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A U.S. Navy shipbuilding program that has supported thousands of Wisconsin jobs would be sharply curtailed under a military spending plan proposed Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — a plan that also would shrink the Army to its smallest size in 74 years.
In a Washington, D.C., news conference, Hagel said the nation’s armed forces must adjust to smaller budgets while reshaping themselves to confront a “more volatile, more unpredictable” world.
As part of Hagel’s proposal, the Navy would trim the littoral combat ship program that has been a mainstay of employment at Marinette Marine shipyard and hundreds of its suppliers. The shipyard itself employs more than 2,000.
The Navy has said it wants 52 of the vessels, which can operate in waters as shallow as 20 feet and reach speeds topping 46 mph.
“I am concerned that the Navy is relying too heavily on the LCS to achieve its long-term goals for ship numbers. Therefore, no new contract negotiations beyond 32 ships will go forward,” Hagel said.
The 377-foot ships have interchangeable modules that enable them to hunt for submarines, search for underwater mines or conduct surface warfare.
Two of the warships have already been built in Marinette, and four more are under construction. A radically different version of the ship is being built in equal numbers by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. But questions have been raised about the capabilities and defenses of both LCS types.
The Navy, Hagel said, “will consider a completely new design, existing ship designs, and a modified LCS. These proposals are due to me later this year in time to inform next year’s budget submission.”
If the current program is curtailed, LCS work at Marinette Marine could end in six years — resulting in layoffs throughout the region.
Hagel’s plan will be part of the budget proposal that President Barack Obama presents to Congress next week, so changes to specific items in the plan, including the littoral combat ship program, are possible.
“The future of the LCS, or its next iteration, is far from settled. There are numerous debates and discussions that will be occurring in the days and weeks ahead,” U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said in a statement.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., policy research group, underscored that Hagel’s proposal is only a first step.
“For people in Marinette, I think the most important thing to understand is this is a political process,” Thompson said. “The defense secretary doesn’t get the last word, and no matter how it turns out in 2015, there’s still going to be a fight (for the program) in 2016.
“But the bottom line is the LCS has to prove its operational value. We have been fooling around with this program for more than a dozen years. It’s time for the ship to demonstrate its relevance to the future of Naval warfare. If it can do that, it will be back in the budget for 52 vessels.”
Still, while the Navy has fended off critics of the program, including Pentagon officials, having Hagel say the program will be limited to 32 ships could be the worst blow yet.
“He just piled on what was said earlier,” said Benjamin Freeman, a national security adviser for Third Way, a Washington think tank that says its mission is to promote moderate policy and political ideas.
Freeman, an outspoken critic of the littoral combat ship program, contends the ship tries to be a “Swiss Army Knife of the sea” but has yet to prove it can carry out the multiple functions it was designed to accomplish.
The most glaring deficiency, he said, is the ship’s apparent inability to survive in high-intensity combat, a problem pointed out in a recent Pentagon evaluation.
“While the Pentagon has used similar language in previous reports, the level of detail explaining why the boat wouldn’t survive a real fight is unprecedented. The report indicates the ship’s vulnerability is inherent in its design,” Freeman said.
Several hundred design changes have been made to the littoral combat ships since they were introduced, and the Navy says it’s confident that many of the technical issues have been resolved.
Also, the ships may soon have a powerful ally in Robert Work, who has been nominated to become deputy defense secretary. As Navy undersecretary, Work was a top advocate for the $34 billion LCS program.
“He’s very much a fire and brimstone supporter. When he gets in office, it will be interesting to see if he tries to reverse the current course, but it’s kind of hard to do when the decisions are coming down from (Hagel),” Freeman said.
Marinette Marine, under contract from Lockheed Martin Corp., is building a version of the ships with a traditional steel hull. Its competitor in Alabama is producing a nontraditional aluminum version that’s a trimaran, or three-hulled vessel.
Marinette’s shipyard is not configured to build aluminum ships, so if the Navy selects that design over the steel ship, it’s doubtful the work would come to northeast Wisconsin.
“But if the design needs to be modified in order to meet Secretary Hagel’s expectations, it’s obvious the Marinette ship is more flexible,” Thompson said.
“Bringing in another contractor would essentially be starting over and would set the program back a decade. I personally think we will get well beyond 32 vessels, but the important thing is the LCS has to demonstrate its relevance to the fleet,” he added.
Hagel unveiled his defense spending plan in a speech at the one-year mark of his tenure as Pentagon chief. He described it as the first Pentagon budget to fully reflect the nation’s transition from 13 years of war.
At the core of his plan is the notion that after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved longer and more costly than foreseen, the U.S. military will no longer be sized to conduct large and protracted ground wars. Instead, it will put more emphasis on versatile, agile forces that can project power over great distances, including in Asia.
“We as a nation have a problem…and that is managing and balancing national security and policy questions against the budget,” said John Rogers, a former Defense Department official and now president of Capstone National Partners, a Milwaukee consulting firm. “I wouldn’t put any happy face on the LCS program right now.”Among other changes Hagel proposed:
■The active-duty Army would shrink from today’s 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 — the smallest number since 1940, when the nation was gearing up to enter World War II. The Army currently is scheduled to be reduced to 490,000.
■The Army National Guard would drop from 355,000 soldiers to 335,000 by 2017, and the Army Reserve would drop by 10,000, to 195,000.
■The Marine Corps would shrink from 190,000 to 182,000.
■The Navy would keep its 11 aircraft carriers but “lay up,” or temporarily remove from active service, 11 of its 22 cruisers while they are modernized.
Hagel built his case on what he called a foundation of realism. He emphasized that the period of explosive growth in defense budgets was over, making it more important to preserve a technological edge as other nations modernize their military forces.