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US Navy's New Minehunter Can't Stop Mines

It’s bad enough that the US Navy’s newest ship has had wicked problems with corrosion, missed out on the latest naval wartime missions and is generally something of a Frankenstein’s monster. Now the Pentagon’s top weapons tester has found problems with its abilities to find and withstand mines — which is a big problem for a ship that’s supposed to be the Navy’s minehunter of the future.

That’s the assessment of the director of the Office of Testing and Evaluation, summing up a year’s worth of trials for the Littoral Combat Ship, the Navy’s cherished — and expensive — next-generation ship for warfare close to a shoreline. Little wonder that defence analysts think the ship is headed for the budgetary chopping block, even though the US Navy wants 55 of the things and only has three.

The report finds that the Littoral Combat Ship’s systems for spotting mines, the AN/AQS-20A Sonar Mine Detecting Set and the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System, are “deficient” for their primary task. That deficiency, if uncorrected, will “adversely affect the operational effectiveness” of a ship that’s already “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment”.

In other words, right now, the Littoral Combat Ship could stumble, Mr Magoo-like, into a minefield — like, say, the narrow Strait of Hormuz or the coasts of China or North Korea — and then it’s lights out. If the Littoral Combat Ship is going to carry the sonar and laser systems that it’s currently scheduled to carry, then like Fat Joe and Raekwon, it must respect mines.

Some necessary caveats apply. Just because the testers think there’s something wrong with a ship, truck, plane or gun doesn’t mean the program in question is doomed. Testing is how you discover flaws before they put someone in uniform at risk. And with the Littoral Combat Ship, those flaws might actually be less damaging than with some other ships, because everything the ship carries is designed to be modular — meaning you can swap out and substitute most everything on the hull.

At the same time, the inability of the Littoral Combat Ship to withstand a sustained assault places a lot of stress on its minehunting systems. “As designed, it wouldn’t, ideally, go anywhere near a mine field,” explains Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea System Command. “It’s not designed to take a mine strike. It’s designed to send off-board sensors and systems to find and then neutralize the mine.” Emphasis on ideally.

“America has forgotten that mine hunting is hard,” says Craig Hooper, a vice president for Austal, one of the companies building the Littoral Combat Ship, “and if the work the Independence-variant [Littoral Combat Ship] is doing today re-energises the mine warfare community and enables those specialists to acquire resources to defeat this threat, then America is better for it.”

Johnson tells Danger Room that the report is just “one snapshot” in the lifecycle of the ship’s mine-hunting packages. “We’re certainly not going to just put an unproved system” on the Littoral Combat Ship, he says. As it stands, both systems are scheduled to be ready by 2014.

But it’s not like these are the first woes of the Littoral Combat Ship. The first two ships — the third was christened Saturday — have been hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, years behind schedule and without obvious uses in foreseeable naval scenarios. Its vulnerabilities have freaked out at least one blogger for the U.S. Naval Institute, who pronounced himself stunned that the Navy has moved forward with “a warship design that is not expected to fight and survive in the very environment in which it was produced to do so.” And now naval analysts are whispering that they expect the budgetary knives to come out for the ship when the Pentagon unveils its next budgetary blueprint in a few weeks.

Johnson can’t comment on the budgetary fate of the ship. “I can say that, as of now, the Navy is very happy with the prices it’s getting on the LCS [Littoral Combat Ship] class,” he says. So, no budgetary mines in the waters – that is, if the Littoral Combat Ship could even tell.

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