By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator John McCain on Wednesday blasted the U.S. Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program as a "shameful" and dangerous waste of taxpayer money, and he urged the Pentagon to cut its planned purchases back by another eight ships to 24 ships.
McCain, a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Navy's poor planning had led to a new class of ships that could not survive in combat, cost far more than expected, provided less capability than earlier warships and had not demonstrated their utility after 13 years of development.
Lockheed Martin Corp and Australia's Austal are building two different versions of the ship, which was designed to be rapidly reconfigured to fight other surface ships, hunt for and destroy enemy mines and battle submarines.
A longtime critic of the program, McCain used a speech on the Senate floor to back Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's decision to limit LCS procurement to 32 ships instead of the 52 ships initially planned and called for a further cut to 24 ships.
"Production should not go forward until the Navy and (Department of Defense) confirm that LCS provides greater capabilities than the legacy ships it is intended to replace," McCain said.
He said the Navy also needed to demonstrate that the three interchangeable weapons systems being designed for the ship provided military commanders the combat capability they needed.
McCain's speech came a day before Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley and other top Navy officials are due to testify about the fiscal 2015 shipbuilding budget at a hearing of the Senate Armed Service Committee's seapower subcommittee.
Hagel announced plans on February 24 to stop building the current class of LCS ships after 32 vessels and focus on ships with more firepower and protection, saying he had "considerable reservations" about building all 52 LCS ships as planned.
Lockheed and Austal are each under contract to build 10 ships, which will bring the total number of LCS ships to 24.
The Navy has set up a task force to study alternatives for a new small warship and provide recommendations by July 31, in time to inform the Pentagon's fiscal 2016 budget deliberations.
Initially designed to be a small, fast and affordable ship to augment larger ships in the fleet, the LCS program has seen numerous cost increases and schedule delays over the past 13 years, although Navy officials say production costs are now down sharply and the fielded ships are performing well.
Vice Admiral Thomas Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, told the annual Navy League conference on Wednesday he was convinced that the Navy would wind up building 20 more small warships because they offered a relatively inexpensive way to essentially double the Navy's presence around the world.
"We need to have a certain number of ships out there," Copeman told reporters at the conference, before McCain's speech. "You do have to make some trades. I'd love to have every ship be unsinkable and shoot down satellites and defeat every weapon and enemy there is, but that's unaffordable."
Copeman said the new LCS warships were much larger than World War Two destroyers and used far less manpower. He added that no warship could survive under all circumstances.
Copeman also said the LCS ships were also subject to far greater scrutiny than any other new ship class, and many U.S. lawmakers based their criticism on outdated information.
McCain said the congressional Government Accountability Office would soon release another report that criticized the LCS program and called for more rigorous testing and evaluation.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)