The Lockheed Martin and Austal USA littoral combat ship variants. (Navy)
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The Navy's top leaders weathered a sometimes blistering attack Tuesday by a leading critic of the service's 11th-hour request to allow it to buy both competing littoral combat ship designs. Yet the appeal gained traction as Senate appropriators included language to allow the change in their version of a new all-inclusive funding bill.
"The story of the ship is one that makes me ashamed and embarrassed," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at a hastily called hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It is one of the reasons I remain incredibly skeptical of this latest rushed proposal that we have to approve of in this lame-duck session."
McCain ticked off a detailed history of the program, complete with descriptions of how the Navy's price predictions jumped from $188 million per ship to over $700 million.
"So here we are with a brand new idea," McCain said sarcastically. "Somehow, miraculously, a month ago, the two shipbuilders came in with very low estimates. We are told those are good estimates, but we don't know what those numbers are.
"I have never approved of a program where I don't know what the cost is," McCain continued. "But with a record like this … I'm supposed to say this is a good deal?"
McCain made note that LCS competitors Lockheed Martin and Austal USA have agreed to hold contract prices that would have expired after Tuesday until Dec. 30.
"I see no reason why those offers can't be extended to January or March … to give us time to consider" the proposal's merits, McCain said. "What's the rush?" he asked.
"It's obvious that this is a rush to judgment on a program that's been plagued with billions of dollars of cost overruns. I am deeply concerned," he added.
In a hallway after leaving the hearing, he had one more comment.
"This whole thing is gamesmanship. That's why we're here in the last week of a lame-duck session," he grumbled.
The Navy's top leaders — Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Sean Stackley, the service's top acquisition official — stood steadfastly by their request to buy both types of LCS design rather than choose one.
The deal, they said, was good for the Navy and good for taxpayers, ultimately allowing savings of about $1 billion.
"There are attributes in each design that I believe in the future will prove to be operationally advantageous," Roughead said. "The volume that's in one [of the designs], the boat-handling capability in the other.
"Each one is different. But in each one, I could envision each of those ships bringing great versatility, agility and capability to our Navy," Roughead said. "Our commanders will mix and match those capabilities for the mission to get the best effect."
"I think it gives us great flexibility," he added.
The three top Congressional watchdog agencies also were called to the hearing. Eric Labs of the Congressional Budget Office, Ron O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service and Paul Francis of the Government Accountability Office all spoke of the difficulty of properly evaluating the Navy's request without knowing the details of each company's bids.
Because of Pentagon rules regarding competitive programs, the Navy is prevented from disclosing details of each company's LCS bids.
"Information is fragmentary and not well vetted," said O'Rourke, who noted that the timing of the Navy's request, made in early November and coming during a crowded, lame-duck session, "provides little opportunity" for proper evaluation.
Labs spoke of the cost challenges to support entirely separate combat systems in the two designs, while Francis, who allowed that the Navy's performance on the LCS program has improved, noted it "is not out of the woods yet."
Shortly before the afternoon hearing, the Senate omnibus appropriations bill was introduced, combining the normal 12 annual spending bills into one document that asks for over $1.1 trillion in spending. Among the provisions is one that would grant the Navy's request.
But McCain also attacked that bill, which he claimed includes at least 6,488 earmarks totaling nearly $8.3 billion. He is threatening to delay a vote on the package by demanding that each page of the 1,924-page document be read aloud.
Several other moves are afoot to get the LCS passage to a vote before Congress adjourns for the year. LCS language approving the Navy's request is in a proposed House continuing resolution bill.
Wednesday morning, the House is scheduled to take up consideration and debate of a provision sponsored by outgoing Seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., to approve the Navy's plan.