Lawmaker pressures Navy to use unwanted catamaran

In a move sure to upset the admirals, House Armed Services ranking member Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is pushing the Navy to transform an experimental catamaran developed in San Diego and long opposed by the service into an integral part of the fleet with a defined mission.

Hunter, whose wife christened the ship in 2005, inserted $22 million into the House-passed fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill for upgrades to L-3 Communications Corp.'s Sea Fighter catamaran, the latest in a series of earmarks he has added to defense bills to develop, build and deploy the vessel, formerly called the X-Craft.

But this year, Hunter went a step further. He tucked language into the committee report accompanying the bill to urge the Navy to take the ship from research to real-world operations.

Specifically, the committee report recommends the Navy consider replacing a leased Australian high-speed catamaran with the U.S.-built Sea Fighter. The report adds that the Navy's current plan to use the Sea Fighter only for experiments "fails to take full advantage of the capabilities of this vessel."

The California Republican has promoted the Sea Fighter as an innovative catamaran capable of completing a wide variety of missions. During a hearing Tuesday, Hunter touted the vessel as the "fastest ship in the Navy by a huge margin" and said it satisfies the Navy's desire to buy ships requiring smaller crews.

In short, Hunter said, the Sea Fighter meets the service's transformation goals. "Presto. There's the X-Craft," he said.

L-3 Communications, listed in the Office of Management and Budget's recently launched earmarks database as the seventh largest recipient of congressional earmarks in 2005, contributed $19,600 to Hunter's most recent House campaign, second only to BAE Systems. So far, L-3 Communications has not contributed to Hunter's presidential campaign.

Titan Corp., a San Diego-based defense contractor bought by L-3 Communications in 2005, received a $59.9 million prime contract from the Navy in 2003 to develop and build the ship. Titan has been a long-time contributor to the San Diego Republican, records show.

Hunter said this week he does not give preference to hometown companies because of jobs or donations. The Sea Fighter program was "consistent" with Hunter's desire to give "some of these non-traditional players a chance" in the military market, said a GOP House Armed Services Committee aide.

But the Navy has been reluctant to embrace the Sea Fighter, despite what Hunter sees as its significant benefits over ships now in the fleet that can ply coastal waters, carry cargo and perform combat support missions.

"The Navy hated the X-Craft," Hunter said. "They hated the idea."

Over the years, the Navy has agreed to use Hunter's catamaran as a platform to test concepts for the Littoral Combat Ship, and officials have consistently upgraded and tested the vessel, which is now at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City, Fla.

But the service did not request any funding for the ship in fiscal 2008 and does not have a place for the Sea Fighter in the blueprint for its future 313-ship fleet.

"If the Sea Fighter had excited the Navy, there would be no reason for Congress to tell the Navy to make it an operational vessel," said Bob Work, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The Navy would do it themselves."

The lease on the Australian catamaran, dubbed the HSV-2 Swift, will run out in July 2008, several months before the Navy plans to buy its first of three Joint High-Speed Vessels, the next-generation successor to the Australian ship -- a gap, supporters say, that Sea Fighter could fill.

But there are questions about whether Sea Fighter, which is smaller and cannot carry as much cargo as the Australian catamaran, can perform the same mission as the leased ship. The Sea Fighter is 262 feet long and displaces 950 tons of water, while the larger Australian vessel is 313 feet and displaces 1,700 tons.

The two ships "are similar in that they have big payload bays and are designed to be more modular," Work said. "But Sea Fighter is much smaller and less capable."

In addition, operating only one Sea Fighter indefinitely could become a logistics headache for the Navy, requiring a new set of parts and equipment for the one ship. It also would demand new training for the 26-member crew.

"I'm sure that if the Navy gets it as an operational asset, they'll find some use for it," Work said. "But it's pretty clear they're not overly keen on doing it."

Backers of the Sea Fighter hope Hunter's push to make it operational may persuade the Navy to designate Sea Fighter as the precursor to the Joint High Speed Vessel. They believe the Sea Fighter's speed and its smaller crew size actually make it a more desirable vessel.

Bill Johnson, president of L-3 Communications' Advanced Systems Division, agreed in a telephone interview. "When it comes to this use [of Sea Fighter] as a transport, it's very, very capable," Johnson said. "And it would be a tremendous risk reduction component for the Joint High Speed Vessel program."

The Republican committee aide also said the Sea Fighter would be an ideal demonstration platform for future technologies.

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