The push in Washington for a 355-ship Navy is alive and well, but a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has cast doubt on the possibility of the service reaching that goal due to ballooning acquisition costs and “poor outcomes.”
In its June report, the GAO cited shipbuilding “challenges” that have resulted in a less capable and smaller fleet today than the Navy had planned more than 10 years ago.
“While the Navy is continuing to accept delivery of ships, it has received $24 billion more in funding than originally planned but has 50 fewer ships in its inventory today as compared to the goals it first established in its 2007 long-range shipbuilding plan,” the report stated. “Cost growth has contributed to the erosion of the Navy’s buying power, with ship costs exceeding estimates by over $11 billion during this time frame.”
The GAO also said that the Navy’s shipbuilding programs have had years of construction delays, and “even when the ships eventually reached the fleet, they often fell short of quality and performance expectations.”
One of the most prominent trouble areas is the littoral combat ship (LCS) program that includes the Freedom and Independence variants. In April, the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) reported that the Navy might not deploy any of the ships this year “due to a confluence of maintenance availabilities that has most of the LCS fleet sidelined.”
LCS cost overruns and mechanical problems have been exacerbated by difficulties in training personnel to man the ships, according to USNI.
“In addition to the deploying ships themselves being in maintenance, so too are the training ships that will be required to help train and certify the crews,” the institute said. “Not only does the deployable ship have to be in the water and ready for operations, but so does the training ship.”
Fincantieri Marinette Marine will build four multi-mission surface combatant (MMSC) ships for Saudi Arabia under the terms of a contract awarded in July by the U.S. government. The newbuilds will be based on the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship produced by the shipyard.
Courtesy Lockheed Martin
A January report by the Department of Defense cited LCS problems that include radar system shortcomings, limited self-defense capabilities and a lack of redundancy in critical systems.
“Neither LCS variant is survivable in high-intensity combat,” the report stated.
Despite the setbacks, the shipyards building the Freedom and Independence variants – Fincantieri Marinette Marine and Austal, respectively – continued to produce the ships in 2018. Marinette Marine delivered Little Rock (LCS 9) during a ceremony at the yard in Marinette, Wis., in late September 2017, followed by Sioux City (LCS 11) and Wichita (LCS 13) in August. Mobile, Ala.-based Austal delivered Omaha (LCS 12) in mid-September 2017, Manchester (LCS 14) in February, Tulsa (LCS 16) in April and Charleston (LCS 18) in August.
The drive to improve another area of U.S. maritime capacity — its heavy polar icebreaking fleet — inched forward over the course of the year. In April, the GAO said that the maximum price tag for acquiring, operating and maintaining three new heavy polar icebreakers over their 30-year life cycle would be $9.8 billion. The U.S. has just one active heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, and a medium icebreaker, Healy, that is deployed primarily for scientific research.
In February 2017, the Coast Guard awarded contracts to five shipyards — Bollinger, Fincantieri, General Dynamics NASSCO, Huntington Ingalls and VT Halter Marine — for design studies and analysis. The Navy, which is managing the newbuild program in partnership with the Coast Guard, anticipates awarding the construction contract to a single yard in the third quarter of fiscal year 2019.
The GAO said that before setting the program baselines, the Coast Guard revised the operational requirements for the new heavy polar icebreakers to make them more affordable.
“The revisions included adjusting the range of operating temperatures, reducing science and survey requirements, and adding space, weight and power reservations for Navy equipment,” the report said. The GAO said it was not making any recommendations about the program “at this time,” but added that it would assess the procurement of the new vessels “as part of our ongoing work.”
Here are other highlights of defense-related activity at North American shipyards during the past year:
The fast response cutter Forrest Rednour gets a rousing welcome upon arriving in San Pedro, Calif., in August. The Sentinel-class FRC from Bollinger Shipyards is the first of four that will be home-ported at the Coast Guard’s base in Los Angeles-Long Beach.
Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
• General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego delivered USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams, the nation’s fourth expeditionary sea base (ESB), to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. The 784-foot ship is designed to carry MH-53 helicopters, MH-60 helicopters and MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys on missions ranging from counterpiracy to humanitarian aid.
• Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, La., delivered six fast response cutters to the Coast Guard: Robert Ward, Forrest Rednour, Nathan Bruckenthal, Richard Snyder, Joseph Gerczak and Jacob Poroo. To date, 30 154-foot FRCs have been delivered as part of the service’s fleet modernization initiative.
• The U.S. Army awarded Oregon-based Vigor a contract worth nearly $1 billion to build its new generation of landing craft. Vigor’s MSV(L) tribow monohull design was developed in partnership with BMT and “dramatically improves the capabilities of the current LCM-8,” according to the shipbuilder.
• Irving Shipbuilding launched HMCS Harry DeWolf, Canada’s first Arctic and offshore patrol ship, at its yard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The 338-foot, 6,615-tonne AOPS is the largest Royal Canadian Navy ship built in Canada in 50 years. Sea trials and delivery are scheduled for next year.
• Ingalls Shipbuilding christened the national security cutter Midgett in Pascagoula, Miss., the eighth NSC that the shipyard has built for the Coast Guard. In addition, Ingalls was awarded a $94 million advanced procurement contract for a 10th NSC.
• Ingalls also cut steel on the amphibious assault ship Richard M. McCool Jr., the 13th and final vessel in the LPD 17 Flight I class. The ship can carry 720 troops and “virtually every size of Marine Corps helicopter” on missions that include special operations and expeditionary warfare, according to Naval Sea Systems Command.
• Seaspan Shipyards of Vancouver, British Columbia, cut steel on Canada’s first joint support ship under the National Shipbuilding Strategy. The 567-foot JSS will deliver fuel and other supplies to vessels at sea, offer modern medical and dental facilities, and provide support for Royal Canadian Navy helicopter operations.