On March 26, the House Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee invited a clutch of analysts to testify about future Naval capabilities. With the Navy unable (or unwilling) to provide answers on the way ahead for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the DDG-51 and DDG-1000, Congress asked to have a little sit-down with Loren Thompson (Lexington Institute analyst and Navy watcher), Rear Adm. William Houley (Ret.), Congressional Research Service’s senior Naval analyst Ron O’Rourke and Thomas Barnett, senior managing director of Enterra Solutions.
Chairman Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) said his goal for the hearing was to be provided a big picture “to verify that the overall strategy of the Navy supports the nation’s needs.” After sitting through the hearing, I’m not sure he got what he wanted. I’ve been in on numerous Taylor-led hearings lately, and he asked the same questions of these analysts – why is shipbuilding costing so much? Who’s responsible for the overruns? How do we fix the problem?
I particularly liked Houley’s comments. “Now, how about LCS?” he asked. “I used to have a nifty set of remarks appropriate only among retired admirals about how dumb an idea this was. It was not helpful. But guess what? After everyone is done beating everyone else up over the excessive cost, lousy contractor performance, poor coordination, requirements creep and so on, we finally got two hulls.” He believes LCS will be able to move to a more affordable unit cost fairly quickly.
Which is Joe Carnevale’s point. He’s with the Shipbuilder’s Council of America and called to speak with me this afternoon about the hearing and some of the comments being slung around the Hill about America’s shipyards. “I feel the real answer with LCS is to get on the learning curve,” he said. Essentially, start building more ships. Ramped up production will bring the unit cost down and a better understanding of how to build the ship more efficiently. Carnevale said he remembers well the fighting over whether or not to build DDG-51s to replace the CG-47. “It turned out to be enormously successful,” he said. And production went from requiring 5 million man-hours down to 3 million. “It takes time, effort and investment” to achieve that kind of streamlined process, Carnevale said.
I also heard from Craig Quigley at Lockheed Martin, who gently reminded me that the typical ship building process takes about 13 years (i.e. DDG-51 and LPD-17). “We are very proud that [the first LCS] Freedom was brought from concept to delivery in roughly half the time of a typical first-in-class vessel,” he said. Granted, the LCS is listed as an “unsuccessful program” in a February 2009 assessment by the Defense Science Board, and has taken numerous hits from Taylor as of late. The ship’s cost is hovering around $500 million – more than double the original requirement of $220 million. And then there’s Taylor’s nitpicking about the first two LCS hulls having been hand welded.
“There’s not as much automation on the LCS are in a DDG-51,” Carnevale said. “But how many have we built?”
One wonders whether the Navy will have the patience to see the program through to full production or if they’ll cut LCS back before production can ramp up in earnest.