Despite concerns over contract negotiation breaks with the United States Navy, Austal USA, which employees nearly 4,000 in the area, recently announced the construction of two additional Littoral Combat Ships (LCS).
The ships will be the seventh and eighth vessels built by Austal under a 10-vessel, $3.5 billion contract with the Navy and will secure construction in Mobile’s shipyard through FY 2019.
On Feb. 24, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the Navy to submit alternative proposals for a capable and lethal small surface combatant vessel, which could have long-term effects on LCS production.
The Navy’s shipbuilding plan had scheduled the production of 52 LCS by the year 2020, but that number was eventually reduced to 50.
Hagel’s recent request will put a halt on contract negotiations after 32 ships are completed.
At that point the Navy, under the direction of Secretary Ray Mabus, will be tasked with submitting proposals for a similar service combatant, which could include existing ships, a completely new ship design or a modified LCS.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the 2015 budget request from the Department of the Defense, U.S Representative Bradley Byrne questioned Secretary Mabus about the future of LCS production.
Byrne asked Mabus if he knew of an existing ship design that could match the capability of the LCS.
“I have to look at cost, because we have to get enough of these ships. We also have to look at when they can be delivered to the fleet,” Mabus replied. “When you add those requirements to it, I do not know of another design.”
Mabus said a newly-designed ship would take almost a decade to introduce into the Naval fleet, and there is no way of determining the cost of such an endeavor.
The current cost of producing a single LCS is around $350 million, which is down significantly from the original cost of $750 million.
Mabus said the LCS is the cheapest Naval ship being procured currently.
“We’re very proud of how much the cost has been driven down,” Mabus said. “It’s been a real effort, and it (takes) a real partnership between the Navy and industry to do that.”
Mabus said both he and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert are proponents of the LCS.
“We believe we need this ship in the fleet,” he said. “We’re going to continue to build these to get to 32 ships. The only pause here is a pause in contract negotiations for ships past 32, and that’s several years from now.”
Mabus did say he felt it was a good idea to take a look at how ships like LCS meet certain capabilities and requirements, which the Navy does on a very routine basis.
A 2012 report found the LCS lacked manpower and firepower required by some regional combatant commanders.
There were also concerns about whether the current LCS has enough protection and firepower to combat advanced adversaries.
These are some of the concerns inquiries into the LCS’s effectiveness would address.
However, the LCS is built with interchangeable mission modules, which make it very versatile.
“The LCS is modular,” Mabus said. “You don’t have to build a new hull or a new ship as technology or your requirements change, you simply change out the module.”
Mission module changes allow a single LCS to change roles very quickly, and new modules are projected for development throughout the next two years.
Byrne, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, thanked Mabus for his testimony.
“The LCS truly represents the future of the United States Navy,” Byrne said in a press release. “I believe Secretary Mabus is absolutely correct that we need this ship in the fleet, and I will continue fighting to complete the full LCS order.”