A bipartisan set of Congress members from Michigan and Wisconsin are putting pressure on the Navy for its FY ’18 and ’19 acquisition of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), arguing without a better strategy one quarter of the Wisconsin LCS shipyard workforce might be laid off.

Lawmakers sent a letter this week to Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer and assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition James Geurts expressing consternation with the Navy’s acquisition strategy for the LCS, particularly the Freedom-variant built by Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin.

An MH-60 Romeo flying near the USS Freedom (LCS-1). Photo: U.S. Navy
An MH-60 Romeo flying near the USS Freedom (LCS-1). Photo: U.S. Navy

The members said they are concerned the FY ’18 and ’19 acquisition strategy “unduly disadvantages the Freedom-variant industry team and will result in irreversible harm to the shipyard and supply chain workforces, in turn reducing competition in the next generation Frigate program.”

The letter was signed by the senators of both states, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), as well as several members of Congress from both states, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

They argued the Navy is focusing on lowest-price choices, rather than best-value measures which would include differences in capabilities, service-life, and total lifecycle cost.

“The acquisition strategy also fails to appropriately factor in the results of the Navy’s decision to award two Independence-variant ships in both FY15 and FY17 – namely the production advantages- and therefore price advantage-accrued by that shipyard.”

The Independence-variant LCS is produced by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

The members requested the Navy’s strategy more substantially consider the capabilities, cost structures, and work forces of each variant and factor in lack of equity in prior awards. If the acquisition strategy does not change for a “value-based and equitable approach, we understand that one quarter of the Marinette shipyard workforce would need to be let go.”

They claimed this would happen just as the yard “should be hiring more workers to successfully compete for the Frigate” and prepare to execute work on the Saudi Navy’s Multi Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC).

“In other words, the FY18/19 LCS acquisition strategy will have negative impacts for the Great Lakes shipbuilding industrial base, the Navy, and our allies across three essential programs.”

The letter was referencing the Navy’s future frigate, FFG(X), program to follow the LCS in filling the small surface combatant role; as well as a $481 million NAVSEA contract for a Saudi Navy smaller surface combatant (Defense Daily, March 9). The Saudi contract is expected to be finished by 2024.

Peters brought up these concerns to Spencer during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday.

Spencer noted the Navy has to take care for the entire industrial base and the overall portfolio. He suggested the Saudi ship order could be pulled forward. 

“One of the other levers that we’d like to see if we could do is see how do we pull that to the left? How do we manage the industrial base with all the tools available to us in light of the awards that we have?”

“But rest assured that the health of all the organizations involved in supplying goods and services to the Navy are being taken care of and analyzed,” Spencer added.

However, the letter said the Navy “should take a more realistic view of the construction schedule” for the Saudi Navy’s Multi Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC), which in the most optimistic timeline does not start construction until October 2019.

“As such, the Navy cannot rely on the MMSC as a cure-all bridging solution for the Freedom-variant workforce and instead must ensure that the FY18/19 LCS acquisition strategy provides not just an opportunity for two LCS shipyards to compete on a truly equitable basis, but also the flexibility to accelerate the timing of awards if needed to mitigate negate workforce impacts,” the letter writers added.

Last month lawmakers from districts including both LCS yards and heading seapower subcommittees expressed concern that the Navy is only procuring one vessel in the FY ’19 budget request.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said the FY ’19 shipbuilding request should include a second LCS to keep both yards working (Defense Daily, March 6) while later Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said the current plans will erode the overall industrial base for the ships (Defense Daily, March, 21).

Relatedly, at the hearing Sen. Tom Cottom (R-Ark.) asked the CNO to elaborate on the explanation by Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy Chief of Naval Operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), that the service is unconcerned that no LCSs will be deployed in 2018 (Defense Daily, April 18).

Richardson acknowledged the starting point that the LCS program has had a troubled past.

“In the past we probably pushed that ship out forward deployed a little bit ahead of its time, before the program had stabilized and we had done the appropriate testing and gained the confidence,” he said.

But Richardson said when he became CNO, he directed the commander of Naval Surface Forces to look at the program, rationalize it, and make it more like a normal shipbuilding and operating program. This led to changes in the maintenance approach, making the ships dual blue-gold crewing, and how squadrons will be homeported and forward deployed.

“2018 is really a reflection of that shift. And so starting in 2019 we’re going to start forward deploying those, they’ll be sustainable, they’ll be more lethal by virtue of the enhancements we’re putting on those littoral combat ships. We have 24 deployments planned between ’19 and ’24 and so really – ’18 is a reset year to get maintenance and manning in place so that we can deploy this in a sustainable fashion.”