The USS Canberra: A crass PR stunt

Jul 26, 2023
The bow of USS Canberra (LCS 30), an Independence Class combat ship of the US Navy docked at Garden Island in Sydney Harbour. She is in port for a commissioning ceremony on 22 July 2023. The Jack of the United States flies on her bow. She is adorned with maritime flags and red, white and blue bunting.

The commissioning of the new USS Canberra in Sydney amid accompanying fanfare and blanket Australian media coverage provided ample testimony to the extent that we are increasingly being taken for granted by the US civil and military leadership.

The Canberra is one of the final run of 35 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) built for the US Navy in the past 18 years. The LCS is a relatively inexpensive surface combatant ship in two very different designs. One called the LCS-1 or Freedom-class design, was developed by an industry team led by Lockheed. The other, called the LCS-2 or Independence-class design, was developed by an industry team that was then led by General Dynamics and built at the Austal USA shipyard at Mobile, AL, with Austal USA as the prime contractor.

The LCS program has had a much chequered history – as the US Congressional Research Service explained in great detail in a report in December 2019 (“Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background and Issues for Congress”)

“The LCS program has been controversial over the years due to past cost growth, design and construction issues with the first LCSs, concerns over the survivability of LCSs (i.e., their ability to withstand battle damage), concerns over whether LCSs are sufficiently armed and would be able to perform their stated missions effectively, and concerns over the development and testing of the modular mission packages for LCSs. The Navy’s execution of the program has been a matter of congressional oversight attention for several years.”

So much that since 2019 the USN has been trying to cease its LCS procurement process and begin decommissioning them. As the well informed US Naval Institute (USNI News) reported in June this year, the House Armed Services Committee has just agreed to the first two LCS’s to be decommissioned – well before their projected 25 year life span. USNI went on to quote a senior Republican aide as claiming that this will prioritise ways to deter China in the Indo-Pacific region. “You’ll see that throughout our bill, especially with the Pacific Deterrence Initiative – divesting from some of these old legacy platforms that are not survivable in the Indo-Pacific region against a very capable adversary. We’re really taking a hard look and making some tough choices on things we don’t think we need anymore, as we’re confronting a 21st-century military,”

With those continuing serious doubts about the prospects for the LCS’s in the US build up of its capability to match China, it has been little secret in US media circles that the USN has been actively trying to offload LCS’s to allies and other foreign countries. Four modified LCS’s have already been reported as having been sold to the Saudis and Mexico has been mentioned as another potential buyer. How much this might also be reflected in the US hoopla about the Canberra remains to be seen. The modified Red Kangaroo badge and the promise that there will always be a serving RAN officer or sailor aboard the ship is all a bit curious but no doubt has an element of the AUKUS submarine deal in the background. As also the insistence  of the US Admiral Gilday who stated that “Today, we commissioned USS Canberra into service, not just part of Littoral Combat Ship Squadron One, not just part of the United States Pacific Fleet. Today, we commissioned this ship into service as a combat unit that will integrate with the Australian fleet and with the combined maritime force of allies and partners who stand united across the entire Indo-Pacific,” Of note reportedly the Canberra is returning to San Diego for further refitting of weaponry and countermeasures. Also US Navy Secretary Del Toro emphasised that the Canberra will contribute to the matching the improving Chinese Navy – though the USN clearly has real doubts about just how it would perform in any such confrontation.

While all of the above should have provided some serious cause for thought by Defence and the RAN about how much all the stunt would be worth and the embarrassment it could cause for our political leadership, the lazy Australian media seemed to have given none of this any coverage. Then 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 maritime executives, roiling two important U.S. Navy shipbuilders, Austal USA and Fincantieri Marine Group.

As Forbes reported : “The charges, coming after a long investigation, allege years of systemic accounting fraud at Austal, the builder of the Independence Class Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Both the Justice Department indictment and a twin SEC Complaint claim that two former and one current Austal executive, including Austal USA’s former Chief Executive, Craig Perciavalle, “conspired to mislead Austal Limited’s shareholders and the investing public about Austal USA’s financial condition,” artificially boosting the stock price and leading to a write-down of “over $100 million in previously wrongly booked profits.”


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