An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that General Dynamics was one of two primary bidders in the design competition for the Littoral Combat Ship. The two primary bidders are now Lockheed Martin and Austal USA, which is working with a General Dynamics division as its partner.
Navy poised to pick builder of new Littoral Combat Ship this summer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; 3:55 PM
The Navy plans to pick a winner this summer in the contest to build a new high-speed warship that can prowl close to shorelines as a vital part of future military strategy. But whether the service can live up to its promises to build an inexpensive ship that can do a variety of missions remains a big question, defense industry analysts and congressional leaders say.
Two companies -- Lockheed Martin of Bethesda and Austal USA of Mobile, Ala. -- are competing for the contract to build what is known as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a deal that could be worth as much as $28 billion over several decades. The ship is meant to be smaller, cheaper and more versatile than the Navy's fleet of aircraft carriers and destroyers and is seen as crucial to the Navy's longer-range plans to increase its fleet to 313 ships. Last week, the House agreed to spend about $1.5 billion on building the LCS in its defense authorization bill.
But the Navy's shipbuilding plans are under heavy scrutiny in a time of budget cuts and changes in military priorities. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has questioned whether the U.S. military "can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 billion to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers" given that that the service has a "massive over-match" compared with others and the Navy's top admiral recently warned that new ships could face a procurement squeeze. So, more than ever, the program depends on the contractors' ability to hold down costs.
"This is a linchpin of the Navy's future shipbuilding plans," said Maren Leed, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "Two to four billion dollar ships are increasingly less doable, so if you're going to have ships in numbers, it has to be something like LCS that you can buy for less than a billion dollars a pop."
Delays and cost overruns
The littoral ship program has a long, troubled history. The concept started more than a decade ago, but it has gone through delays and cost overruns. Last year the Navy launched a major overhaul of its acquisition plan for the ships after it had previously ordered four ships -- two to be built by Lockheed and two by General Dynamics, which was working with Austal as a partner.
Last fall, citing flaws in the competition, the Pentagon reworked the acquisition process on the contract, after which Austal took over as lead bidder, with a division of General Dynamics designing the electronics for the vessels.
Some government auditors and analysts worry about whether the latest round of ships will stay within the latest congressionally mandated cost cap of $480 million per ship. The original price was expected to be $220 million.
"A ship that was supposed to be small and affordable and delivered on time has become anything but that," said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), chairman of the sea power subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. "It is way late, way over budget. If it is done right, this will be a major component of the Navy's shipbuilding plans over the next 20 to 25 years. But the price has to be right, and the quality has to be right."
A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office warned that the Navy wouldn't be able to afford all the ships it wants in the coming years, even if it continued to receive the same amount of money for shipbuilding -- an average of about $15 billion a year.
The littoral ship also represents a shift in the Navy's strategy. Just as the Army is adjusting its war-fighting capabilities to battle counterinsurgencies in close quarters in cities, so too is the Navy trying to adjust its tactics, experts say, and stay relevant in the U.S. military's operations after the Cold War.
The Navy's fleet consists mostly of large, expensive destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers that operate in deep water with crews of about 200 to upward of 3,500 and can cost as much as $10 billion to build. The littoral ship will have a core crew of 40 people.
Rather than serve as a multi-mission ship like the Navy's bigger vessels, the littoral warship is expected to use "plug-and-play" modules that will be switched out so various pieces of equipment can be used. The littoral ships will have helicopters, sensors and robots operated with joy sticks to help do a variety of things from intercepting drug smugglers and chasing pirates to sending unmanned vehicles to detonate underwater mines and submarine missiles.