Navy’s littoral ship program goes full speed ahead despite questions about performance, capability
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The fifth U.S. Navy ship to bear the name Milwaukee will be christened in Marinette on Wednesday, a milestone in a $40 billion shipbuilding program that’s been dogged by questions and criticisms.
The christening will celebrate completion of a key portion of the USS Milwaukee at the Marinette Marine shipyard, although much work remains before the ship is fully outfitted and finished in late 2014. It is about 65% complete and due to be commissioned at a ceremony in Milwaukee in the spring of 2015, the Navy said Tuesday.
The 380-foot littoral combat vessel will be part of a fleet of new warships that are fast and capable of operating in shallow coastal waters. The Navy wants to buy 52 of the high-speed ships, which have interchangeable modules for missions such as mine-sweeping and hunting submarines.
USS Milwaukee is the third littoral combat ship built in Marinette under a contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. Three more are under construction at the shipyard, and two more are under contract for 2015.
In Mobile, Ala., littoral combat ships are being built for the same mission but with a radically different hull design. Combined, the work has created thousands of jobs at shipyards and suppliers, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into surrounding communities.
Navy shipbuilding is quite healthy now, in contrast to the “doom and gloom” in Washington, D.C., Rear Adm. Michael Franken said in an interview Tuesday.
Still, a federal watchdog agency and at least two key lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of the littoral combat ship program — raising concerns about whether the warships will perform as expected and about their “survivability” in combat.
USS Freedom, the first littoral combat ship built in Marinette — and commissioned in Milwaukee in 2008 — suffered setbacks including a small crack in the hull, a failed gas turbine, problems with the jet propulsion system, and a failure to complete a training exercise this summer when the vessel briefly lost power.
Some of the mechanical problems with Freedom were expected for a ship that was the first of its kind, according to the Navy. Many lessons have been learned from the 80,000 nautical miles logged so far on the ship, Franken said, and improvements were incorporated into USS Fort Worth and USS Milwaukee.
The Navy is still considering more changes to the ships and determining whether there are advantages to having two designs — one built by Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine and the other by Austal USA in Mobile.
Questions also have been raised about whether the interchangeable mission modules can be swapped out quickly enough to make the ships more versatile, a key selling point when Congress approved the program.
Franken, chief of legislative affairs for the secretary of the Navy, said he’s heard that it’s “much more complicated” to switch the modules and that it might be better not to do that. But the admiral said that he’s not discouraged, and that every new class of ship and weapons goes through similar trials.
“I say get the ship ready … it will mutate over time and become the ship we want,” Franken said.
There’s nothing in the National Defense Authorization Act that would indicate the program is in jeopardy, Franken said, adding that he also hasn’t heard that the Navy wants to settle on one design and eliminate the other.
The cost per ship has fallen from more than $600 million, for USS Freedom, to less than $400 million for USS Milwaukee, Franken said.
A confidential Navy report completed last year warned that the ships may not be able to perform their missions because they’re too lightly staffed and armed. The survivability of the vessels in combat is a touchy issue, but Franken said not every Navy ship is meant to be on the front lines of heavy fighting.
“The LCS isn’t going to fight alone. It’s designed to be part of a larger force,” the admiral said. “From a taxpayer’s perspective, we don’t need every warship to be a $2 billion vessel.”
The ships can reach shallow ports in the Middle East and Africa that aren’t accessible to Navy destroyers. They’re also fast and nimble enough to pursue small boats used by pirates and ward off terrorist attack boats.
“There’s a place for these ships … just look at world events,” said John Rogers, a former high-ranking Department of Defense official and now president of Capstone National Partners, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm. “We are no longer building fleets, for the most part, to line up and do major battle against other fleets. Obviously we reserve the right to do that, but we’re also building vessels that can support operations in ways that 40 years ago we didn’t even consider. That is where the action is.”
The shipbuilding program has nearly 900 suppliers in 43 states. It would be a mistake to halt or slow production while the Navy addresses issues because efficiencies at the shipyards would be lost, Franken said.
“You have to kind of get on with it. … The proof is going to have to be in the pudding,” he said.