The Navy’s controversial littoral combat ship program could be cut short in the coming years as policymakers look for a platform with greater capabilities.
Current plans call for acquiring 40 LCS and LCS-based frigates. Navy officials want at least 52 of the vessels in the fleet. But questions linger about their survivability, mission packages and platform design.
“With 26 ships delivered or under contract, the LCS program again stands at a crossroads,” the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report to Congress.
The Navy has requested funding for two additional ships in fiscal year 2017. Lawmakers will soon need to decide whether to authorize a block buy for 12 more, as the Navy has proposed, the report said.
The littoral combat ship was initially expected to cost $220 million each. But the price tag has more than doubled to $478 million, according to GAO. The projected cost of the mission packages has also increased by $3.5 billion.
In addition, critical mission packages including mine countermeasures are not expected to reach operating capability until 2020.
“Congress is faced at this point in time with a basic oversight question: does it want to authorize an investment of a potential $9 billion for a program that has … capabilities that are uncertain?” the GAO said.
Although President Donald Trump has promised to grow the Navy to 350 ships, and the service has signaled a need for 355, the new administration may try to scale back the littoral combat ship program and instead buy advanced frigates that are more capable, according to Bryan Clark, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“They’re not going to want to build 40 or 50 LCS-based ships,” said Clark, who is familiar with the thinking of individuals that are expected to play a role in Trump’s administration. “I think they will build as many more as they have to to keep the yards going, and then transition as soon as possible to those more robust frigates.”
Congress appears to be inclined to go along with such a plan, he said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been a leading critic of the littoral combat ship.
“Given the cost overruns, mission package testing woes and rate of engineering failures, reducing the size of this program is a necessary first step,” he said in a statement.
McCain signaled that he would be open to procuring a new type of vessel. “The nation still needs a capable small surface combatant that addresses the LCS’ critical shortfalls,” he said.