USS Freedom prepares to enter the channel of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam after a deployment to Singapore in 2013. (Navy)
MARINETTE, WIS. — Four out of six ships that are part of a new class of vessels being developed for the Navy are too heavy, and that is affecting some areas of performance, according to a newly released federal audit.
A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the LCS Freedom can meet its sprint speed of 40 knots; it hasn't been able to reach the distance and speed requirement of 3,500 nautical mile range at 14 knots, according to the report.
The report partially attributes the range issue to "excess weight growth."
"The Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships meet weight requirements when delivered to the Navy, and the company has submitted all weight reports to the U.S. Navy in accordance with contractual requirements," a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said.
Freedom, and similar ships, are being built for Lockheed Martin at Marinette Marine Corp. in Marinette. Another design of the ship is being built by Austal USA in Alabama.
The lead ship of the Austal-designed vessels can only sprint at 39.5 knots — under the required 40 knots — and is at a weight where it could be "prone to failure in certain weather or damage conditions," according to the report.
The Littoral Combat Ship program, designed to operate in shallower waters and coastlines, has been under scrutiny for years, and a pair of recent reports have examined topics arising from the first deployment of one of those vessels last year, the Freedom.
The ships are intended to provide the Navy with speedy vessels that can carry out a number of different missions. But weight has affected performance in some areas of both ship designs and could be a limiting factor for future changes to the vessels and equipment, the report states.
Two of the first three Lockheed Martin ships meet weight requirements, while the Freedom is 24 tons too heavy. That could limit future changes to the vessel.
This is the second GAO report released in less than a month examining Freedom's 2013 deployment to Singapore. The earlier report raised questions about the operating costs of the LCS program, contending in some cases the costs were approaching that of other types of ships already in the fleet.
The Navy is working on modifying the fuel capacity on the Austal-built ships to increase weight allowances on that variant of ships.
"The Navy's ability to accommodate alterations and growth on these ships over their expected 20-year minimum service lives will be significantly more constrained than is typical for other surface ships," the report states of both ship designs. "Navy program officials told us they expect that most future weight — and capability — growth on LCS would occur within mission packages, not (the ship's basic structure).
"However ... the Navy is considering changes to the (ships') designs that could further increase weight estimates," the report said.
Those changes could include adding crew accommodations and switching to a heavier missile system on the Lockheed Martin version of the ship, the audit said.
"Navy officials stated that the possible changes are low risk and would not affect LCS performance requirements," the report states.
The scrutiny faced by the LCS program isn't unusual, said Daniel Gouré, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank that focuses on defense programs.
"This is typical," he said. "This is a big program in terms of money spent, duration, number of ships, it has gone through a series of evolutions, struggled with a number of problems — many of which its overcome — and has been a source of debate."
The Navy had planned to acquire more than 50 of the ships earlier this year, but Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel scaled back plans for the program by 20 ships and called for a review of the ship's design.
Gouré said the GAO is supposed to point out issues, flaws and areas for improvement. He expects to see changes made to the ships and its systems, such as the addition of different weapons.
Late last month Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the operating costs for the LCS program are expected to decline as more ships enter the fleet.
"I think as we get into the operations, you're going to see (costs) become more normal," Mabus told the Associated Press while on the USS Independence, one of the Austal-built Littoral Combat Ships.
The Navy would like to spend more than $25 billion to buy as many as 32 of the ships and modular mission systems, the GAO said.
Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine have delivered the Freedom and Fort Worth to the Navy. Other ships are under construction at the yard, which has more than 2,000 people working at the facility.
Austal USA has delivered two ships to the Navy.
Lockheed Martin said it has incorporated the lessons learned on the first ships into the production process.
Early problems are nothing unusual for large weapons programs, Gouré said.
"There are no major weapon programs that don't have these problems, and, in many cases for surface ships, you don't get to a stable configuration until you are halfway through the predicted production run," he said. "You go down the road and a new technology pops up, or something goes wrong, that they have to change out, this is typical."