This story was originally published by ProPublica.
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. The US Navy 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 previous months. 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 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 Capt. 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.
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 saltwater 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 obvious shortcomings 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 the U.S. Naval 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.”… Continue Reading