Lawmaker secures funds to upgrade ship Navy doesn't want
Hunter, whose wife christened the ship in February 2005, has boasted that Titan Corp.'s Sea Fighter is a speedy, innovative, 262-foot catamaran with the potential to pack more combat punch than most larger battleships.
The money in the fiscal 2007 bill would pay for high-tech modifications to the ship's command and control, survivability, armament and other systems to make the vessel, also known as the X-Craft, operationally deployable.
"The committee believes that deployment of Sea Fighter can demonstrate and validate many of the Navy's operational concepts for littoral warfare," according to language in the Navy research and development section of the committee report, under "Items of Special Interest."
But the Navy, which did not request any money for the catamaran, fears the hefty add-on would squander limited ship procurement dollars on a vessel the service doesn't want. Service estimates indicate that readying the catamaran for actual warfare might cost $100 million -- four times the amount authorized in the House bill.
The Navy's opposition is "consistent with their reluctance to move forward," Hunter said in an interview. The Defense Department, he added, is "extremely conservative and protective of legacy programs."
The catamaran, which is large enough to land two helicopters, does not have a place in the Navy's ambitious 313-ship plan, which the Congressional Budget Office already views as potentially unaffordable. And the vessel has spent two of the last four months dry-docked for major repairs to its propulsion and other systems.
"For a ship that's brand new, it has a lot of problems," said one Navy official, who added that the service plans to send the catamaran to Panama City, Fla., for testing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
Gene Ray, Titan's founder and former CEO, said the catamaran is an "incredible" and "outstanding" system. And House Armed Services Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., defended the system's performance.
"As with any new platform, moving through the research and development phase, problems will occur," Bartlett said in an e-mail. "As [Sea Fighter] matures, these challenges should not impede the platform's development."
The Sea Fighter is central to San Diego-based Titan's defense portfolio and a lucrative project for Hunter's Southern California district. The experimental vessel also helped sweeten L-3 Communications' successful $2.65 billion purchase of Titan last year.
Hunter and former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, a defense appropriator convicted of taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors in return for legislative earmarks, have been two of the program's biggest supporters. Titan was not implicated in Cunningham's federal criminal case.
From 1998 to 2003, Hunter received $47,200 in campaign donations from Titan Corp., more than any other lawmaker, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Cunningham, whose district adjoined Hunter's, came in third -- just behind another Southern Californian, House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis -- with $43,050 in Titan donations.
In the current election cycle, L-3 Communications has given $19,350 to Hunter's campaign, second only to BAE Systems, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But Hunter pointed out that Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, Wash., actually manufactured the ship, and said he would support the progress the ship represents regardless of its contractors.
In fact, the Navy awarded Titan Corp. a $59.9 million prime contract in 2003 to develop and build the ship, which led Titan to bring in the Nichols firm as a subcontractor for the actual construction.
Today, the Navy remains wary of the long-term impact Hunter's earmark might have on its shipbuilding plans in general, and the Littoral Combat Ship in particular.
The Navy official said he fears that Hunter views Sea Fighter as a "suitable substitute" for LCS, which costs about $250 million a ship. General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin are competing for the LCS prime contract.
Regarding the two ship programs, Bartlett stressed that the Sea Fighter would not replace -- or even reduce purchases of -- the LCS, the Navy's preferred coastal warfighter. Rather, it would provide the Navy with a "bargain" ship that could "easily operate alongside the LCS and provide our fleet force structure with an increased complexity making our future . . . Navy less vulnerable to the enemy," he said.
Both Hunter and Bartlett would like to produce more Sea Fighters, but Hunter said further development and testing is needed to determine the exact numbers needed. He also wants to arm it with a surface-launched cruise missile called the Affordable Weapon System, another Titan-developed project.
The fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill includes $27 million to complete the design, development and live-fire testing of the weapon system and begin production of an additional 40 missiles.
Like the Sea Fighter, the Navy requested no funds for these missiles, which have failed four flight tests. The next tests are scheduled for this month and July, after which Pentagon acquisition officials will determine whether to move forward with the program.