Shoring Up Shipbuilding

The Pentagon is making the case for a robust investment in shallow-water ships.

Despite cost hikes and schedule delays that have plagued the Littoral Combat Ship program for the past several years, Pentagon officials have come out strongly in support of the effort, saying the ship provides critical capability for shallow-water operations.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has hailed the ship, which is produced by Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Dynamics Corp., as a versatile platform that could be used for, among other missions, combating pirates. "To carry out the missions we may face in the future-whether dealing with nonstate actors at sea and near shore, or swarming speedboats-we will need numbers, speed and the ability to operate in shallow waters," he said on April 17 at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

The Pentagon requested three Littoral Combat Ships in its fiscal 2010 budget and says it still wants to buy 55 of the ships, even as the Navy struggles to get the price per ship down to the $460 million cap mandated by Congress. The Navy initially had expected each ship to cost just $220 million.

To help the Navy meet the cost cap, the House included a provision in its version of the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization bill that would take government costs out of the price ceiling. Such costs make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the program's price tag. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee, has argued that other shipbuilding programs typically do not include oversight and other government expenses in their cost caps.

In total, the Navy's 2010 budget request includes funding for eight ships. But it lacks a 30-year shipbuilding plan, much to the consternation of House Republicans, who want more details on the Obama administration's long-term defense budget projections.

The total number of ships falls far below 12 per year, the amount the struggling shipbuilding industry would like to see the Navy buy, but the service largely avoided the large-scale program cuts the Air Force and Army faced. "Overall, we were pleased with the budget request that the president sent over to Congress," says Cynthia Brown, president of the American Shipbuilding Association. The request, she says, provides stability to a sector that has suffered from erratic budgeting.

Meanwhile, it appears Congress could try to bolster naval aviation to mitigate the effects of an impending strike fighter shortfall. The number of Navy fighters is expected to peak at 69 in 2017, and then decline until the carrier-based version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes fully online in 2025.

To bridge the gap, the House-passed Defense authorization bill gives the Navy the authority to pursue another multiyear contract with Boeing Co. for F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. In addition to approving the administration's 2010 request for the fighters, the measure adds $108 million in advanced procurement funding to buy more of the aircraft next year.

The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the bill does not authorize another multiyear contract, but adds nine more Super Hornets than requested for next year. In its 2010 budget request, the Navy requested nine Super Hornets and 22 EA-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft, which are based on the same Boeing airframe.

Megan Scully is the defense reporter for CongressDaily.

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