The woes and ultimate truncation of a major Pentagon weapon acquisition program has become a Washington cliche.
Weapon after weapon, whether it’s a new Army or Marine Corps combat vehicle, a stealth fighter or a naval vessel has stumbled from benchmark to benchmark, blowing through cost goals so severely that the military cannot afford to buy the items in the numbers Pentagon planners originally said they required.
The latest of these weapons is the Littoral Combat Ship, a relatively small class of vessel used close to shore. An expected proposal by the Pentagon to reduce the Navy’s planned purchase from 52 to 32 ships will be at the center of a wider congressional debate this year about the cost, size and mix of the fleet. The Pentagon will reveal its next move on March 4, when the president releases his fiscal 2015 budget, but the ship has defenders in Congress who will fight to preserve it.
“This is going to be a very important year because it will be a time that you will see not just oversight but debate from various circles about what the [littoral ship] buy should be and how it should be modified or changed,” said J. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.
Continued performance and development problems with the ships and specialized modules for different missions, as well as concerns over the potential costs of the modules and the ships’ survivability in combat, has made it vulnerable to reduction in the face of declining resources.
The proposed reduction of a Navy priority throws the service’s planning into disarray. The Littoral Combat Ships were expected to increase the size of an already taxed fleet.
But Forbes said cuts to the Littoral Combat Ships — the only class planned to grow in numbers over the next 30 years — are not a foregone conclusion.
“I think we are far from a position where we are seeing these cuts taking place,” he said.
Forbes, in fact, believes the Navy should get an annual increase for shipbuilding equivalent to 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the Pentagon budget, or a little more than $5 billion per year. That would cover roughly the annual average shortfall that the Congressional Budget Office estimates the current Navy 30-year shipbuilding plan faces.
But Congress writ large has grown increasing stingy and impatient with the Pentagon’s spending habits, and the Navy has seen its share of cost overruns.
The first of the Ford-class aircraft carriers is running more than $2 billion over its promised cost, with the second also about $2 billion over initial estimates, and the Navy’s new ballistic missile submarines are expected to cost about $5 billion each after completion of the first one for $12 billion. Even the more reasonably priced DDG-51 destroyer costs $1.7 billion per ship.
These breakdowns drove Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a decorated retired Navy captain and military hawk, to disparage the Littoral Combat Ship program — as well as Navy leaders for these failings.