By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS
WASHINGTON — The office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) reportedly supports the idea of limiting total purchases of littoral combat ships to only 24, far short of the US Navy’s goal of 52 ships, sources have told Defense News.
Stopping at 24 ships would end LCS procurement with the fiscal 2015 budget.
The Navy, according to sources, is countering with proposals for higher numbers, but strongly advocates going no lower than 32 ships — a number that would continue production another one or two years.
The positions are part of ongoing deliberations to formulate the fiscal 2015 defense budget, due to be submitted to Congress in February. The annual budget process has been heavily disrupted due to sequester cuts, and the White House’s insistence on producing two versions of the budget — a non-sequestration version, called the program objective memorandum (POM) — and an alternative POM (ALT POM), incorporating the mandated cuts and hence, far more severe reductions in purchases and programs.
Pentagon budget officials have focused primarily on the ALT POM, and in late August began switching to the POM. The OSD proposal to limit LCS to 24 ships is understood to be part of the ALT POM discussions.
Asked for comment, both OSD and Navy officials emphasized that no final decisions have been made.
“Until the FY15 President’s Budget request is submitted to the Congress in February 2014, and becomes part of the public record, all decisions are pre-decisional and it is inappropriate to discuss specific details,” said Lt. Caroline Hutcheson, a Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
“We continue to evaluate the future demand for forces and will maintain a balance between force structure requirements while managing fiscal and operational risk,” she added. “We remain committed to a 52-ship LCS program —this number accurately and appropriately captures the requirement for capacity and capabilities.”
One defense official noted a mandated $52 billion cut is coming at the end of fiscal 2013, Sept. 30.
“You can’t cut force structure that quickly,” Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Aug. 28. “We’ve already cut the readiness accounts to a bare minimum. So the investment accounts will take an inordinate part of those cuts for 2014 on.”
In addition to supporting a reduction to 24 ships, OSD also reportedly is insisting the Navy place a top priority on fielding the mine countermeasures (MCM) module, one of three major mission packages under development for the LCS.
The Navy already has prioritized the MCM module in order to fulfill its most pressing operational need for the ships — three developmental packages have been delivered — but the effort has seen significant issues that have pushed back its operational readiness.
Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top acquisition official, noted during a July 25 appearance before Congress that, “sequestration, combined with recent congressional marks and rescissions, will impact the operational test schedule for the mine countermeasures mission package.”
Stackley did not say during that hearing what the revised initial operational capability (IOC) date was for the MCM module, but he noted the surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare packages are scheduled to reach IOC in 2014 and 2016, respectively.
What 24 Means
While LCS has been controversial since its inception more than a decade ago, the Navy’s top leadership has never wavered in its support of the full program. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, have remained adamant in their support, testifying before Congress in defense of the program and proclaiming it in multiple public addresses.
Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of the Navy’s surface forces, noted in an internal memo produced in November that with 24 ships — half devoted to mine warfare — the Navy will have exceeded the current minesweeping capacity of its ships and aircraft. While the modules are required to be interchangeable between the two LCS variants, only the Independence-class ships have been used in developmental MCM testing.
Four littoral combat ships have been delivered, while construction contracts or contract options have been awarded for 20 more. The numbers are evenly divided between the Freedom class, built by Lockheed Martin at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis., and the Independence class, built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. Construction contracts have been awarded for LCS hulls five through 16; four more are in the 2014 budget, while hulls 21 through 24 are planned to be funded and awarded in 2015.
The Navy’s program of record shows two ships scheduled for 2016, and two more in 2017. A minimum of 32 ships would extend production another one or two years — enough, perhaps, for the sequestration restrictions to be relaxed or eliminated.
Meanwhile, Pentagon budget deliberations continue on a wide scale. But time is growing short. Under OSD deadlines, budget proposals are to be presented to the deputy’s Management Action Group in late September, followed by briefings to Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s top acquisition official, in late September or early October. A full budget brief to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel isn’t expected until November.
Sam Fellman and Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report