By Tony Capaccio
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his “considerable reservations” about the Littoral Combat Ship led him to bar planning for any more than 32 of the vessels, 20 fewer than the Navy’s $34 billion program.
“Given the emerging threat environment of the future, I have considerable reservations as to whether this is what our Navy will require over the next few decades,” Hagel said in a memorandum to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
The document, obtained by Bloomberg News, expands on Hagel’s doubts about the ship and his decision to block any new contract negotiations to buy more than 32 of them, which he announced yesterday in outlining the Pentagon’s proposed budget for the year that begins in October. It’s the first time Hagel has questioned a major weapons system since he became defense secretary a year ago.
Questions have been raised about the rising costs of the Littoral Combat Ship and how it would fare in battle. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, has written that the ship “is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat.”
The Littoral Combat ship, lightly armed and intended to operate in shallow coastal waters, is made in two versions by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) and Henderson, Australia-based Austal Ltd. (ASB)
In the memo dated yesterday, Hagel instructed Mabus to review the ship’s performance and to prepare alternative proposals for a small combatant vessel “generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”
Options to Study
The decision comes after the Navy spent as much as $12 billion since 2004 on the program, which will have 24 ships under contract if money for the next four requested is approved by Congress for fiscal 2015.
Options that Hagel told the Navy to study include a completely new ship design, existing ships including the Littoral Combat Ship and a modified version of it, Hagel said. The options should also include target cost, mission requirements, sensors and weapon requirements, Hagel wrote.
“If a modified LCS is an acceptable option,” negotiations “should seek to incorporate” improvements “as soon as possible,” Hagel said in the memo.
Even as Hagel questioned the Littoral Combat Ship, President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve as deputy defense secretary defended it at his Senate confirmation hearing.
The ship “is on solid ground and meeting its cost targets,” Robert Work told the Senate Armed Services Committee today. As Navy undersecretary in 2012, Work wrote an extensive defense of the program’s performance including cost.
Work said that while “the program almost imploded” in 2008 over cost overruns, “I believe since 2009,” under the Obama administration, it “has met its cost targets.”
Work said he hadn’t read a report last year critical of the ship by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“Wow!” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has criticized the Littoral Combat Ship, said of Work’s failure to read the report. “I’m stunned that you haven’t.”
“This again makes me wonder about your qualifications because the one thing we are plagued with is significant cost overruns and lack of capability,” McCain said.
Rachael Dean, a spokeswoman for McCain, said the senator will put a hold on Work’s nomination.
In Hagel’s presentation yesterday, he cited concern about the ship’s combat capability and survivability when faced with “a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies, especially in the Asia-Pacific.”
The rapid and widespread fielding of Chinese-made antiship cruise missiles with ranges greater than 100 nautical miles reflects a navy transitioning from a coastal maritime force to one “capable of multiple missions,” Jesse Karotkin, a China analyst with the Office of Naval Intelligence, wrote in congressional testimony last month.
Long-range Navy budget plans compiled as part of the fiscal 2014 budget call for the Navy to request $1.19 billion in fiscal 2015 for four Littoral Combat Ships, and then two vessels each in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — the last year of the current plan.