By Frank Oliveri
The woes and ultimate truncation of a major Pentagon weapon acquisition program has become a Washington cliche.
Weapon after weapon, whether it’s a new Army or Marine Corps combat vehicle, a stealth fighter or a naval vessel has stumbled from benchmark to benchmark, blowing through cost goals so severely that the military cannot afford to buy the items in the numbers Pentagon planners originally said they required.
The latest of these weapons is the Littoral Combat Ship, a relatively small class of vessel used close to shore. An expected proposal by the Pentagon to reduce the Navy’s planned purchase from 52 to 32 ships will be at the center of a wider congressional debate this year about the cost, size and mix of the fleet. The Pentagon will reveal its next move on March 4, when the president releases his fiscal 2015 budget, but the ship has defenders in Congress who will fight to preserve it.
“This is going to be a very important year because it will be a time that you will see not just oversight but debate from various circles about what the [littoral ship] buy should be and how it should be modified or changed,” said J. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.
Continued performance and development problems with the ships and specialized modules for different missions, as well as concerns over the potential costs of the modules and the ships’ survivability in combat, has made it vulnerable to reduction in the face of declining resources.
The proposed reduction of a Navy priority throws the service’s planning into disarray. The Littoral Combat Ships were expected to increase the size of an already taxed fleet.
But Forbes said cuts to the Littoral Combat Ships — the only class planned to grow in numbers over the next 30 years — are not a foregone conclusion.
“I think we are far from a position where we are seeing these cuts taking place,” he said.
Forbes, in fact, believes the Navy should get an annual increase for shipbuilding equivalent to 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the Pentagon budget, or a little more than $5 billion per year. That would cover roughly the annual average shortfall that the Congressional Budget Office estimates the current Navy 30-year shipbuilding plan faces.
But Congress writ large has grown increasing stingy and impatient with the Pentagon’s spending habits, and the Navy has seen its share of cost overruns.
The first of the Ford-class aircraft carriers is running more than $2 billion over its promised cost, with the second also about $2 billion over initial estimates, and the Navy’s new ballistic missile submarines are expected to cost about $5 billion each after completion of the first one for $12 billion. Even the more reasonably priced DDG-51 destroyer costs $1.7 billion per ship.
These breakdowns drove Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a decorated retired Navy captain and military hawk, to disparage the Littoral Combat Ship program — as well as Navy leaders for these failings.
“The Navy won’t know whether LCS meets combatant commanders’ operational requirements until after it has procured more than half of the 52 planned seaframes,” the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee warned in July. “This is particularly troubling inasmuch as the LCS fleet will comprise more than one-third of the Navy’s surface combatants.”
In 2010, the Navy signed deals with two contractors to buy 10 each of two Littoral Combat Ship types. They were envisioned as an inexpensive combat ship with modular “plug-and-fight” packages for different tasks. The fleet was to carry out three core missions: defeat mines, counter submarines and defend against swarming speedboats along hostile shorelines.
At $440 million each, the cost of the first 20 Littoral Combat Ships — a thin-skinned, aluminum-hulled multipurpose craft that would not fare well in combat, according to internal Pentagon studies — is double what the Navy originally hoped. That price, however, does not include the mission packages: The Mine Countermeasures Mission package is expected to cost $97.7 million each for 23 ships; the Surface Warfare Mission package is supposed to cost $32.6 million each for 21; and 15 Anti-Submarine Warfare Mission packages are supposed to cost $20.9 million each. Further, 59 common equipment packages are expected to cost $14.8 million each.
“I am concerned … the Navy will buy too many of these ships before the combination of the seaframes with their interchangeable mission modules has been proven capable of performing the missions these ships are supposed to perform,” McCain said.
Still, the Littoral Combat Ship has influential proponents.
Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions — a senior Senate Armed Services member from a state where one of the LCS types is manufactured — slammed potential cuts earlier this month, calling it a “terrific ship” that enjoys the support of the Navy’s senior leaders.
He said in a written statement the Pentagon proposal “cannot be accepted. … I intend to fight against this proposal and I will continue to fight for LCS. This ship is a critical part of our nation’s need to return to a 300 ship Navy.”
Proponents of Littoral Combat Ship argue its problems are comparable with virtually any other combat ship’s development. Forbes added that the proposed reductions “are just suggestions from one particular group at this point in time … that is far from saying it is poured in concrete.”