By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS
WASHINGTON — The office of the secretary of defense (OSD) has directed the US Navy to limit its overall buy of littoral combat ships to a total of 32 ships, foregoing 20 more of the small, fast and controversial warships, Pentagon sources have confirmed.
The decision, in a Jan. 6 memo from Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox, came after the Pentagon received its final 2015 budget guidance from the White House. Several major acquisition decisions, including direction on what to do with the LCS program, were awaiting the numbers from the Office of Management and Budget.
The program of record calls for the service to build 52 littoral combat ships, built to two designs, one from Lockheed Martin and the other from Austal USA. Three of the ships are in service, and a fourth ship will be commissioned in April. Another 20 are under construction or on order, split evenly between the two prime contractors.
Asked for comment, Navy spokesman Cmdr. Ryan Perry said “we’ll continue to work with OSD on LCS acquisition plans.” No date has been announced for the submission of the 2015 budget to Congress, but it’s expected to take place no earlier than mid-February.
Over the past year, the Navy and OSD have debated cutting the LCS program — along with discussions about the future of virtually every significant defense acquisition program. Various alternatives have been put forth, including ending the buy at 24 ships.
It’s believed that OSD’s initial guidance in January was to cut the program even further. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a strident defender of the LCS program, personally argued to restore at least a portion of the future ship buy, Pentagon sources said.
One Navy source familiar with the situation declared that the decision to end LCS at 32 ships isn’t yet a done deal. “This isn’t over yet,” the source said.
The reduction is not surprising to the Navy, but it is a disappointment to many senior officials and officers who have defended the ships. Unlike most warships, LCS doesn’t carry a major load of weapons and sensors, but rather features a large mission bay and adaptable systems to accommodate a range of mission modules — equipment fashioned to perform specific warfare tasks such as anti-submarine or counter-mine missions.
OSD has long harbored a variety of LCS critics, who each year have sought to limit the program’s scope. The concept, under development for over a decade, remains hotly contested within the Navy’s surface warfare community.
A major political feature of the LCS program was that the 52 ships represented a major portion — nearly one-sixth — of the 306-ship fleet. Among other issues, the Navy is in the earliest stages of thinking about what sort of ship might be useful and affordable instead of an LCS.
It’s also not clear that any decision has been made as to how the eight ships remaining to be ordered would be structured. Current plans call for two ships per year, one from each builder, starting in 2016. Options would include four ships per year, or a down-select to only one of the LCS designs.