The massive cost overruns and some technical problems with the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the Coast Guard's new cutters of the Deepwater Project led a key member of Congress to propose a merger of the two programs. Representative Gene Taylor (Democrat-Mississippi) has told Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead and Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen that the two services should look to pursue a "common hull" for LCS and the Coast Guard's National Security Cutter program.
Representative Taylor said "We can't afford to keep repeating mistakes," referring to the massive ship acquisition and development problems that both services have had with key shipbuilding initiatives. He made his proposal to the service chiefs at a congressional hearing on 13 December.
Admiral Allen subsequently said that he plans to meet with Admiral Roughead in January to discuss a number of issues, and a common hull could be on the agenda. However, both service chiefs said that their ships use different concepts of operations, and developing a single hull could present requirement challenges. Ironically, early in the development of the LCS the Navy spoke of possible collaboration with the Coast Guard, but the Navy's requirement for an LCS speed in excess of 40 knots quickly ended Coast Guard interest in a joint program.
There is also irony in the situation as the Department of Defense pays for national security features in Coast Guard ships -- guns, fire control, some radars, and, in the past, missiles and sonars.
The Navy has already cancelled two LCS hulls earlier this year because of costs, while the problems have led to the "firing" of the LCS project manager and the Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Ships. The Coast Guard's first 418-foot-long national security cutter, the Bertholf, recently completed the first set of builder's trials, and the second ship is scheduled to be launched early next year. This program has been plagued by cost and technical problems.
Representative Taylor's comments came during hearings of the House Armed Services Committee. The solons pressed the two admirals and Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway on why the new maritime strategy does not include a direct force structure outline and does not focus on the potential threat posed by the modernization of China's navy.
The maritime strategy outlines a broad future plan that includes increased maritime partnerships, a focus on the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific regions, and an emphasis on humanitarian and disaster relief missions. However, it does not provide specific ship or other force requirements for the services, leaving in effect the almost meaningless 30-year shipbuilding plan that the Navy proposed to Congress last year.
Representative Duncan Hunter (Republican-California), the committee's senior Republican member, asked Admiral Roughead why the rise of China and its naval force were not mentioned specifically in the new strategy. Roughead replied the document "looked at changes in navies around the world," including China. He was hesitant to list China as a direct peer rival, but did note China's overall shipbuilding capabilities, civilian and military, could surpass Korea's as the best in the region someday.
Mr. Hunter also asked why the new maritime strategy does not detail how the force structure of the three services should adjust to a changing global environment. Hunter specifically called attention to the problems in LCS acquisition as preventing the Navy from having the force levels it will need to meet global challengers. He said, "I am pleased that you have cooperated to develop this strategy, but you're not going to be able to deliver if you cannot afford the force that will make this strategy a reality. What are you planning to do to get control of requirements and to enable the acquisition community to more effectively manage their programs?"
Similarly, Representative Taylor called the new strategy a "nice brochure," but said the document should have given greater prominence to the Marine Corps and its need for more amphibious ships. Admiral Roughead explained that he has talked to General Conway about the number of amphibious ships the Navy should acquire and there is "not much daylight" between them on the issue.
General Conway said that he "can live with" at least 30 operational amphibious ships and that 33 - the current number - would be the right number to ensure the proper level of readiness at all times.
The Navy's number of 33 ships is not a realistic count of the amphibious force. The two fleet command ships, the Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and Mount Whitney (LCC 20), are included in the count; neither is a "lift" ships and both are configured and employed as fleet flagships. Also included is the long-delayed San Antonio (LPD 17), which has been in commission almost two years but has not yet deployed, and the Mesa Verde (LPD 19), commissioned earlier this month and unable to deploy for several months.
Neither the new maritime strategy nor the 30-year shipbuilding plan nor the Navy's method of counting ships is realistic for the issues that will face the United States in the coming years.