The Lockheed Martin and Austal USA littoral combat ship variants. (Navy)
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Rival teams from Lockheed Martin and Austal USA have been waiting all year to see which of their designs would be chosen for the Navy's littoral combat ship competition. Now, if the Navy gets permission from the lame-duck Congress, the winner could be: both.
At stake had been an award to the winner for 10 LCS hulls. But the Navy, convinced that the competition has driven down the cost for the ships, is asking Congress for permission to award each team contracts for 10 ships, for a total of 20 new LCS hulls.
"We're engaging with key committee members, their staff and industry on whether awarding a 10-ship block buy to each team merits congressional authorization," Capt. Cate Mueller, a spokeswoman for the Navy's acquisition department, said Wednesday.
But Mueller cautioned that the move does not mean the effort to pick only one design has been put aside.
"The Navy's LCS is on track for a down-select decision. We have not stopped the current solicitation," she said. "If the [dual-award] path doesn't prove feasible and we don't get the congressional authorization, we will proceed to down-select in accordance with the terms of the current solicitation."
"The Navy sees either approach procures affordably priced ships," she said.
Congress — which has yet to produce a defense bill for 2011 — will need to act quickly, as the contract offers and prices put on the table by each industry team expire after Dec. 14. If the LCS contracts aren't awarded by then, a new round of contract offers would need to be made, possibly pushing a decision into late winter or early spring.
Mueller said building both designs has several advantages, including:
• Stabilization of the LCS program and the industrial base.
• Increasing the ship procurement rate to support operational requirements.
• Sustaining competition throughout the program.
• Improving foreign military sales opportunities.
Under the new proposal, the Navy would split its buy equally each year between Lockheed and Austal USA. Two ships would be awarded under the 2010 budget and two in 2011, with four ships year each from 2012 through 2015. One key issue that will be put off appears to be the choice of combat system. Each team created its own system, with virtually no commonality between the two types. Under the new proposal, each team would continue to build ships with their original combat systems.
But, said Mueller, "That does not keep us from deciding in the future to go with one or the other."
Other shipbuilders also could be brought into the program, she said, "because the Navy intends to procure the technical data package for both designs, and if necessary, a second source for either or both designs could be brought in."
One administrative hurdle the Navy needs to award new contracts is approval by the Defense Acquisition Board, a Pentagon panel which reviews the status of all acquisition programs and certifies them for moving ahead. A DAB meeting, Mueller said, likely would not be scheduled until the LCS acquisition strategy is finalized.
Sources say the new ships would be split equally between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a change from the current plan to initially base all LCS hulls at San Diego. Navy officials have said that Mayport, Fla., would be the primary Atlantic base for the ships. The port is scheduled to lose many of its current tenants over the next few years as the Navy decommissions the remainder of its frigate force.
Each industry team already has delivered one ship and is at work on another. Lockheed's ships are built in Wisconsin by Marinette Marine, a subsidiary of the Italian shipbuilding giant Fincantieri. Austal USA, a subsidiary of the Australian Austal firm, which specializes in aluminum high-speed craft, builds its ships in Mobile, Ala.
Each of the shipbuilding programs is looked on locally as a major job provider and source of income.
Both LCS designs have supporters and detractors. While both of the new ships have numerous problems — situations common to most prototypes — Lockheed's steel-hull, aluminum superstructure version is seen as an efficient, capable and handy platform, while the large flight deck and spacious mission bay of Austal USA's all-aluminum trimaran appeals to many mission planners. Planners for years have seen the designs as mutually supportive — one of the reasons that the Navy, until the fall of 2009, planned to buy both types.