As Ray Mabus ends his tenure as the secretary of the United States Navy, leaders in Mobile are holding their breath to see who will follow the man whose unwavering support of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has seen Austal USA grow into the area’s largest private employer.
The longest-serving Navy secretary since World War I, Mabus announced his retirement in March. Last week, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said nobody “has done more for Mobile in recent history” than the outgoing secretary since his appointment in 2009.
With his support, the LCS program has outlived skepticism from other officials within the Department of Defense, and Austal — one of only two U.S. shipyards that builds the LCS — has gone from 900 full-time employees to more than 4,200.
“[Mabus] has stood up for this program when nobody else was standing, other than our elected officials from Mobile,” Stimpson said. “There’s no way to put a quantifier on how important that was, but without his support, you can just imagine this program would have gone away.”
However, while the LCS program has endured, it has not been without its share of criticism. In late 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter asked the Navy to reduce its “planned LCS procurement from 52 to 40” in the Obama administration’s first preview of a 2016 defense budget. However, with the support of Congress, the procurement remained on schedule.
Still, 2016 has seen a number of incidents involving completed LCS that were either manufactured at Austal or at a Wisconsin-based Lockheed Martin facility.
In particular, the USS Montgomery has been damaged in two separate incidents since it left Mobile in September — once when a tugboat leaving the path of Hurricane Matthew struck the vessel in early October, and two weeks ago when the Montgomery sustained an 18-inch-long crack in its hull while passing through the Panama Canal.
While neither incident was caused by Navy personnel and neither sidelined the ship for long, reports of the recent damage to the Montgomery were preceded by breakdowns or mechanical failures on four other LCS over the past year.However, during a stop in Mobile last week, Mabus told Lagniappe new warships have always been on the receiving end of criticism in their first years of operation — something he said shows up in reports dating back to the 1960s.
“Navy ships need maintenance or have mechanical issues all the time, but it’s only new types of ships that make headlines,” Mabus said. “When the frigate, which the LCS is replacing, came out in the 1980s, one report said ‘Sailors on these ships ought to get submarine pay because these things are going to sink.’ Well, obviously they didn’t, and we still use those ships today.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Mobile), who has been a vocal champion of the LCS program. In fact, last week Mabus presented Bryne with the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award — the highest honor that can be given to a civilian — for his support of the LCS program and the Navy’s effort to rebuild its fleet.
Despite the issues that have occurred with some LCS, Byrne said there’s been “no real criticism of the design and the construction” of the ships — only with the concept of a littoral combat program in the first place.
Designed to be fast and agile even in shallow waters, Byrne said the LCS gives the Navy an ability and flexibility no previous vessel has because it can be used in submarine warfare, small surface combat and the clearing of mines.“You can take very fast shallow-draft ships that are easy to maneuver and put them all over someplace like the South China Sea, and then they’ll always be wondering, ‘where are those ships?’” Byrne said. “These little problems — and they’ve been little problems — will work themselves out as they already are, and these ships will be serving the Navy for many years to come.”
Currently, 26 LCS are already deployed, currently under construction or under contract to be built, which is half of the 52 laid out in the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan. Each LCS built today cost roughly $360 million, though the Navy does have plans to change the design after 32 ships have been completed to include additional firepower.
With a new president taking office in January, it’s still unclear who might be appointed to oversee the Navy and whether he or she will share Mabus’ zeal for rebuilding the Naval fleet to 300 vessels by the year 2021.
Still, Mabus remains hopeful the Navy’s need for the LCS will outweigh the political debate that has surrounded its production during his tenure as secretary.
“Shipbuilding is not a job for one secretary or one administration,” he said. “The fleet size we’re living with today was determined by decisions made 10 to 15 years ago, and the fleet size our Navy will have by 2025 and into the 2030s is being determined today at places like Austal.”
Speaking to the impact of Mabus’ departure, Byrne said there’s no doubt local leaders in Mobile and with Austal have enjoyed a “great relationship” with Mabus, though he also said the connections Mobile and Austal have made with permanent defense officials “will endure.”
Last week Byrne said he doesn’t believe he’ll see a time where there isn’t “a fight over the LCS,” though he believes it’s a fight leaders in Mobile are prepared for. In the meantime, Stimpson said local officials can only wait and see what course the Navy’s new leadership takes.
“Any time you have a change of command, somebody can have a different outlook on various programs, but that gives us a golden opportunity to weigh in and stand up for the great things they’re already doing at Austal,” Stimpson said. “It’s a great story to tell, but there’s still a lot of competition.”