The Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian said the U.S. Navy needs more ships with the protection and firepower to survive an advanced adversary, not just “niche platforms,” weeks after she ordered cuts in the $34 billion Littoral Combat Ship program.
Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox’s remarks in a San Diego speech yesterday in part reflect Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s concerns about the ship designed for shallow coastal waters, said a defense official who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations at the Pentagon.
Addressing the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and the Naval Institute, Fox said “the threats to surface combatants continue to grow -- not just from advanced military powers, but from the proliferation of more advanced, precise anti-ship munitions around the globe. Clearly, this puts a premium on underseas capabilities -- submarines -- that can deploy and strike with relative freedom of movement.”
The Littoral Combat Ship, made in two versions by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US) and Austal Ltd. (ASB), is a lightly armed vessel intended for roles from submarine-hunting to mine-sweeping. Questions have been raised about its mounting costs and survivability in combat. Last month, Fox directed the Navy to truncate the program to 32 ships after 2019 rather than the 52 previously planned by 2026.
While Fox didn’t mention the ship by name in her speech, her comment about “niche platforms that can conduct a certain mission in a permissive environment” could be “read as a confirmation of her views” on it, Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Washington-based Capital Alpha Partners LLC, said in an e-mail.
Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, has written that the Littoral Combat Ship “is not expected to be survivable in high-intensity combat” because its designs don’t include features “necessary to conduct sustained combat operations in a major conflict as expected for the Navy’s other surface combatants.” The Navy has acknowledged the vessels are being built to the service’s lowest level of survivability, a Pentagon-approved decision that sought to balance cost and performance.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington public policy organization, said what’s interesting is that Fox offered her rationale now, before the presentation next month of the Pentagon’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget and before she’s replaced by Robert Work, President Barack Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary.
Work, who was an active supporter of the Littoral Combat Ship when he was Navy undersecretary, faces a nomination hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 13.
Fox is “making a point of saying, yes, presence is important, but presence with ships that aren’t survivable or capable isn’t the kind of presence we need,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Her emphasis on “the survivability of our battle fleet” may bolster submarine builders Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. (HII:US) and General Dynamics Corp. (GD:US), as well as Raytheon Co. (RTN:US), the maker of the sub-launched Tomahawk cruise missile and surface ship self-defense systems.
Fox also warned against the “natural tendency to hang on to combat forces at the expense of enablers,” such as electronic warfare and other countermeasures.
“In many respects the U.S. Navy has been so dominant for so long at sea that I worry we never really embraced these solutions,” she said. “The time to start investing in the next generation of electronic warfare is now.”
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