- Navy persuaded skeptical Secretary Carter by finding savings
- Choice between Lockheed, Austal versions still due by 2019
The Pentagon will request money for two Littoral Combat Ships in its fiscal 2017 budget, one more than Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed in December when he truncated the program, according to defense officials.
Carter has joined in criticism that the lightly armed vessel may be vulnerable in combat. He agreed to the Navy’s proposal for a second ship after the service found savings of $300 million to $400 million to pay for it, said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity before President Barack Obama’s final proposed budget is sent to Congress on Feb. 9.
The Navy and Defense Department officials agreed that funding the extra vessel will let manufacturers Lockheed Martin Corp. and Austal Ltd. compete more fairly for a decision in 2019 on which of the contractors will build seven more heavily protected frigates to complete a 40-ship program, one of the officials said.
That’s because each would receive an order for a vessel next year, allowing both to retain the shipyard workforces that build their separate versions of the Littoral Combat Ship.
The decision also may quell a potential backlash against buying only one ship next year from the Alabama, Wisconsin and Maryland congressional delegations representing states where the vessels are built or the companies have offices.
In an unusually blunt memo in December, Carter ordered the Navy to buy fewer ships so it can spend more on advanced technology such as upgraded systems for electronic warfare and F-35 jets. He directed a reduction to a combined 40 vessels from 52 for the Littoral Combat Ship and the more heavily armed frigate that would follow it.
Carter said in a speech Tuesday that the Navy budget will include about $8 billion to fund underwater and anti-submarine improvements. The systems include upgraded sensors and acoustic systems for submarines, an official said.
The Navy previously was committed to 32 Littoral Combat Ships, with 26 already under contract. The new budget decision adds one more, cutting one frigate that would have been bought after 2021, an official said.
While Carter’s decision to allow an extra Littoral Combat Ship may smooth his roiled relationship with Navy officials, it’s unlikely to placate critics who can cite criticism such as a new report from the Pentagon’s own testing office that the ship is too lightly armed to survive in major combat.
The testing director, Michael Gilmore, also reported the ship had difficulty in sea trials last year defending against swarms of small, fast vessels like those employed by Iran. Gilmore said the early vessels have significant reliability problems and cybersecurity deficiencies.