GAO Calls on Congress to Mothball Navy’s New Frigate Program

“Maybe the Navy shouldn’t agree to buy ships before a design is finalized or a cost estimate is in hand?”

That notion would be common sense to most taxpayers, who tend to be familiar with the “try before you buy” philosophy, whether test-driving a new vehicle or trying on a jacket at the store. It’s also the basic premise of a new report released this week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), examining the Navy’s plan to commit to a block buy of twelve new frigates.

The Navy’s acquisition request for the new ships rightly raised numerous red flags at the GAO. Specifically, the Navy would like authorization to invest $9 billion in a program that “has no current formal cost estimate” and “will not begin key detail design activities until late fiscal year 2018.” In other words, the Navy is requesting a $9 billion expenditure on a brand new ship program - without any consideration for eventual costs or a finalized design for the ship, let alone a fully tested prototype.

To make matters worse, the new frigate design is to be based on the already troubled Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) seaframe. Problems with the LCS program emerged early-on in 2001 when the first four ships weighed in at more than twice the original cost estimate. Since then, there have been numerous mechanical and design issues, which we’ve detailed previously.  Along the way, the mission and requirements for the craft have repeatedly changed. In light of these growing problems, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has recommended cancelling the program in order to reduce the deficit.

This isn’t even the first time the GAO has questioned the LCS program. A quick search turns up numerous results, calling for additional testing, better cost estimates, highlighting quality control, maintenance, personnel, and planning problems. Many areas of concern stem from the fact that the LCS, like the F-35, suffers from “concurrency,” the idea that we can order and build something at the same time as the product is still being designed.

Of course, this is crazy talk and a significant departure from the manner in which items are procured in the real world, outside the five walls of the Pentagon. Too often, taxpayer dollars are locked into deals for multiple aircrafts, ships, or other systems with a price tag of millions per unit before any ink is dry on the drawing board. Given the enormous cost and complexity of modern weapons systems, it’s arguable that some investment is necessary in order to produce a working prototype, but it’s unfathomable - especially in light of the pathetic track record of the LCS - why the Navy would aspire to such a large purchase right out of the starting gate.

That’s why, once again, the GAO is urging Congress to delay authorizing additional funds for a mere two years. GAO explains that, “Delaying the frigate award until at least fiscal year 2019 - when more is known about cost, design, and capabilities - would enable better-informed decisions and oversight for this potential $9 billion taxpayer investment.”  

In order to avoid yet another acquisition fiasco, let’s hope that this time Congress gets the message.