The Navy’s close-lipped effort to pick a winning design for the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program is generating more rumors than Lindsay Lohan’s love-life. Maybe it’s the approaching mid-term elections or maybe it’s the lack of official information about how the selection process is progressing, but interested parties seem to be working overtime to formulate fanciful conspiracy theories about what’s going on.
The competition pits two second-tier shipyards teamed with giant defense contractors against each other for the right to produce dozens of unconventional warships that are the only new class of surface combatants to survive recent course changes by the Navy’s leadership. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead has strongly endorsed the small, fast vessel designed for combating shallow-water threats, while curtailing the bigger Zumwalt class of next-generation destroyers and killing a future missile-defense cruiser outright.
The LCS should come in handy when Roughead gets to his next assignment in the Pacific, but first the Navy has to decide which of two designs it wants. The design being pitched by Marinette Marine of Wisconsin and Lockheed Martin looks like a smaller version of a traditional steel surface combatant, but it’s much faster. The design being pitched by Australian-based Austal for construction in its Alabama shipyard — using General Dynamics electronics — looks like nothing that U.S. sailors have ever seen before. It’s basically an aluminum trimaran.
Both designs are highly innovative, relying on automation and easy reconfigurability to hold down personnel and hardware costs. But because one design would be built in Alabama and the other in Wisconsin, the program lends itself all too readily to political rumor-mongering. One rumor has the White House intervening to force a split buy of both designs on the Navy. Another rumor has the White House trying to delay announcement of a winner until after the election. Both rumors are almost certainly wrong, but they show how thousands of jobs and votes can hang on who gets to build arcane weapons systems.
The nightmare that keeps Austal executives awake at night is that Navy evaluators will pick the “safe” design — a fast but fairly conventional steel vessel backed by the nation’s biggest defense contractor. The nightmare that keeps Marinette Marine executives awake is the possibility Austal might try to even up the odds by bidding a price too aggressive for Marinette to match. Marinette and partner Lockheed Martin have been in the business for a long time, and therefore have detailed metrics that drive their bidding behavior. Austal is an upstart with almost no relevant track record, so its bidding process is a mystery.
Since the Navy isn’t talking, observers are free to postulate any theory they want as to what is going on. Only one thing is certain: regardless of who wins, there’s sure to be a protest by the loser.
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