‘Little Crappy Ship’: report excoriates ship building program behind USS Canberra

Sep 23, 2023
One crew member is raising two maritime flags, while the other watches or assists, on the bridge of USS Canberra (LCS 30), an Independence Class combat ship of the US Navy which is docked at Garden Island in Sydney Harbour. She was in port for her commissioning ceremony on 22 July 2023. As part of the ceremony, her captain was presented with a kangaroo insignia attached to all ships of the Royal Australian Navy, but decorated in the colours and design of the Stars and Stripes. That insignia has been attached to the ship and visible on the right. The name of the ship and serial number is visible on the orange life ring. A large, padded chair is visible on the bridge. This image was taken on a cloudy afternoon on 29 July 2023.

A new US investigative report has excoriated the controversial Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program which included the USS Canberra – commissioned in very unusual circumstances with great fanfare by the US Navy recently in Sydney. Should its revelations about the manifest failures in the USN’s procurement performance – with former officers describing the LCS class as like a “box floating in the ocean” – force the Australian government to rethink its reliance on hiring retired US admirals and senior Pentagon officials to advise us on our defence programs?

In July, this year we labelled as a “Crass PR Stunt” the curious commissioning by the US Navy of the USS Canberra in Sydney (P&I, 26 July). We pointed out that this was far from being the shining example of successful Alliance cooperation which Defence Minister Marles and US Navy Secretary touted the event to portend – a fanfare for the future under AUKUS.

The Littoral combat ship (LCS) program had been marred by controversy almost from the start. As far back as 2017, it had become an embarrassment for the United States Navy (USN) who had wanted then to cease further construction and start decommissioning of existing vessels well before their scheduled use by date. All of which had inevitably become embroiled in the domestic political jungle which has long characterised the US defence procurement scene. The Australian company (Austal USA) who built them were not quarantined from the manifest failings of the Canberra’s LCS class. Another major issue emerged in April when the US Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) levelled accounting fraud charges at three executives of Austal (USA) and an associated company. One had to wonder why Marles and his defence team had not exercised normal due diligence concern about the whole exercise given the performance doubts about the vessel and “jointness” of the arrangements which the American side were so prominent in pushing in their speeches.

The US investigative journal ProPublica has just published an extraordinarily detailed analysis of the whole epic saga of the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) – strikingly headed “The Inside Story of How the Navy Spent Billions on the Little Crappy Ship”. In joining the dots of this pathetic saga it reinforces significantly the concern Canberra should have about its entanglement in it through the Sydney event. There is not the space here to do the analysis justice but it provided the following take aways:

  • One Navy Secretary and his allies in Congress fought to build more LCS’s even as they broke down at sea and their weapons systems failed…..an estimated lifetime cost of US$100 billion or more.
  • The USN’s haste to deliver ships took precedence over combat ability. … they are like “a box floating in the ocean” one former officer claimed.
  • Sailors and officers complained they spent more time fixing the ships than sailing them.
  • Top USN commanders placed pressure on subordinates to sail the ships when they were not fully prepared to go to sea.
  • Several major breakdowns in 2016 … adding fresh embarrassment to a program meant to propel the USN into a more technologically advanced future.

For Canberra, the shocking history of this failed USN venture should serve as a compulsory primer for our politicians of all persuasions and our senior military and public servants alike on how to navigate the way through the extremely complex and politicised defence environment in the US. Greg Sheridan and a growing number of Australian commentators have stepped up criticism of our own performance in defence procurement. The US track record on this issue must surely generate doubts about the reliance both the former government and their successors have placed on hiring retired US admirals and senior Pentagon officials to advise us how to proceed with our own programs. And also on the integrity of the advice they provide.

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