Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has called on the Navy to slash its planned buy of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and frigates from 52 to 40 vessels, as well as to downselect to a single vendor.

“For the last several years, the Department of Navy has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers at the expense of critically needed investments in areas where our adversaries are not standing still, such as strike, ship survivability, electronic warfare and other capabilities,” Carter said in a Dec. 14 memo to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter prepares to land on the littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) off the coast of Southern California. Photo: U.S. Navy
MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter prepares to land on the littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) off the coast of Southern California.
Photo: U.S. Navy

Carter directed the Navy to downselect to a single LCS design in fiscal year 2019, as well as decrease procurement by eight vessels in the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP). Over the FYDP, the service would buy one ship a year from fiscal 2017 to 2020, and two ships in 2021.

Left unclear is how the Navy will implement this plan. Under the current program of record, the service plans to buy 32 LCSs, and then transition to an upgunned “frigate” version for the last 20 ships. It also intended to maintain throughout the program two LCS designs built by two shipbuilders:  Lockheed Martin [LMT], which partnered with Fincantieri’s Marinette Marine to build the Freedom class, and Austal, which builds the Independence class. The service anticipated buying the first two frigates in 2019.

Carter’s memo does not specify the mix of LCS and frigates to be bought under the new plan, nor does it state whether the change to the program would result in a delay or acceleration of frigate procurement.

“CAPE (Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation) will provide specific implementation direction and the decision will be documented in the Resource Management Decision,” he stated in the memo.

While the cuts to the LCS program will result in fewer ships available to crises around the world, it will free up funds that can be invested in fighter aircraft, missiles, and upgrades to submarines and destroyers, Carter said. The Navy will still be able to meet its 308-ship goal, with its fleet exceeding 300 ships between fiscal 2019 and 2030.

His “program rebalance” includes procurement of 31 additional F-35C Joint Strike Fighter aircraft made by Lockheed Martin, additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets from Boeing [BA] and upgrades to fourth-generation fighters, maximized production of Standard Missile-6 from Raytheon [RTN] and the development of a new lightweight torpedo. Carter also directed the Navy to modernize two additional Flight II DDGs, invest in an additional Virginia Payload Module in fiscal 2020 and procure 10 more Submarine Combat Systems upgrades.

The LCS program has long been controversial on Capitol Hill, and drastic changes to the Navy’s fiscal year 2017 budget request could spark a battle over the future of the program. In interviews with Defense Daily, lawmakers have already advocated funding the full 52-ship buy, even over Pentagon objections, or canceling the program altogether.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been one of the biggest critics of LCS since the program’s inception, said Carter’s memo indicates that the program has been a failure. The concept of the ship and its subsystems hasn’t materialized as advertised, “otherwise they would keep buying them,” he said.

Should the new ship schedule lead to contracts that break the $480 million congressionally mandated cost cap for the ship, McCain said he would do everything in his power to cancel the program.

“We’re done with cost-plus contracts. We’re done with cost overruns. I’ve told the Pentagon if they have cost overruns, we will do everything we can to eliminate those costs or eliminate the program,” he said. “We’re not going to stand for it anymore.”

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.)—who represents Mobile, where Austal’s shipyards are located­—said the decision to cut the program of record and downselect to a single vendor would have dire industrial implications.

“This would kill the yard,” he said. The shipyard in Mobile was built, partially with government funds, to build the LCS. Its only other military shipbuilding contract is for the Joint High Speed Vessel. Similarly, Marinette Marine’s only military contract is for the LCS, although Saudi Arabia recently announced its plans to buy the a version of the Freedom-variant as well.                                                                                                                                                                        

“Our industrial base is so very important. We talk about it all the time. The Secretary of Defense talks about it all the time. Well you can’t say we need an industrial base and then when people build the base, pull it all back,” Byrne said.

This isn’t the first time the administration has questioned the viability of the LCS program, he added. In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel paused the LCS program and directed a task force to look at alternative ships, signaling that cancellation of the program was on the table. Based on the task force’s recommendations, former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert announced that the Navy would buy 20 frigate versions of the LCS with additional weapons, armor and a host of sensors including new radar and electronic warfare capabilities. Byrne believes the administration is likely trying to shorten the program once again.

“We have a lame duck secretary and a lame duck administration trying a different way of obtaining the same result,” he said. I think it will meet with the same fate. I think it will fail, as it should. The Navy is very clear that they need these ships at that level.”

When asked about the memo, two of the biggest shipbuilding advocates in the House­—Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the top Republican and Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee—provided few details on whether they would work to undo Carter’s program rebalance.

“Secretary Carter has framed this as a choice between capability and capacity, but the undeniable reality is that our Navy needs more of both—and our military needs the top-line budget to make that a reality,” Forbes said in an emailed statement.

Courtney said he looked forward to hearing more from Navy leaders on the capabilities and platforms they need, as well as the funding needed to finance those requirements.

“Our panel has played an active role in this debate in the past and as we build the annual defense authorization bill, I anticipate that we will do so again next year,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of HASC, commended Carter’s decision, adding that truncating the LCS buy would help free up funds for more direly needed military equipment.

“Common sense is finally catching up with the Littoral Combat Ship, and we know that a plan to keep purchasing two LCS variants indefinitely is not survivable in such an encounter,” she said in a statement. “The LCS program has long been hobbled by hazy conceptual justifications and serious acquisition malpractice.”

The builders of the LCS weighed in, stating that they would continue on with production as planned until a final decision is announced.  

Austal will continue to monitor the budget process and provide support as needed, said Craig Perciavalle, Austal USA president.

“In response to the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s recommendation to reduce the LCS program, we understand this is a single step in a lengthy budget process that’s in its beginning stages,” he said. “We’re very encouraged by the steadfast support the program continues to receive from the Navy, as well as our congressional delegations.”

Lockheed Martin currently has seven ships in various stages in production and testing, with two others in long-lead procurement, said spokesman Joe Dougherty.

“The Freedom-variant ships have demonstrated their value with successful deployments to Southeast Asia, including the USS Fort Worth, which is providing the necessary capabilities for contingency operations in the region today,” he said. “Fort Worth surpassed her one-year mark on her 16-month deployment, during which time the U.S. Navy praised her for exhibiting tremendous operational flexibility.”

In a written statement, the Navy said, “We are aware of the memo, however budget discussions are pre-decisional and it would be inappropriate to discuss anything further until the FY ’17 budget is finalized.”