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Navy, Pentagon battle may mean loss of thousands of jobs
A U.S. Navy shipbuilding program that has created thousands of jobs in Wisconsin is in jeopardy again after having withstood earlier attacks and criticisms about the ships’ performance and capabilities.
The office of the Secretary of Defense has directed the Navy to limit its purchase of littoral combat ships to 32, forgoing 20 of the small, fast warships built in Marinette and Mobile, Ala., the Navy Times reported recently, citing Pentagon sources.
The preliminary order could be overturned or modified before the Pentagon completes its next five-year plan in conjunction with its budget proposal for fiscal 2015, Defense officials told Bloomberg News.
It wouldn’t be the first time the littoral combat ship program fended off critics and attempts to delay or shut down the program.
Still, more questions have been raised about the ships’ mission, firepower, defenses and survivability as the Pentagon evaluates the $32 billion program, which has been a boon to the economy of northeastern Wisconsin.
The reliability of the Navy’s first three littoral combat ships, which include the USS Freedom built in Marinette, “has been degraded by frequent critical system failures” in early operations, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester said in a report obtained by Bloomberg News before its public release.
The report cites failures of USS Freedom during testing and a nine-month deployment to Singapore. The ship had trouble with its diesel-powered generators, air compressors and propulsion system, according to the report.
Also, the “operational reliability” of USS Independence, built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., has been degraded by failures including problems with operator consoles, power generation equipment, computer systems, propulsion drivetrain components, communications systems and mission package support systems, the report notes.
Navy officials envision a fleet of fast ships that can operate in waters as shallow as 20 feet and reach speeds topping 46 mph. The 377-foot vessels could be used to hunt submarines and pirates, search for underwater mines and launch unmanned aerial drones.
Thus far, the Navy says it’s committed to acquiring the 52-ship fleet instead of 32 vessels as directed by Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox.
“Whether this program gets to the full 52 ships will depend almost entirely on unwavering support from the Navy leadership,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., policy research group. “If there’s any signal of faltering in support from the Navy, the budget cutters in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill will claim it quickly.
“The littoral combat ship is the Navy’s best hope for maintaining a large fleet that can cover the world. But it’s a tough (fiscal) environment for every weapons system these days, and it’s especially tough for new ideas that haven’t proven themselves,” Thompson said.
Jobs vs. spending cuts
If the program remains intact, it could maintain thousands of jobs at the Marinette shipyard and its suppliers for many years to come. If the program is curtailed, the shipbuilding could end as early as 2020, resulting in layoffs throughout the region.
“The LCS program is huge for our community here in Wisconsin and Michigan, and for our nation’s national security,” Chuck Goddard, Marinette Marine president and CEO, said in a statement.
“We are providing the most capable warship to the Navy and our country. We have more than 2,000 men and women in our shipyard in Marinette on any given day working on this critical program,” Goddard added.
It’s premature to speculate on what will happen, according to defense contractor Lockheed-Martin Corp., which is responsible for the littoral combat ship construction in Marinette.
Still, defense industry experts are skeptical whether the Navy will get approval for the full fleet of 52 ships anytime soon.
“I would be very surprised if that happens,” said Jim Hasik, senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, in Washington, D.C.
“It’s pretty clear that not everything fits in the budget for any of the (military) services, so everybody has to throw something overboard, at least in the short term to midterm,” Hasik said.
The program will probably be capped at 32 ships, Hasik said.
And, he added, the Navy likely will choose one ship design over the other for the remaining vessels after the current order for 20 is filled. That could put Marinette Marine out of the running for additional ships.
Hard choices ahead
Marinette is building a version with a traditional steel hull, while its competitor in Alabama is producing a nontraditional aluminum version that’s a trimaran, or three-hulled ship.
Marinette’s shipyard is not configured to build aluminum-hull ships, so if the Navy selects that design it’s doubtful the work would come to northeast Wisconsin.
Also, if the new ships fail tests aimed at showing performance of the weapons systems and survivability during combat, then it’s not clear what happens to the program.
Navy officials say they’re confident the technical issues will be sorted out. They’re not backing away from the ships’ plug-and-play modules, which can be loaded on the vessels for specific missions such as minesweeping.
The ships will be adaptable to new tactics and technologies, according to Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, who has defended the program.
Some hard decisions about the program and its fate in northeast Wisconsin are coming soon, defense industry experts say, as the Pentagon weighs billions of dollars in spending cuts and winds down the war in Afghanistan.
Navy officials have strenuously defended their plan to build a fleet of littoral combat ships, with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus personally arguing his case before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, urging the program’s continuation, Defense News reported.
Congress criticized the littoral program for early cost overruns and questioned whether the ships built in Marinette are capable of performing as expected. The program was funded but singled out for more scrutiny in the $632 billion National Defense Authorization Act that President Barack Obama signed into law recently.
“The Navy has to show they have the ‘real stuff’ nailed down in this program. They have to continue to get the bugs out of the system,” said John Rogers, a former high-ranking Department of Defense official and now president of Capstone National Partners, a Milwaukee consulting firm.
“Clearly there are people in the Office of the Secretary of Defense who are not sold on it, but a program does not start or end with one person,” Rogers said.
Navy officials say they’re continuing to work with the Pentagon on ship acquisition plans, and that nothing’s been finalized for the next few years.
“It’s going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people to keep this program,” Rogers said. “I would never build a strategy based on the presumption that everything’s going to be OK because you can’t leave things to chance.”