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Builders Defend Littoral Combat Ships after Carter Orders Program Cuts

Littoral Combat Ship

In the wake of a memo from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordering a significant reduction in the Navy's planned buy of Littoral Combat Ships, the two companies producing variants of the vessel are projecting confidence.

The memo, first reported on by Defense News and obtained by Military.com, claimed the Navy's purchase plan was "unbalanced," investing in shipbuilding at the expense of other key warfighting capabilities. Carter ordered the Navy to reduce its LCS buy from 52 ships to 40 and choose just one variant of the ship by fiscal 2019.

There are currently two variacnts of the LCS in production: the Freedom-variant, produced by Lockheed Martin, and the Independence-variant, built by Austal USA. Carter's mandate would represent a significant financial loss for one of these companies, with the ships costing upwards of $350 million apiece. Both variants have nine named ships in long-range planning or production.

Reached for comment, the Mobile, Alabama-based Austal USA, part of Australian shipbuilder Austal, emphasized that the memo from Carter did not represent the final word in the budgeting process.

"In response to [Carter's] recommendation to reduce the LCS program, we understand this is a single step in a lengthy budget process that's in its beginning stages," company president Craig Perciavalle said in a statement. "We will continue to monitor the process very closely and provide support as we have in the past.

Perciavalle said Austal USA was encouraged by the support the LCS program continued to receive from the Navy and Alabama lawmakers including Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, and Rep. Bradley Byrne.

The three lawmakers released a joint statement Thursday condemning the program cut and vowing to fight it.

"This is troubling not just for the 4,000 hardworking Austal employees in Mobile, but also for the future of our Navy and our national security," Sessions, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in the statement. "LCS is crucial to our country's future naval capabilities, and the 52 ship requirement is essential to get our Navy to the numbers it needs. I intend to fight against this proposed reduction, and I will continue to fight for LCS."

A spokesman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, Joe Dougherty, defended the company's Freedom-variant ship and pointed to its record of service.

"The Freedom-variant ships have demonstrated their value with successful deployments to Southeast Asia, including the USS Fort Worth, which is providing the necessary capabilities for contingency operations in the region today," Dougherty said. "Fort Worth surpassed her one-year mark on her 16-month deployment, during which time the U.S. Navy praised her for exhibiting tremendous operational flexibility."

The Fort Worth, commissioned in 2012, is one of three Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ships in active service in the Navy. The Fort Worth has earned praise for its performance during a lengthy Southeast Asia deployment beginning in November 2014.

Dougherty pointed to ongoing Lockheed LCS shipbuilding efforts well underway.

"We are in full rate production with seven ships in various stages of production and test, with two more in the long lead procurement phase," he said. "The team will continue to build these critical navy platforms and we look forward to working with the Navy as it moves the program forward."

In a statement Thursday, Navy officials called Carter's memo pre-decisional and declined to comment further until the fiscal 2017 budget was finalized.

--Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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