Storm clouds gather over the Navy's newest warship. Image source: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leah Stiles for U.S. Navy.

For the U.S. Navy, it never rains but it pours -- and the storm clouds are gathering. After years spent designing and billions spent building a fleet of Littoral Combat Ships that were supposed to become one of its most numerous and versatile ship classes, the Navy was chagrined to learn last year that Congress is not at all enthused with the LCS.

At one time, the LCS fleet was supposed to number 55 ships, each capable of performing missions ranging from surface combat to antisubmarine warfare to minesweeping, as the situation called for. But as criticism of the design mounted, the number of LCS's desired has shrunk -- and its mission has been curtailed. At last report, Congress supported a plan to build only 32 LCS's, and to relegate them almost exclusively to minesweeping missions.

Now, it turns out, they might not even be able to do that.

Lockheed Martin's Remote Minehunting System. But is it being deployed... or being salvaged? Image source: U.S. Navy via Lockheed Martin.

The right tools for the job
The reason, as revealed in a damning report recently published by the Pentagon's own Directorate of Operational Test and Evaluation, is that the Remote Minehunting System (RMS) designed for the LCS's to use on minesweeping missions -- well, to put it bluntly, doesn't work .

Built by Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.73%), RMS is basically a robot submarine, designed to be remotely controlled by an LCS mothership, and used to detect and mark underwater mines for later disposal. Unfortunately, after more than 15 years of development, RMS still often fails to find its target. Over the course of tests begun in September 2014, RMS failed to locate mines at least two dozen times. The eight drones undergoing tests also broke down seven times, necessitating retrieval and towing back to port.

The failures to locate mines appear to be primarily attributable to Raytheon (RTN), which built the sonar system for RMS. But the breakdowns, and additional failures of RMS to reliably communicate with its mothership, are problems that Lockheed Martin must own.

Lockheed defends RMS's performance as having met at least some "key performance parameters," and says the system is still "on track for delivery." But DOT&E says RMS's performance "has not been acceptable," and "would not be operationally effective." Moreover, the Navy isn't 100% convinced Lockheed will ever work the bugs out. According to DOT&E, RMS's "reliability plateaued nearly a decade ago," and with little improvement seen since, the Pentagon is unsure RMS "will ever achieve its reliability goals."

Money for nothing (and the checks for free)
To date, the Pentagon has paid Lockheed Martin "nearly $700 million" to develop RMS, according to CNN. Bloomberg notes that $109 million was spent to buy the first batch of eight drones from Lockheed. A further $700 million could soon be spent to acquire a further 46 drones -- but only if the Pentagon decides the system can be salvaged, and proceeds with its planned purchases.

Probably, this money will eventually be spent -- because even if RMS is just a work in progress, some kind of minehunting system is essential if the Navy's Littoral Combat Ships are to fulfill their minesweeping role. Failure to spend this money could jeopardize the entire $23 billion investment in building the warships in the first place. That said, it's not a given that this money will be spent on Lockheed's RMS.

After all, it's common knowledge that several other companies have been working on submarine drones for the Navy, including drones for minesweeping roles. Just this past summer, we saw the Navy award a series of pretty sizable contracts -- in the $800 million to $1.4 billion range -- for defense contractors able to supply the Navy with new and improved hardware and software systems for robotic minehunting.

What's behind Door No. 2?
For that matter, Lockheed isn't even the only shop with a mature minesweeping system in the works. General Dynamics' (GD -0.09%) Knifefish, for example, is a 1,700-pound minehunting robot currently under development in partnership with Oceaneering International. The Navy plans to buy as many as four dozen of those, and -- theoretically, at least -- they could be purchased instead of, rather than in addition to, Lockheed Martin's RMS.

For that matter, if Lockheed seemed to be a "lock" to win funding for its LCS-based RMS because the company builds one of the two main LCS variants (the Freedom class) -- well, General Dynamics built the other LCS variant, the Independence class. If General Dynamics comes up with a working robotic minesweeper before Lockheed Martin does, then it's entirely possible that funding originally designated for Lockheed's RMS system, which doesn't work, could shift to General Dynamics' Knifefish -- which does. 

Knifefish looks sharp in this promotional illustration. Image source: General Dynamics.