WASHINGTON — The Pentagon leadership doubled back Monday on its direction for the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, returning to where things stood at the beginning of the year: End procurement at 32 ships — 20 short of the previously planned goal — and begin work on development of a new small surface combatant.
But that agreement seems to have been tossed overboard, and, in a Pentagon press conference Monday to discuss the budget, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his intention to cut short the full LCS buy.
The decision to talk about LCS in the briefing was apparently made quite late, as no mention of the program was contained in a draft of his remarks sent Sunday to each of the services.
“I am concerned that the Navy is relying too heavily on the LCS to achieve its long-term goals for ship numbers,” Hagel said Monday. “Therefore, no new contract negotiations beyond 32 ships will go forward.”
Hagel said a close examination of the Navy’s small combat ship needs is necessary to look at “emerging new technologies, particularly in the Asia Pacific” region.
“Given continued fiscal constraints, we must direct shipbuilding resources toward platforms that can operate in every region and along the full spectrum of conflict,” he said.
Hagel is directing the Navy to prepare recommendations for a new “capable and lethal small surface combatant, consistent with the capabilities of a frigate.” The Navy, he 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.”
As previously reported, the service will not request funds to refuel and overhaul the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington, scheduled to begin a three-and-a-half-year overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding beginning in 2016.
For now, the Navy will sidestep the issue of permanently reducing the 11-ship carrier force to 10 ships by decommissioning the GW — a highly problematic issue in an election year.
“However,” Hagel said, “we will have to make a final decision on the future of the George Washington aircraft carrier in the 2016 budget submission. If sequestration spending levels remain in place in fiscal year 2016, she would need to be retired before her scheduled nuclear refueling and overhaul. That would leave the Navy with 10 carrier strike groups. But keeping the George Washington in the fleet would cost $6 billion, so we would have no other choice than to retire her should sequestration-level cuts be reimposed.”
Hagel also discussed a plan to take half the fleet’s 22 Aegis cruisers out of service, laying them up pending the availability of modernization funds. In recent years the Navy has asked to decommission seven cruisers, along with two amphibious ship docks, but Congress has demurred, instructing the Navy to keep the ships in service and providing partial funding to do so.
The cruisers, Hagel said, would be “placed in reduced operating status while they are modernized, and eventually returned to service with greater capability and a longer lifespan.” He did not mention the amphibious ships, although Pentagon sources said the budget will also seek to lay up three amphibs.
The issue is expected — again — to be hotly debated in Congress.
The cruisers — all are the newest Ticonderoga-class ships still in service, but yet to receive full modernization — are the Cowpens, Gettysburg, Chosin, Hue City, Shiloh, Anzio, Vicksburg, Lake Erie, Cape St. George, Vella Gulf and Port Royal.
The amphibious ships are the Whidbey Island, Germantown and Tortuga.
Hagel did not address naval aviation issues, other than to note that if sequestration-level cuts return in 2016 and beyond, purchases of new F-35C carrier variants of the joint strike fighter would be halted for two years. Six additional ships would need to be laid up, he said, should sequestration cuts return.
The secretary noted the Navy will continue to buy two destroyers and two attack submarines per year, although sequestration could “slow the rate at which we buy destroyers.”
Hagel declared that “the Navy will launch an aggressive and ambitious effort to reduce acquisition costs and maximize resources available to buy and build new ships,” but he provided no details. Since that has been the service’s stated policy for some years, and Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley has achieved remarkable successes introducing stability and cost management into the service’s acquisition programs, it is not yet clear what Hagel is referring to.
The president’s full 2015 budget request is expected to be sent to Congress on March 4.
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