The U.S. Navy is moving forward with plans to reduce its littoral combat ship buy by 12 ships, and a down-select to just one variant may happen ahead of schedule, the top brass told a Senate panel Wednesday.
In written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Integration of Capabilities and Resources Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition Sean Stackley said the selection to a single shipbuilder, scheduled for fiscal 2019, could happen as early as fiscal 2018, depending on the proposed design for the future frigate and modifications to the LCS block-buy.
The revised timeframe, they said, could also accelerate delivery of the frigate, which will include LCS upgrades to enhances its survivability and equip it with over-the-horizon surface-to-surface missiles. Currently, contracting for the future frigate is expected to begin in 2019.
The Navy was ordered to reduce its LCS buy in December by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who sent a memo chiding the service for overinvesting in the small surface combatants at the expense of weapons and aircraft. The president’s fiscal 2017 budget submission was designed around plans to purchase just 40 LCS/frigates as Carter had directed, rather than the 52 the Navy had originally expected to buy.
The Navy is now estimating to spend almost $30 billion -- $28.9 billion -- to buy 40 of the vessels, down from a previously planned quantity of 55 ships, according to recently released budget documents.
In jointly submitted written testimony, Stackley and Mulloy said the timeline, which called for block buy LCS proposals from each shipbuilder in 2017, would enable the competing companies to conduct long-term planning in light of the down-select and would preserve "future decision space" regarding procurement of the frigate if operational requirements, budget, or security risk dictated the need for changes.
The two LCS variants are currently built by Lockheed Martin Corp. at the Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin and by Austal USA at its shipyard in Mobile, Alabama.
"It is recognized that this down-select decision places one of our shipbuilders and part of the support industrial base at risk of closure," Stackley and Mulloy wrote. "The Navy will use this current period of stable production -- prior to the down-select decision -- to thoroughly assess the impact of such potential closure … in order to identify appropriate actions to mitigate these impacts to the extent practical."
Pressed by Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, Mulloy said that regardless of budget planning, the Navy still saw a requirement for the full 52 LCS/frigates. As the service plans a force structure assessment that is expected to raise its overall ship requirement in light of threats around the world, Mulloy said the requirement is expected to stay the same. Overall, the Navy plans to spend more than $81 billion in new ship construction over the next five fiscal years to build 38 new ships and submarines. Over that period, plans call for the construction of three new LCS and four frigate variants at a combined cost of $4.7 billion.