three Republicans and three Democrats, and asks for more information on the corrosion problem that has plagued the second LCS, the aluminum-hulled Independence.
Perhaps more significant, however, is that the letter opens up a newer area of concern and questions several Pentagon procedures that allowed the LCS program to move forward.
McCain was joined in the effort by five colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) - Republicans Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Rob Portman of Ohio, and Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia - and Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
"It is highly unfortunate that we first learned about the discovery of significant corrosion on the Independence, and obtained your letter about your decision to waive certain certifications," after the SASC marked up its 2012 defense bill, the senators wrote to Carter.
"Needless to say, it is absolutely vital for the committee to have in a timely fashion all information material to its deliberating the Department of Defense's funding requests."
The senators gave Carter until July 25 to respond to the letter, "to assist in our further deliberation of the act by the full Senate."
In its June 21 markup of the 2012 defense authorization bill, the committee approved the Navy's request for four LCS ships, part of a proposed 20-ship block buy announced in December.
The July 12 letter questions and asks for further information on several moves by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to allow the program to move ahead.
Specifically, the senators:
å Question an April 7 OSD certification to move the LCS to Milestone B, or the engineering manufacturing and development phase of the program. OSD waived several requirements of the certification - a move prompting concerns from the senators that specific reasons for the waivers were not provided.
å Ask why OSD allowed the program to use Navy acquisition cost estimates, rather than those developed by Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) group, as required by law under Title 10 of the U.S. Code. "Please provide a full explanation of the CAPE's position, the analysis the CAPE relied on to support its position, and why you chose to use the Navy's cost estimates rather than the CAPE's," the senators wrote.
å Ask for an explanation as to why OSD granted a waiver of the need to certify program tradeoffs late in the program, rather than earlier in the development of the LCS.
å Ask Carter to indicate when he "will be prepared to certify to those provisions that you recently waived," and provide a business case analysis for the certifications and wavers.
å And ask how, in light of the corrosion problems on Independence, the LCS program "will ensure reliability and minimize major cost growth in operations and sustainment costs" in accordance with a March directive from defense under secretary Frank Kendall requiring all Pentagon programs to do so.
The senators also ask Carter to provide detailed information on the corrosion issue discovered on elements of the waterjet system on Independence. The Navy already has been fielding answers on the issue, which involves a failed alternative to more standard efforts to provide cathodic protection against corrosion and rust in underwater areas where two or more kinds of metal are used. A more conventional fix has been designed into subsequent units of the class, the Navy said, and modifications will be made to Independence to deal with the issue.
The letter also asks Carter to respond to a charge by Andrew Bellamy, chief executive of Austal - the Australian parent company of Independence builder Austal USA - that poor maintenance by the Navy, rather than faulty craftsmanship by the shipyard, is likely to be the cause of the aggressive corrosion on the ship. Bellamy also was reported as saying, according to the letter, that any corrosion on Independence would be the fault of the operator or maintainer and not the builder. The senators ask the Navy to describe how it plans to address the problem, if poor operational maintenance is "at least part of the cause."
The letter from the seven senators comes shortly after a similar, but less detailed, missive from Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. In a letter dated July 1, Hunter cited concerns about the corrosion and other problems, along with the LCS program's oft-reported cost growth, and asked the Navy to conduct "a formal review of the entire LCS program."
The Navy, in a July 7 response to Hunter, declared it was aware of the problems Hunter cited, had fixes already in hand or applied, and was satisfied that the program now is on a satisfactory track.