Lawmaker abandons bid to fatten Littoral Combat Ship budget

House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., has abandoned efforts to add two additional Littoral Combat Ships to the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill because of hefty cost overruns in the program.

But Taylor, who will mark up his portion of the annual defense bill Thursday, plans to add three other ships to the Navy's budget request, an unusually large increase to the service's shipbuilding accounts.

The extra ships would include an LPD-17 amphibious transport dock ship and a T-AKE auxiliary dry cargo dock carrier. Taylor also would add money to begin procurement of another Virginia-class submarine next year.

Taylor has been working with House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., to grow the fiscal 2008 shipbuilding budget, an indication that the add-ons will find their way into the annual defense spending bill.

Meanwhile, Taylor said in an interview Tuesday that he expects the House Armed Services Committee to add $3.6 billion to the Pentagon's budget request for Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles, bringing the total for that program to $4 billion.

To do so, the committee has "moved some things around," Taylor said, declining to comment on likely offsetting cuts to pay for the vehicles.

Taylor, who is working with House Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, on the MRAP add-on, said the extra $3.6 billion would cover the maximum number of vehicles U.S. manufacturers can produce next year. It also would cover most, if not all, of the vehicles on the Army's and Marine Corps' lists of needs or requirements the Pentagon could not fit into its fiscal 2008 budget request.

With its V-shaped hull and other features, the MRAP offers far better protection against roadside bombs, the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. The Pentagon has requested more than 7,700 of the vehicles for all of the services.

Taylor's decision to nix additional Littoral Combat Ship purchases in fiscal 2008 follows the Navy's decision last month to cancel Lockheed Martin Corp.'s contract for the third LCS after service officials were unable to negotiate a modified contract. The Navy wanted Lockheed Martin to agree to a more stringent contract because of the ballooning cost of the company's first ship.

One of the most vocal shipbuilding advocates on Capitol Hill, Taylor said he walked away from his plans to boost LCS production because of the "[Navy] secretary's concerns, my personal concerns, and throw a tight budget on top of that."

Despite the program's problems, Taylor's chairman's mark still includes money for the two Littoral Combat Ships in the Pentagon's budget request.

Two of the ships Taylor does intend to add to the bill -- the LPD-17 and the T-AKE vessel -- top the Navy's unfunded requirements list.

But Navy leaders have resisted efforts to augment the shipbuilding budget, arguing that the struggling shipbuilding sector would be unable to meet increased orders. They also have adamantly objected to plans to increase submarine purchases to two boats a year, well before the Navy's plan to do so in 2012.

Ron O'Rourke, a Navy analyst at CRS, questioned the Navy's arguments, stating there are many work-arounds that would allow Congress to pay for the ships and the industry to build them at realistic rates.

"The Navy's primary reaction has been to focus on all the potential budgetary difficulties or shipbuilding challenges it could create," O'Rourke said. "Listening to the Navy's testimony, a visitor from Mars might never suspect that an extra LPD-17 is the No. 1 item on the Navy's [unfunded priorities list] this year."

In addition to increasing shipbuilding accounts, Taylor plans to include a provision in the bill that would require the Navy to make its next-generation CG(X) cruiser a nuclear-powered vessel. Taylor said he also plans to include language that would "curtail" the Defense Department's ability to lease foreign-flag cargo and transport ships.

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