The Navy’s top acquisition official said Thursday the service’s requirement for 52 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) is “firm,” and would not comment on reports a day earlier saying the Office of the Secretary of Defense has instructed the Navy to reduce the number to 32 vessels.

The LCS program again could be under the gun. Photo aboard the USS Forth Worth by Defense Daily.
The LCS program again could be under the gun. Photo aboard the USS Forth Worth by Defense Daily.

Sean Stackley, the Navy’s assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition, also refused to comment on whether the service has been told to cut the purchase by 20 ships, saying he cannot discuss the fiscal 2015 budget planning process before a proposal is submitted to Congress. His remarks, however, suggested the Navy would not readily accept any attempt to reduce the current program of record.

“We have a valid requirement for 52 ships that is firm,” Stackley told a handful of reporters at the Surface Navy Association conference outside Washington. He added the program is “performing strongly in terms of cost” and that the Navy is conducting operational testing in accordance to its schedule.

“The Navy’s position on the LCS program is solid, and any press reports to the contrary I have no comment on,” Stackley said.

The Navy Times  and Bloomberg reported Wednesday that acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox instructed the Navy in a Jan. 6 memo to reduce the purchase to 32, meaning only eight additional ships beyond the number already under contract or delivered to the fleet will be bought.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] is the prime contractor for the Freedom variant of the LCS, while Austal USA builds the Independence variant. The Navy is buying 12 of each variant, and two of each have been delivered. The Navy has yet to decide on the next block buy contracts.

The Pentagon is expected to submit its fiscal 2015 budget proposal sometime in February or early March.

The LCS program experienced significant cost overruns, technical problems and delays in the early stages. The controversial program has been subjected to strong criticism, particularly from many members of Congress. The Navy maintains the program is now on track, and touts the LCS as a cornerstone of future operations, citing its ability to operate in coastal areas and its three swappable mission packages for surface, anti-submarine and anti-mine warfare.

The USS Freedom (LCS-1) recently returned from a major deployment to Singapore, and the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) is scheduled to depart on a longer, 16-month deployment to the same country toward the end of this year. The Navy says the ship will play a pivotal role in the military’s strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region.

Fox has been serving as acting deputy defense secretary since Ashton Carter departed the Pentagon in early December. Some industry officials noted that she is in the position on an interim basis and the instructions in the reported memo could change once a replacement for Carter has been confirmed.