(MENAFN- Asia Times) Editors' Note: With the recent publication of Stephen Bryen's viral report, Navy gives up the ghost on its failed“urban street fighter”' Asia Times is following up with a two-part series investigating the politics behind the multi-billion-dollar fiasco. Part 1 ran here . Below is the in-depth second installment, which, like the earlier report, was first published by ProPublica , a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
In July 2016, warships from more than two dozen nations gathered off the coasts of Hawaii and Southern California to join the United States in the world's largest naval exercise. The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea and others sent hundreds of destroyers, aircraft carriers and warplanes. They streamed in long lines across the ocean, symbols of power and prestige.
The USS Freedom had its own special place within the armada. It was one of a new class of vessels known as littoral combat ships. TheNavy had billed them as technical marvels - small, fast and light, able to combat enemies at sea, hunt mines and sink submarines.
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 previmonths.
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 the 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 commanding officer, Captain 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.
Michael Wohnhaas was captain of the USS Freedom. Crew members understood that theirs was a 'no fail mission' with 'no appetite' to remain in port, according to Navy documents obtained by ProPublica. Photo: Zachary Bell /Navy
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 salt water 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.
ProPublica set out to trace how ships with such obvishortcomings received support from Navy leadership for nearly two decades. We reviewed thousands of pages of public records and tracked down naval and shipbuilding insiders involved at every stage of construction.
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.
Contractors who stood to profit spent millions lobbying Congress, whose members, in turn, fought to build more ships in their home districts than the Navy wanted. Scores of frustrated sailors recall spending more time fixing the ships than sailing them.
Our findings echo the conclusions of a half-century of internal and external critiques of America's process for building new weapons systems. The saga of the LCS is a vivid illustration of how Congress, the Pentagon and defense contractors can work in concert - and often against the good of the taxpayers and America's security - to spawn what President Dwight D Eisenhower described in his farewell address as the“military industrial complex.”
“There is a lot of money flowing through this vast ecosystem, and somehow the only thing all these people can agree on is more, more, more,” said Lyle Goldstein, a former professor at theNaval War College who is now investigating the costs of war at Brown University.“Unfortunately, I just think it might be in the nature of our system.”
This year, the Defense Department asked Congress to approve a staggering $842 billion - nearly half of the federal government's discretionary spending - to keep America safe in what the Pentagon says is an ever more perilworld. As House and Senate leaders negotiate the final number, it is unlikely they will spend much time discussing ways to prevent future debacles like the LCS.
Such a conversation would cover hundreds of billions of misspent taxpayer money on projects from nearly every branch of the military: The F-35 fighter jet, deployed by the Navy, Marines and Air Force, is more than a decade late and $183 billion over budget .
The Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the Gerald R Ford, cost $13 billion and has yet to prove it can reliably launch planes. And the Army's Future Combat System was largely abandoned in 2009 after the military had dedicated more than $200 billion on a battlefield intelligence network meant to link troops, tanks and robots.
The LCS program offers another clear lesson, one seen in almost every infamprocurement disaster. Once a massive project gains momentum and defense contractors begin hiring, it is politically easier to throw good money after bad.
Stopping a weapons program in its tracks means people losing work and admitting publicly that enormsums of taxpayer money have been wasted. In the case of the LCS, it took an array of naval leaders and two consecutive defense secretaries to finally stop the program. Yet even after the Navy said it only needed 32 littoral combat ships, far fewer than the more than 50 originally planned, members of Congress forced the Pentagon to buy three more.
Former Lieutenant Renaldo Rodgers remembered laboring in San Diego from sunrise to sunset for months to ready the Freedom for a 2012 trial mission to San Francisco, only to have the ship break down during pretrial tests.
Rodgers initially thought the futuristic ship looked like something out of“Star Trek.” But he soon learned it was no Starship Enterprise. It became the laughingstock of the waterfront, with other sailors deriding it as“Dry Dock One,” because it so rarely left port.
“It sucks,” he said. The LCS was“a missed opportunity.”
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 Navy needs a more ready, capable, and lethal fleet more than a bigger fleet that's less ready, less capable, and less lethal,” the statement read, saying the money would be better spent on higher-priority alternatives.
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.
Analyst John Pendleton had his doubts and expressed them. Photo: CSPAN screengrab
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.
“In the end,” he said,“the taxpayers get fewer than 30 limited-survivability, single-mission ships.”
Pendleton is hardly alone in his assessment. Many regard the tortured path of the LCS as evidence of a damaging strain of hubris that runs rampant in the world of military innovation.
“It's this zombie program phenomenon where everybody knows deep down we are going in the wrong direction,” said Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps captain, who now works on Pentagon reform for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.“But because so much money is involved and so much political capital is invested, you can't stop the train until the problems are so overwhelming that no one can feign support for it.”
The two narratives of the ship - unstoppable in Congress, imperiled at sea - intertwined alarmingly during one 10-month stretch beginning in December 2015. During that period, five of the vessels broke down across the globe, each illuminating a new set of problems and effectively proving the critics right.
The Freedom was the third ship to fail. Captured in a Navy investigation more than 600 pages long, the incident stands out as a particularly devastating and detailed example of the Navy's plight.
An admiral's vision
In 2002, Admiral Vernon Clark stared down from the deck of a Danish warship at a pier in Denmark and watched a demonstration that would shape the future of theNavy.
A large deck gun sat below. On the orders of a Danish navy official, a crane hoisted it off the pier and installed it on the ship. Within 40 minutes, sailors were rotating the weapon to prepare it for operation.
No American ship could swap weapons on and off deck like that. But the Danes made reconfiguring a vessel to carry out different missions look easy. Clark, the head of theNavy at the time, marveled at the technology.
“This is it. Of course, this is it,” Clark remembered telling himself.“I didn't know that they could do that.”
For Clark, the Danish demonstration crystalized his idea for a new ship that would be different from anything the Navy had done before. It would be small, relatively lightly armed and operated by about 40 sailors - far fewer than the average warship crew. The weapons systems would not be permanently installed.
Instead, he envisioned a sort of Swiss army knife for the Navy. Armed with one set of weaponry, it could hunt and destroy submarines. But if the threat shifted, it could be quickly outfitted to detect and clear underwater mines or to fight other warships.
As Clark envisaged it, the new ships could be deployed in coastal, or littoral, waters, where the Navy needed to expand its presence around the world: in the Persian Gulf to participate in the war in Iraq, in the Caribbean to track down gunrunners and in Southeast Asia to help smaller allied navies. They would be among the fastest warships in the world - able to fight near shore, outrun larger vessels or hunt down the small ones increasingly popular with foes like Iran. The ships would be built quickly, in large numbers and at low cost.
The first red flags emerged here, at the conception of the LCS. As Clark began sharing his vision, concerns began to brew among Navy shipbuilding experts, who feared it was overly ambitiand technologically infeasible. Clark was unbowed.
He was an unlikely candidate to begin a revolution in shipbuilding. With an undergraduate degree from Evangel College, a small Christian school in Missouri, and an MBA from the University of Arkansas, he hardly fit the mold of a chief of naval operations prototypically groomed for leadership from his earliest days at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
A self-professed“radical,” at times irreverent and impassioned, he wanted to run the Navy like a business, streamlining training, rooting out misspent dollars, retaining sailors who shined and getting rid of those who did not.
Admiral Vernon Clark gained confidence that the LCS could work after seeing a demonstration of a Danish warship swapping weapons. Photo: Johnny Bivera /Navy
He believed the Navy needed a more cost-effective and technologically advanced fleet. Many of the Navy's ships had been built during the Cold War. Massive carriers, destroyers, battleships and cruisers were facing retirement, in part because updating them with modern technology was prohibitively expensive, Clark said.
In keeping with his business background, Clark wanted as few people on the new ships as possible.“What I really want is an unmanned ship that's got R2-D2 in it,” he said, recalling his thinking at the time.
Doubt dogged Clark's dream from the start. Congress agreed to begin developing the ship in 2003 - despite a House Appropriations Committee report that warned that there was“no 'road map' of how the Navy will achieve the system required.”
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.
The former admiral said he raised concerns with his superiors but wished he had been more vocal.“As a subordinate naval officer, when your boss tells you, 'Here's a shovel, go dig the hole,' you go dig the hole.”
The Navy pushed ahead. In May 2004, it awarded contracts to two teams of defense contractors to build up prototypes of their own design.
Both teams had lobbied heavily to win the contracts. Lockheed Martin, which partnered with the Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin, plastered the Washington, DC, Metro system with advertisements extolling the capability of its proposed ship.
The 19th littoral combat ship, the future USS St Louis, launches sideways into the Menominee River in Marinette, Wisconsin. Photo: Lockheed Martin
The other team, a joint venture between General Dynamics and Australian shipbuilder Austal, planned to build its version at a shipyard in Alabama.
In response to the Navy's goals, the contractors both based their original ship designs partly on high-speed ferries for cars or passengers – an unusual choice for a vessel meant for war, not transportation.
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?”
This argument disquieted lawmakers. Toward the end of Clark's tenure, members of Congress began to ask whether this meant the Navy had deemed LCS sailors expendable.
After Clark left the Navy in July 2005, the Navy responded to the concerns – redrawing the blueprints as the ships were being built, the better to protect sailors.
Costs began to rise dramatically. The ships were originally supposed to cost no more than $220 million dollars each , which had helped sell them to Congress in the first place. But the final price tag rose to about $500 million each.
Former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who became a key proponent of the ship, said many in the Navy thought the initial estimate was unrealistic.“The Navy never believed it, at least the people who had to build the ship,” he said.
Despite the rising costs, the LCS soon gained a new champion so devoted to its construction that he led a yearslong campaign to resist efforts by two secretaries of defense to scale back the program.
A 'foreseeable' disaster
On the morning of November 23, 2015, the USS Milwaukee set out across the frigid waters of the Great Lakes for its maiden voyage. The cost overruns had made headlines, but with the fifth ship in the water, Navy officials were hoping the vessel's performance would lessen the growing doubts about the project.
The Navy planned to sail the Milwaukee from the shipyard on the shores of Lake Michigan in Marinette, Wisconsin, to its new home port of San Diego. From there, it would eventually join its sister ship, the USS Fort Worth, in helping to counter the Chinese navy's expanding presence in the Western Pacific.
In a press tour, days before the launch, Commander 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.