Procurement: U.S. Shipbuilding Stumbles and Falls

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February5, 2007: On January 29th, the U.S. Navy fired the naval officer (a captain), who was program manager for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Two weeks earlier, the navy had halted work on construction of the third LCS ship. This one is being built by Lockheed-Martin, as was the first one. The Lockheed-Martin design was supposed to cost about $200 million per ship. But now the manufacturer says it may cost more than twice that. This is a serious situation.

There are actually two different LCS designs. One is a semi-planning monohull from Lockheed-Martin. The other is a trimaran from General Dynamics. LCS 2 was laid down in late 2005. These are essentially prototypes, and serial procurement will probably not begin before 2008, when initial design flaws will have been worked out. One of the two designs may be selected for the rest of the LCS class, or, perhaps, there will be two sub-types. Ultimately, the Navy hopes to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by the middle of the next decade.

The LCS is sort of replacing the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. These are 4.100 ton ships that would cost about $100 million to build today. The big difference between the frigates and LCS is the greater use of automation in the LCS (reducing crew size to 75, versus 300 in the frigates) and larger engines (giving the LCS a speed of about 90 kilometers an hour, versus 50 for the frigates.) The LCS also has a large "cargo hold" designed to hold different "mission packages" of equipment and weapons.

The Littoral Combat Ship is, simultaneously, revolutionary, and a throwback. The final LCS design is to displace about 3,000 tons, with a full load draft of under ten feet, permitting access to very shallow coastal waters, as well as rivers. This is where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation. Max range is 2,700 kilometers. Built using commercial "smartship" technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the LCS is expected to require a crew of about 50 in basic configuration, but will have accommodations for about 75 personnel. The ship is designed for a variety of interchangeable modules, which will allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews will also be modularized, so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules.

The navy is not happy with the performance of American ship builders. Costs are rising sharply, quality is down and the admirals can't get satisfactory answers from the manufacturers. For example, the new class of destroyers, the DDG-1000 class destroyers have also faced ballooning costs, up to as much as $3 billion per ship, as opposed to planned costs of $800 million. The current Arleigh Burke-class destroyers only cost $1 billion each.

The first of the new Ford-class (CVN-21) aircraft carriers will cost at least $13 billion (including R&D for the entire class). The current Nimitz-class carriers cost $4.5 billion each. Both classes also require an air wing (48-50 fighters, plus airborne early-warning planes, electronic warfare aircraft, and anti-submarine helicopters), which costs another $3.5 billion.

The navy wants some straight answers, and has gotten shipbuilders attention by halting work on the LCS and demanding answers.

 


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