One of the Navy's prized futuristic ships has been put on probation by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
He wants the Navy to start from scratch and see if it can design a more lethal littoral combat ship and refit the lightly-armed ones already at sea. And once again, an emerging China, and its expanding military, is forcing the Pentagon to change direction in mid-course.
Mr. Hagel announced Monday the $40 billion LCS will not go beyond 32 ships, instead of a planned 52, at least for now. He signaled the decision, which keeps the ship in the five-year budget, will be permanent because "I am concerned the Navy is relying too heavily on the LCS" to achieve a larger overall fleet number.
Just a few months ago, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus pledged to shipyard workers his commitment to 52 vessels.
The Navy's fleet has been steadily shrinking to under 300 ships, partly due to huge cost overruns and poor decisions on ship designs which led to cancellations. The specter of forced budget cuts, called sequestration, coming back prompted Mr. Hagel to warn the fleet may lose one of its biggest hammers, an 11th aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, which is due for a $6 billion overhaul.
Those factors made the Coast Guard cutter-size LCS, nicked named "little crappy ship," by some detractors, an affordable option for the Navy to carry out coastal patrol, mine sweeping and some anti-submarine warfare.
"The LCS is better suited for the Coast Guard's maritime constabulary missions," said a congressional defense aide.
The Pentagon announced two years ago it was titling forces to the Pacific to check an unstated adversary which officials on background identify as China and its quest for a "blue water" navy that can project power miles from home and in America's backyard.
"We need to closely examine whether the LCS has the independent protection and firepower to operate and survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies, especially in the Asia-Pacific," the defense secretary said.
"If we were to build out the LCS program to 52 ships, as previously planned, it would represent one-sixth of our future 300 ship Navy," he added. "Given continued fiscal restraints, we must direct future shipbuilding resources toward platforms that can operate in every region and along the full spectrum of conflict."
The Congressional Research Service on Feb. 5 issued a report saying budget reformists wanted the LCS stopped at 24, or at least something less than 52, which Mr. Hagel embraced Monday.
"The LCS program has become controversial due to past cost growth, design and construction issues with the lead ships built to each design, concerns over the ships' ability to withstand battle damage, and concerns over whether the ships are sufficiently armed and would be able to perform their stated missions effectively," wrote CRS naval analyst Ronald O'Rourke.
The ships costs about $450 million per copy. The Navy received $1.8 billion in this year's budget for four ships.
Last September, Navy Secretary Mabus visited LCS builder Marinette Marine Corp. in Wisconsin.
"I use this program as an example of what can be done and how something that was, at the beginning, costly and had some problems, but working together we've lowered that cost dramatically," he said, according to the CRS report. "We're absolutely committed to building the whole class of 52 ships of this class."
In 2012, the Project on Government Oversight obtained documents that detailed the LCS' performance shortcomings, such as all the electricity going out during a counter-drug operation.
"If this had occurred during combat, this mishap could very well have been fatal," POGO said.
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