* Navy leaders defend program, see improvement
* Navy plans to spend $34 bln on total of 52 ships
* Reports critical of ship, mission packages
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, July 30 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator John McCain, who has railed for years against wasteful Pentagon arms programs, on Tuesday took aim at the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship program, urging better oversight and a pause in funding until certain concerns are lifted.
Speaking on the Senate floor, the Arizona Republican said he worried that the Navy would have bought half of a planned total of 52 of the new warships before they and their interchangeable mission packages had been fully tested and proved effective - a milestone they are not expected to reach until 2019.
McCain's comments came a week after a critical report by congressional Government Accountability Office, and the release of an older, equally critical internal Navy study on the new ships, which are designed to patrol coastal waters while addressing threats including mines and enemy submarines.
Navy leaders last week defended the program despite a spate of technical glitches, including generator problems that cut the ship's power at sea during a deployment in Singapore, and warned that halting funding for the ships or their equipment could drive up costs.
The Navy plans to spend $34 billion in coming years to buy 52 of the speedy, agile new warships, and has already signed 10-ship agreements with both Lockheed Martin Corp and Australia's Austal, which each build a different LCS design.
Work on the ships is going well, but the mission packages or modules that will go on board - three separate systems for surface warfare, mine-hunting and anti-submarine actions - are running behind, said McCain, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"In terms of actual cost and cost to our national security, we simply cannot afford to continue committing our limited resources to an unproven program that may eventually account for more than a third of the surface-combatant fleet," McCain said.
He called for a pause in further ship purchases and said the testing of the ships should be better synchronized with testing of the mission equipment packages that it will carry.
"The American people are - quite rightly - tired of seeing their tax dollars wasted on disastrous defense programs ... LCS must not be allowed to become yet another failed program in an already unacceptably long list of amorphous acronyms."
McCain said he was also concerned about the lack of a clear Navy plan for how to use these ships given the finding of the internal Navy report, which said the ships' characteristics limited its operations to a greater extent than expected.
That left the Navy with two options: to limit operations that would be done by the ships, or undertake costly modifications to pump up the ships' capabilities, he said, adding that any upgrades or design changes could further inflate the cost of building, supporting and maintaining the ships.
He said the Navy needed to provide "credible evidence, based on rigorous, operationally relevant and realistic testing and evaluation," to justify any future purchases.
Congressional aides said McCain's comments suggested that he could attach an amendment to the 2014 defense spending bill that would set certain conditions for approval of additional funding for the LCS program, or even hold hearings on the program.
"Congress must at a minimum, thoroughly review this program before authorizing funding in fiscal year 2015 to buy the next four LCSs," McCain said. He said the Secretary of the Navy should also be required to certify that the ship could perform their intended missions and give commanders what they needed.
Navy officials last week acknowledged that the program had gotten off to a bad start, but said they were confident about both the ships and the mission packages.
They said the ships' designs are now stable and that buying larger numbers of ships is the best way to save money and drive down the cost of the program.
Rear Admiral Tom Rowden, head of surface warfare for the Navy's top officer, said the Navy welcomed the GAO report and would carefully consider its recommendations.
"We realize the future of LCS is not going to be smooth sailing, but we are getting water under the hull and we know that LCS is the right ship to meet the needs of the surface combatant force," he said.
Vice Admiral Rick Hunt, who heads the Navy's LCS Council, said he was convinced that the ship and its mission modules would give the Navy greater combat power than it had today.