Congress is getting ready to decide the fate of the Littoral Combat Ship program. The speedy, high-tech warship designed to operate near shorelines has been plagued with delays, mechanical problems and cost overruns throughout its life.
San Diego will eventually be home port to at least 12 LCSs. The USS Gabrielle Giffords is the newest Littoral Combat Ship in the Navy's fleet. It came into port in July, after being built in Mobile, Alabama, and commissioned in Texas.
The LCS has a number of advantages. It is fast, traveling at more than 40 knots. It uses a propulsion system similar to a jet ski rather than a traditional rudder and propeller, which makes the ship highly maneuverable. It also uses technology in place of a larger crew.
The Giffords' bridge was relatively empty as the ship arrived in San Diego. Cmdr. Shawn Cowan, the ship's executive officer, said normally a ship this size would have a crew of roughly 300. The Giffords has a crew of 70 people.
"The destroyer I was on, we had like 19 people up in the pilot house," Cowan said.
The Giffords needs only a handful of people to drive the ship.
"You don't have 19 different opinions. You have two opinions and the captain," Cowan said.
Despite high marks from the Giffords' crew, the LCS program has had a stormy rollout. In 2016, the ships recorded five breakdowns during deployments. A San Diego crew was left stranded in Singapore while the Navy reworked the program to dump some its loftier ambitions.
The Navy dropped the idea of having the LCS swap modules in the field to allow one ship to perform three types of missions: surface warfare, mine detection and anti-submarine warfare. Some of the components are still years behind schedule. Swapping modules in the field also was not as easy as the Navy originally predicted, said Steve Ellis, who is with the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"They tried to make the LCS all things to all people," Ellis said.
The Navy also dumped a special crew configuration developed for the LCS that allowed multiple crews to share a single ship so the ship could remain deployed longer. To further cut down on the confusion, the Navy also ended the practice of keeping separate crews for the different mission modules.
"As ships go, it was supposed to be relatively inexpensive," Ellis said. "But as they found -- one, the price went up quite a bit, and then also, we're getting an inferior product."
In December, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, grilled Pentagon officials about the problems, including a price tag that has doubled. The LCS was expected to cost $220 million when the Navy first testified about the contract in the mid-2000s.
"We are going to start holding people accountable," said McCain during the hearing. "We're talking about millions of dollars here."
The General Accounting Office has recommended Congress stop buying new LCS ships until the Navy solves the problems. Even so, Congress is considering buying as many as three more ships in the upcoming defense budget.
In late August, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer met with the crew of the Giffords during his first trip to San Diego. He said the Navy is figuring out how to use the new ship.
"We're solving the issues as they come along," Spencer said.
And the problems are large. During the Dec. 6 Senate committee hearing, a GAO official questioned whether the LCS can survive an attack. As part of the reboot, the Navy is adding firepower to all the LCSs set to be deployed overseas.
In July, USS Coronado tested a harpoon missile for the LCS near Guam. The Navy has said the Giffords will not deploy in 2019 without an upgraded missile system.
Defense Analyst Brian Clark says the LCS was designed in the early 2000s to patrol areas near shore, at a time when coastal waters were often friendlier to U.S. forces. Now the world is more dangerous, and the smaller, lightly armed ship may be more of a target than a deterrent.
"The environment has changed such that you need a ship that can defend itself to a much greater degree than LCS is able to do," he said.
Congress will have to decide whether to buy more LCSs, though the program is winding down. This summer, the Navy turned its attention to a different kind of vessel. It began asking for proposals to start building a new frigate, a type of ship better suited to the more dangerous environment the Navy faces today.
While in San Diego, the secretary of the Navy said all options are on the table for the LCS's replacement. The Navy could go with a more heavily armored and armed version of the current LCS for its new frigate design, or it could pick something entirely new.
While the Navy works through its options, LCS supporters in Congress want to include up to three more LCSs in the next budget. The plan is intended to preserve competition at the two shipyards that build the ship while the Navy gets ready to build the new frigate, said Defense Analyst Brian Clark.
"In this case they would build the LCS for another two years for the purpose of allowing those two shipyards to compete for the new frigate," Clark said.
The Navy hopes competition will drive down the cost of the new frigate, but that did not happen in the LCS program. A traditional monohull design was built at a shipyard in Wisconsin. And a sophisticated trimaran design, featured on the Gabrielle Giffords, is built in Alabama. The Navy was supposed to pick a winner once the first ships were delivered in the late 2000s, but that never happened.
The Navy moved too quickly from design to building, Clark said, and bet that technology would catch up, but it did not. Small crews also leave no one to do the kind of maintenance needed when ships are deployed for months at sea, he said.
"The lesson would be, don't try to accelerate something like ship building, where it's going to last for a long time," he said.
It is a problem that the LCS's critics hope will not be repeated.