WASHINGTON — Reacting to renewed concerns from Congress and a highly critical memo from the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, the US Navy has set up an independent review panel to look at the minehunting system in development for the littoral combat ship (LCS). The panel, according to the Navy, will concentrate its examination on the system’s reliability issues and explore possible alternatives.

The move is the latest in the long and troubled developmental history of the system, which the Navy has been working on for more than 13 years a decade.

The Remote Minehunting System (RMS) is intended to give the LCS the ability to locate and identify mines without the ship needing to enter the minefield. Central to that capability is the Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle (RMMV), a diesel-powered submersible carrying an AQS-20 sonar that can operate independently of the ship to search and sweep the sea much more quickly at rates much higher than current systems allow.

The system has been under development for more than 13 years. Two key decisions are looming: The first, scheduled for this fall, is whether to enter or delay the system's initial operational test and evaluation phase, and a decision scheduled for February is due on whether to award, delay or cancel the low rate initial production (LRIP 2) contract for the RMMV.

Lockheed Martin, which produced all existing RMMVs, is reportedly the only bidder for the LRIP 2 contract.

Over the summer, the Navy conducted an extensive technical evaluation of the RMS system in the Gulf of Mexico and, while the system has shown it can find and identify mines, reliability remains an issue, particularly with the RMMV. The tech eval ended on Aug. 30, and the Navy has said further testing will be required in fiscal 2016.

The system’s reliability problems were listed in detail in an Aug. 3 memo from Michael Gilmore, director, Operational of the Pentagon’s Office ofTest and Evaluation (DOT&E), to DoD acquisition chief Frank Kendall. Gilmore, in his memo, claimed Navy reliability scores for the program were overly optimistic, and recommended they not be reported to Congress until "clear, unambiguous and meaningful reliability goals and tracking metrics" are established.

The Senate Armed Services Committee weighed in on Aug. 31 with a letter to Kendall and the Navy recommending the service evaluate the program and examine potential alternatives before reaching those decision points.

Kendall, responding on Oct. 8, agreed with the committee's recommendations and pledged that the program would not move forward until the completion of an operational test readiness review in October and the independent panel's report in November.

Kendall is the milestone decision authority for the RMS program, which was given acquisition category I (ACAT I) status following a 2009 Nunn-McCurdy review.

The Navy declined to discuss details of the review panel, which was set up on Sept. 25 and given 60 days to report to service leadership. The panel is headed by Rear Adm. David Johnson, program executive officer for submarines. Johnson has been nominated for a third star and is expected to become the next principal military deputy to the Navy's acquisition directorate.

LCS program officials, however, discussed the situation in an Oct. 16 interview with Defense News.

"I don't dispute that the reliability of what we've seen in tech eval was below what we've seen in prior test events," said Capt. William Guarini, program manager for the Remote Minehunting System Office at Naval Sea Systems Command.

"What I think is lost in these discussions," Guarini added, "is that reliability is just one aspect of my performance requirements. Ultimately the system is finding mines. While we will work to improve reliability, the bottom line is that it does do what it was designed to do."

Capt. Casey Moton, program manager for LCS mission modules, acknowledged differences between the Navy and DOT&E in the way reliability figures are calculated.

"Our list essentially matches their list," Moton said. "A lot of the differences are just in the nuances about which failures count when and the hours that count. Yes, there are some differences in the counting, but fundamentally the issue is that the Navy needs to look at RMMV reliability and how to improve that."

One of the key observations Gilmore listed was the frequency during tech eval where shore-based support was necessary to deal with problems encountered by the system. He noted that support might not be available when the ships were at sea searching real minefields.

Moton pointed out that that is not the case.

"There is no expectation the ship is going to be out there doing this mission alone with no shore support," he explained. "Our maintenance concept of operations includes the use of shore operating stations. Obviously you want the crew to be self-sufficient, but it includes the ability to get parts and technical experts to the ship if we need to.

"The notion that the ship has to be able to do all of these things without any support from the shore side is just not true and not per the ConOps," he declared.

Both officials acknowledged the frustration factor in proving the RMMV’s reliability, but they also pointed to significant improvements in the low-rate initial production (LRIP) proposal received from "a vendor," presumably Lockheed.

"The proposal that came in," Guarini said, "shows improved reliability, produceability and maintainability. … The proposal is a significant improvement going forward."

Guarini and Moton also pointed to needed improvements in training, documentation and operating procedures

"There are some things we can readily adjust and fix prior to going to RT&E," Guarini said, including "cleaning up training procedures, clarifying some of the process changes and how we're going to maintain the vehicles with the shore construct LCS has. There are things we can do to improve it in the short term."

One analyst felt many of the issues would be resolved with the improved LRIP II vehicles and maturing support procedures.

"Lockheed took an aviation, high-end electronics approach," the analyst noted. "Proactive maintenance, swap things out before they break. But surface Navy has a different culture. They don't fix things until they break.

"It could be as much a philosophical thing as a physical thing," he said, adding that the Navy "doesn't have a robust parts system in place because it's not a program in production."

Frank Drennan, a retired Navy rear admiral now in charge of business development for Lockheed's Mission and Unmanned Systems division in Riviera Beach, Florida, which directly supports the RMMV, defended the system's reliability performance.

"In each of the cases where we were graded, we met or exceeded the Navy’s Mean Time Between Operational Failure (MTBOF) metric," Drennan said in an Oct. 15 interview. "And that was over a series of tests operated by us as the contractor, but also by US Navy sailors and others.

"We have confidence we are addressing the reliability issues as they come up, are fixing them, and that they will lead to addressing that overall reliability," he added.