Why the Navy’s $9 Billion Plan for New Frigates Is Raising Red Flags
Policy + Politics

Why the Navy’s $9 Billion Plan for New Frigates Is Raising Red Flags

Austal USA

Unless the “armada” that couldn’t sail straight has soured Donald Trump on the Navy, it’s full steam ahead for his goal of building a 350-ship fleet.

Or at least it was.

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Last week the General Accounting Office issued a report recommending that Congress hold off on a Navy request for $9 billion to build a dozen new “frigates” — which the GAO says are based on the design of the troubled Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) “with minor modifications.”

According to the GAO, the Navy has no formal cost estimate — independent or otherwise — and will not begin making designs until fiscal 2018.

Most important, the GAO said there are “significant unknowns in regards to operational performance of the ship on which the design is based.” One military contractor is even proposing to add heavier armaments to the ship, a significant change in design with unknown effects. 

The LCS was originally envisioned as a relatively small, agile vessel that could be used for a variety of tasks, including anti-sub and surface warfare, transporting an assault force, reconnaissance, surveillance and minesweeping.

In executing the LCS program, the GAO report said, “the Navy deviated from traditional shipbuilding acquisition in hopes of rapidly delivering ships to the fleet. The consequences of this approach are well known today — costs to construct the ships have more than doubled from initial expectations, with promised levels of capability unfulfilled and deliveries significantly delayed.”

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When asked if the LCS program, which has already spent $17 billion, was a bust, Michele Mackin, managing director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO said: “We would never use a term like that.” But she said that the program “has not taken a disciplined acquisition approach.”

Beginning in 2014, two defense secretaries – first Chuck Hagel and then Ash Carter – questioned the combat capability of the LCS, the GAO said, and Carter cut the number of ships the Navy planned to acquire from 52 to 40. Now, with 28 combat ships delivered, under contract or funded, the Navy is winding down the program and replacing it with plans to build frigates.

But the GAO report suggested that the frigates being planned are flawed because they are closely based on the problematic LCS. And it questioned why the Navy is rushing to build the ships, designed for close-to-shore combat, when shipyards are already backed up and so many questions about design and combat capability remain.

“The accelerated schedule doesn’t seem like the best use of taxpayer dollars,” Mackin told The Fiscal Times. “Prudence would dictate waiting another year.”

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She said the request for 12 more frigates was expected to be in the Navy budget request for 2018 that would likely be made next month.

Further complicating what Mackin called “a drive to get hulls in the water as fast as possible” is the fact that the Navy is under a directive to pick just one shipyard to build the frigates.

Under the LCS program, there were two “variants” of the “small surface combatants,” one built by Lockheed Martin, the other by Austral USA. None came in on schedule, according to the GAO.