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POLITICS: PennAve

Littoral Combat Ship comes under fire

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The Littoral Combat Ship, part of the Navy's strategy for future growth, is expected to be one of the many casualties of the Pentagon's fiscal belt tightening, prompting protests by politicians hoping to keep shipbuilding jobs in their districts.

The Defense Department is expected to release its formal budget request March 4, but Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey have previewed what the public can expect.

The ship's poor performance in early use, including cracks, leaks and propulsion problems, exacerbated the challenges it faced in a restrictive budgetary environment.

With cuts to troops, including the reduction of the Army to its smallest size since before the United States entered World War II, Hagel singled out the Littoral Combat Ship as a target for reductions.

“I am concerned that the Navy is relying too heavily on the LCS to achieve its long-term goals for ship numbers,” Hagel said, announcing that the Navy would slash its order of the vessels from 52 ships to 32.

The Littoral Combat Ship is designed to be a highly customizable warship tasked with specific missions such as minesweeping or submarine detection. It was designed to operate in the littorals, or close to land. Components could be easily swapped out to configure the ship for each task, and it was designed to be both swift and cost-efficient. Under the Navy's original plan, a third of its future fleet would have been made up of these vessels. The Navy now is expected to request $1.19 billion for four of them in fiscal 2015, according to Bloomberg News.

The problem is that the ship does not have the independent firepower and survivability to justify taking up such a large part of America’s future Navy, Hagel said.

“The LCS was designed to perform certain missions, such as minesweeping and antisubmarine warfare, in a relatively permissive environment, but we need to closely examine whether the LCS has the independent protection and firepower to operate and survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies, especially in the Asia-Pacific,” Hagel told reporters.

The ship's poor performance in early use, including cracks, leaks and propulsion problems, exacerbated the challenges it faced in a restrictive budgetary environment. With $37 billion in Pentagon budget cuts during the last fiscal year, and the possibility of future sequestration cuts from 2016 onward, a reduction had been rumored.

But the ships, manufactured in two versions by Lockheed Martin and Australian shipmaker Austal, support thousands of jobs in Mobile, Ala., and Marinette, Wis., and lawmakers from those districts are pushing to keep the LCS program intact. The Pentagon's budget request is subject to congressional approval.

“The Littoral Combat Ship, called ‘the backbone of the future fleet' by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, is a critical component of our future fighting force as we continue adapting to changing combat necessities," said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., of the program that employs about 4,000 of his constituents. “Its low cost to manufacture and low cost to operate bolster the argument for its necessity during tight budgetary times.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to the president in support of the "tens of thousands of hardworking Americans [who] have jobs that depend on the continued construction of these valuable ships," warning that reducing the Pentagon's purchases of the LCS could "set back the Navy's shipbuilding program for decades."

But while the Pentagon is planning to reduce the number of future Littoral Combat Ship purchases, Hagel said he had told the Navy to draw up alternative proposals for a “capable and lethal small surface combatant, generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate” by the end of the year. These alternatives could include anything from a modified LCS to a brand-new design.

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