Procurement: Healthy Pork

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June 13, 2007: The U.S. Congress is offering to buy the navy an extra San Antonio-class amphibious ship (landing platform dock, or LPD), which would be the tenth ship in the class. This offer not only reflects the usual Congressional pork-barreling efforts (these vessels are built at Avondale in Louisiana, which has a Senator up for re-election in 2008), it also reflects the fact that the navy's present and foreseeable operational needs seem to lean towards the ability to project power ashore, rather than to fight it out for control of the oceans.

The San Antonio-class LPDs displace about 25,000 tons, are over 680 feet long, can go over 39 kilometers per hour, and can carry four V-22 Ospreys on its deck and one more in its hangar. It is armed with two thirty-millimeter chain guns and two Rolling Airframe Missile launchers, with room to add the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile at a future date. The Navy has the lead ship in commission, with eight others under construction. The tenth vessel, LPD-26, and two others are planned, but construction is up in the air, due to their $1.7 billion price tag. The high price is due to the increased capabilities of these vessels. In addition to a potent self-defense suite, these vessels have modern communications suites, stealth technology to reduce their radar cross-section, and provide improved quality of life for sailors and Marines.

Until quite recently, the navy planned on cutting the LPD-17s from twelve ships to nine. This was because the United States Navy's superiority over the rest of the world dwarfs the Royal Navy's attempt to maintain a "two-power" standard (superiority over the next two naval powers in the world) in the last century. As such, it is not exactly getting much sympathy from the bean counters, even with a global war on terror going on. A number of ship classes have been reduced in terms of how many ships will be purchased. The Navy originally planned to build as many as 46 ships of the San Antonio-class.

The declining size of the Navy, though, has not diminished the capacity - the original plans for the San Antonio-class LPDs had them replacing 41 older amphibious vessels from four classes of ships (the Austin-class LPDs, the Anchorage-class landing ships, the Newport-class LSTs, and the Charleston-class cargo vessels). This means the Navy will use a lot less manpower (which is expensive) and fuel (also expensive). In essence, the Navy will be getting fewer ships, but they will be much more capable on a ship-for-ship basis. On the flip side, they cannot be in two places at the same time. In essence, the Navy is gambling that a huge qualitative edge will make up for a lack of quantity.

A tenth San Antonio-class LPD will help the Navy out a great deal. In this case, as is the case with the production of additional cargo planes like the C-130J or more F-22s might be seen as pork. That said, unlike pork in other areas of the budget, this so-called pork is useful. In this case, it will give the United States Navy at least one more amphibious vessel than they would otherwise have, increasing the amphibious lift. In this case, the Navy will benefit by having an extra amphibious ship, even if they never need it. It might cost $1.7 billion, but needing that extra amphibious ship and not having it could be much more expensive. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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