The Navy on Tuesday committed nearly $1.4 billion to buy four more Littoral Combat Ships this year even as the viability of the program remains in question.
The Navy’s Program Executive Office for the LCS announced that $699 million would go to Lockheed Martin Corp. in Fiscal Year 2014 for two of the monohull LCS designs made at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine Corp. in Marinette, Wis.
Another $684 million will go to Austal USA for two of the trimaran LCS designs made at the Austal USA yard in Mobile, Ala.
The contract awards had been expected but they come as the LCS program increasingly has come under question within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the $34 billion LCS program was being scaled back from 52 to 32 ships.
Critics of the LCS have focused on costs and the survivability of the aluminum-hulled LCS in combat. Hagel said the Defense Department was now seeking “a capable and lethal small surface combatant, generally consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.”
Hagel added that “I’ve directed the Navy to consider a completely new design, existing ship designs, and a modified LCS.”
“We need to closely examine whether the LCS has the protection and firepower to survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies, especially in the Asia Pacific,” Hagel said.
On Monday, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, said he would appoint a new task force to consider recommendations for a re-design of the LCS.
In the release announcing the contract awards, the Navy continued to promote the shallow-water LCS as vital to U.S. power projection.
“The LCS is needed to fill critical, urgent warfighting requirement gaps that exist today,” the Navy said. “LCS is required to establish and maintain U.S. Navy dominance in the littorals and sea lines of communication choke points around the world.”
Four of the ships have been delivered to the Navy thus far. The LCS Freedom (LCS11) concluded its first deployment in December 2013 and is currently at its home port in San Diego.
The Independence (LCS 2) is undergoing Mine Countermeasures developmental testing in San Diego. The Fort Worth (LCS 3) is scheduled to begin initial operational testing later this month, and the Coronado (LCS 4) is scheduled to be commissioned on April 5 in Coronado, Calif.
In remarks that were considered aimed at the LCS last month, Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said that in the current cost-cutting climate the Navy had to take a second look at “niche platforms that can conduct a certain mission in a permissive environment.”
Fox did not name the LCS in her remarks to a San Diego conference of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and the Naval Institute, but she put a premium on survivability for future Navy ships.
“The threats to surface combatants continue to grow — not just from advanced military powers, but from the proliferation of more advanced, precise anti-ship munitions around the globe,” Fox said.
Earlier this month at a Bloomberg News defense forum, two senior members of the House Armed Services Committee said Congress was likely to go along with Hagel’s plan to cap the LCS program at 32 ships and also shelve any moves to kill the program entirely.
“You’ve got a lot of people who hate the LCS” in Congress, but “one of the things we want to do is give the Navy a fair shake” on the LCS, said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower Subcommittee.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, agreed with Forbes that many of their colleagues would like to kill the LCS program but “that is not the consensus opinion in Congress.”