Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., foreground, and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., upper left, frequent critics of the LCS, largely withheld their fire Thursday during a House Seapower hearing chaired by Randy Forbes, R-Va., center. (Christopher Cavas/Staff)
WASHINGTON — The small hearing room in the Rayburn Office building on Capitol Hill was packed Thursday. Most of the members of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee were in their chairs, joined by several non-committee members who wanted in on the action. All the spectator seats were filled, and a pack of journalists without seats stood taking notes.
All were drawn by a stream of media stories based on a leaked draft of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the US Navy’s long-troubled Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program — a draft that was highly critical of numerous aspects of the decade-long effort — including renewed criticisms of many long-standing issues now wallowing in the ships’ wake.
But an unusual thing happened. While many in attendance were ready for bureaucratic blood, the report as finally released on July 25 — while certainly highlighting many of the program’s past and current failures — fell short of the intenseness of the draft.
“If the program’s on track, that’s good, but we don’t want it to be on rails that we can’t make adjustments that we have to make in the future,” Paul Francis, the GAO’s executive who oversaw the report, said in wrapping up the hearing.
The Navy, too, was respectful of the GAO’s completed work.
“GAO asks a lot of questions in their report, critical questions,” Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top acquisition official, said. “They’re fair. And rather than providing a short and concise response, I think we need to engage with Congress and further with the GAO and provide the detailed responses that they want, because they’re important for you all to understand where we’re going, and that’s necessary for us to earn and expect your support.”
Chairman Randy Forbes, R-Va., repeatedly praised the services and his bipartisan colleagues for working well together.
“I believe that criticism of the LCS is warranted,” he said in his opening remarks, which referenced several critical Navy studies of the program. “But none of these reports disputes the necessity to rapidly field the capabilities proposed by the Littoral Combat Ship.”
Questions by the members — cut short by impending votes on the House floor — generally fell short of scathing attacks. Even the normally grumpy Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., often a fierce critic of the LCS, mostly confined himself to questions about the ship’s usefulness in an anti-China scenario and the absence of a suitable surface-to-surface missile.
Francis spoke of numerous long-standing criticisms and problems with the LCS program, from cost growth to construction delays to questions about the design, maintenance and manning schemes, the concept of operations (CONOPS) and the concurrent development of many systems.
His most pressing concern, he said after the hearing, was the lack of progress on the mission modules, the heart of the combat systems that the LCS will field.
“Sea frames are making progress in production, so that looks good,” Francis said. “Mission modules, not so much, they’ve been having trouble. Two years ago there was a lot of promise. Now we’ve had some actual data. It’s not that good. There’s a lot of work ahead.
“Then the real questions — we’ve done a lot work now on the operational concept. What’s expected of the ship and is the crew going to be able to keep that ship on line. Modules and sea frames give you ability, but the operational concept and the manning gives you capability. I think that’s what we’re talking about.”
Francis repeatedly cited the lack of full-bore test and evaluation by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) to validate the ships and their mission modules. The Navy’s testing to date, he said, is not enough.
“You go aboard ship with an austere crew, it doesn’t have spare parts aboard, and something happens then you’re going to have mission down time,” Francis explained. “That’s what DOT&E will do — how are those sailors handling those systems, what happens when something goes wrong, and the ship’s away from its support system. How much capability do you have when the ship’s on line when the ship is at sea?
“Real questions. DOT&E will answer that.”
Francis repeatedly suggested restricting the rate of procurement of the ships, or sea frames, to wait for development of the modules to catch up. The idea, however, seems to have little chance.
“Even Mr. Francis hasn’t been completely definitive about what restricting means,” Forbes said after the hearing. “I think we may see the threat of that until we see some of these answers brought forward. And I think that would have had a good result.”
Asked if he thought that rather than confrontation, the hearing generally exuded a willingness to cooperate, Forbes beamed.
“That started with the fact that the Navy has been very forthcoming of late. In coming in, sitting down, talking about the warts, the good things, all of that together,” Forbes said.
“And I think the result of that will be nobody’s going to get everything they want, but I think we get a better program than the way the Pentagon was doing things a few years ago, which was basically being arrogant, saying it’s our way or the highway with people, and creating this loggerhead.”
“We just want some of these questions to be answered,” Forbes continued. “Some may not come out with the answers we want. But I think the fact that those individuals are sitting down, that Sean Stackley said he’s willing to come over and give us that in-depth explanation, I think that’s a very healthy, a very good thing where we get some of those questions answered and resolved.”
The effort, Forbes said, could result in changes to the ship or the modules.
“And maybe it’s something of a hybrid, maybe we get the Navy to say if they need modifications to the sea frame that otherwise they might not have done. Maybe we push them on the modules, which is a good thing.”
But, he said, “This is kind of the way government should be. You had Mr. Francis, who’s very passionate, has a lot invested in this with his team, but he has enormous respect for Sean Stackley. I think you see Sean, who didn’t come over here with the arrogance of coming over here and just saying, this is the department thing and we’re going to do it.
“And the result is we’re going to get a much better product.”