Navy Secretary Ray Mabus raised the possibility of a restored Littoral Combat Ship /Frigate program, noting for the first time publicly that the next administration – not this one – will make the final decision about how many small surface combatants to buy.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s Dec. 14, 2015, memo that decreed the LCS/Frigate program would be halted after buying 40 ships instead of the planned 52, and that only one builder instead of two would finish out the ship class, clearly contradicted the Navy’s vision for building its future fleet. The Navy originally declined to comment to USNI News on the Carter memo. However, in contrast to the Carter memo’s statement that “the Navy’s strategic future requires focusing … more on new capabilities, not only ship numbers,” a “Department of the Navy Goals and Objectives for Fiscal Year 2016” memo was signed the next day and listed the top platform-related goal as “buy more ships.”
The Navy has several times reiterated that its validated requirement for small surface combatants – LCSs and frigates – remains at 52 despite Carter’s decision.
The discussion on LCS heated up last week when Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley told the House Armed Services Committee that the downselect from two shipbuilders to one – either Austal USA or Marinette Marine – would “drive, likely, one of those shipyards out of business based on their other workload.”
“While today we have two shipbuilders who have been in this program from day one and have invested in their facilities, driven down cost, and are delivering in accordance with contracts, once you go to this level of construction you have to downselect, there’s not enough workload there to sustain two shipyards,” he said.
And today, Mabus made the point publicly that many had been making privately since December: “the decisions about what to do, the number of Littoral Combat Ships, the type of Littoral Combat Ships, will not be made by this administration. They will be made by the next administration and by Congress, and this [FY 2017 budget request] allows the decision space for the next administration and Congress to go whatever direction they want to,” he told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee at a hearing.
Mabus also said that buying two in FY 2017 – Carter’s memo called for one, but the Navy successfully argued it would need to buy two to help set up a downselect to one builder for the remainder of the 40-ship class – would keep both yards open and thereby preserve decision space for the next administration.
The defense appropriators made several comments in support of the Navy shipbuilding budget and the shipbuilding industrial base, and though it remains to be seen what budget, if any, lawmakers will be able to pass during an election year, there seems to be plenty of congressional support for keeping the LCS/frigate program alive until a new administration is voted in.