Senators Call on Mattis to Buy More Littoral Combat Ships

Freedom-variant littoral combat ship, USS Detroit (LCS 7), arrives at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael Lopez)
Freedom-variant littoral combat ship, USS Detroit (LCS 7), arrives at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael Lopez)

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators from four different states is calling on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to find the money for three new littoral combat ships in next year's defense budget.

In a letter sent Friday, the eight senators representing Alabama, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin petitioned Mattis to keep to the LCS requirement in the Navy's December 2016 Force Structure Assessment. The list includes Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida; Richard Shelby and Luther Strange of Alabama; Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; and Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

The 2016 assessment was a reversal of then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's mandate to cut the LCS/future frigate acquisition program from 52 ships to 40, with a down-select from two shipbuilders to one by fiscal 2019.

"The opportunity exists in the LCS program now to ensure industrial base stability at two shipyards and also among the 1,200 suppliers in 45 states and the greater than 21,000 men and women who support this important work," the lawmakers wrote. "Leveraging these current investments is a good deal for the U.S. taxpayer and will provide greater capability to our fleet in a shorter timeframe."

All four states that the senators represent have close ties to the littoral combat ship program.

The Independence-class variant of the ship is built at the Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, while the Lockheed Martin-made Freedom-class variant is built at Marinette Marine, in Marinette, Wisconsin. The Navy plans to base all 13 planned Freedom-class ships at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, making the LCS a key component of military presence for the state. And littoral combat ships have undergone sea trials in Lake Michigan, which borders Marinette. One of the ships, the Freedom-class USS Detroit, is named for Michigan's capital city.

Elsewhere in the Senate, the LCS program is much less popular. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, has been outspoken in his criticism of the LCS design and strategy, citing massive cost overruns earlier in the program and oversight agencies that continue to fault the LCS for failings in survivability and lethality.

McCain has advocated scrapping the current LCS design plan in order to compete for a fresh design on the Navy's future frigate. Currently, the planned frigate is simply a variant on the LCS, with additional firepower and defensive capability.

For now, the possibility of a future down-select remains up in the air. Some have said the move to a single shipbuilder should happen as soon as fiscal 2018, but three recent fleet architecture studies have all called for significant ramp-ups in shipbuilding, which will likely affect decision-making.

Earlier this week, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said the Navy will in coming weeks release a document laying out a way forward for the future fleet.

The letter writers argued that cutting the LCS buy now could end up being costlier for the Defense Department in the long run.

"We are concerned that a funding level lower than this will risk interruptions to the highly trained workforce currently employed, that would take time and funding to reconstitute," the senators wrote. "We are also concerned that such a disruption could needlessly add costs and time as the Navy builds toward the president's stated goal of achieving a 350-ship Navy."

Mattis has yet to comment publicly on the LCS program.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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