* Draft report by congressional watchdog raised concern
* First LCS ship deployed in Singapore
* Navy says coastal warships vital to U.S. fleet
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, June 4 Congress plans hearings this
summer on the U.S. Navy's $34 billion coastal warship program
and may push for funding cuts, the head of the House Armed
Services Committee's seapower subcommittee said on Tuesday.
Representative Randy Forbes of Virginia told defense
reporters that a draft report by the Government Accountability
Office, a congressional watchdog agency, raised new concerns
about the program.
The report recommended slowing funding for the two Littoral
Combat Ships models, built by Lockheed Martin Corp and
Australia's Austal, which have not been fully tested.
It also said there were growing questions about whether the
new ships, which were designed to patrol coastal waters while
tackling threats like mines and enemy submarines, would meet the
Forbes' comments came days after Defense Secretary Chuck
Hagel toured the USS Freedom, the first of the new smaller
warships. The ship ran into coolant system problems during its
initial foreign deployment in Singapore. [ID: nL2N0EE03X]
The Navy plans to buy 52 of the new ships by 2034, to help
reach its goal of a 306-ship fleet. Funding cuts could
jeopardize those plans and would likely meet opposition from the
shipbuilders and their proponents in Congress.
The program was plagued by early cost overruns and technical
challenges, but Navy officials are growing more confident as the
ship matures and costs are coming down. They cited progress on
one delayed package of equipment aimed at fighting mines.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Navy's chief spokesman,
responded to Forbes' comments by saying the new ship class was
vital to the Navy's current and future fleet.
Forbes said he would reserve judgment until the GAO report
was finalized in July and the Navy had a chance to respond. But
he said he would not rule out "more stringent actions" including
possible funding cuts as part of fiscal 2014 budget negotiations
between the House and Senate later this summer.
"We are going to do some intensive oversight of this
program, which will include hearings," Forbes said after a
meeting with defense reporters. "I have felt that LCS had bumps
in the road but it was moving. The only thing that's really
raising this flag is what this GAO report may or may not say."
He declined to elaborate.
The draft report, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters,
recommended slowing procurement after the current block buy of
24 ships is completed in fiscal 2015, although it said Congress
was in a position to act now. It also called for an independent
cost estimate by Pentagon officials and a report to Congress
about the relative advantages of the Lockheed and Austal models.
The report raised concerns about the Navy's plan to sign
contracts for additional purchases even as it considered design
changes, potentially significant, to accommodate larger crews,
install more common equipment on the two ship models and
increase their combat capabilities.
Navy officials and supporters of the program say the combat
ships are facing the same kind of teething problems encountered
by any new warship.
The LCS models will be a steel monohull built by Lockheed at
the Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin and an aluminum
trimaran hull built by Austal in Mobile, Alabama.
The ships are designed to travel over 40 nautical mph and
launch unmanned drones or helicopters. They also have a large
cargo space that can be reconfigured to hold different sensors