WASHINGTON ― Congress appears poised to save five littoral combat ships from an early retirement, but the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee says the effort to ditch the ships is not yet over.
Three separate congressional committees have approved defense budget plans that would block the Navy from scrapping five vessels from the problem-plagued ship class. Still, HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he plans to offer an amendment on the House floor later this summer “so the full House can have their say on whether or not it is a wise place to spend money.”
“Please let us focus on quality, not just quantity, as we make these decisions going forward,” Smith said Wednesday at his panel’s markup of its draft 2023 national defense authorization act.
The debate will likely split Democrats, pitting naval advocates who worry the Navy’s fleet is shrinking too much against critics who say the defense budget is growing too large. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have rejected Navy budget plans to decommission 24 ships, 16 of them ahead of schedule.
On Wednesday, the HASC markup saw a bipartisan 42-17 vote on an amendment to add $37 billion to President Joe Biden’s $773 billion Pentagon budget request, but not before Democrats argued on both sides of the LCS retirement debate. Smith voted against the amendment — which protected the five LCSs in addition to adding new ships, planes and more — which was proposed by Democratic Reps. Jared Golden, of Maine, and Elaine Luria, of Virginia.
Navy officials have said they couldn’t find room for the LCSs in their budget — which prioritizes readiness for a high-end fight in the Indo-Pacific — despite $4 billion in sunk costs. On Wednesday, lawmakers who would allow the Navy to decommission these ships pointed to numerous breakdowns among ships in the class, problems with their combining gear and their $59 million annual maintenance cost.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., displayed a floor chart titled “Leaking Cracked Ships” that contained a picture of each LCS with a lemon, playing on the slang for a defective vehicle.
“We all know what lemon cars are. We have a fleet of lemon LCS ships,” she said. “We have spent billions of dollars on this fleet when they have no capability to help us deal with our largest threat, which is that of China and Russia. The only winners have been the contractors on which the Navy relies for sustaining these ships.”
Smith said Congress must be more thoughtful about limiting defense spending levels.
“I’ve heard a lot of people saying recently, ‘Quantity has a quality all its own.’ And I just want to be clear: No, it doesn’t. That’s one of the dumbest damn things I’ve ever heard,” he said.
But those who want to keep the ships say the Navy can free up more capable ships to operate in the contested South China Sea by using LCSs for counter-trafficking missions in Latin America or Africa, presence missions in Europe, and mine-hunting missions in the Mideast. The Navy had proposed decommissioning nine LCSs, and if five are spared from this fate, lawmakers want to sell the remaining four to an ally or partner who could train and operate alongside the U.S. Navy.
Earlier in the week, the House Seapower subcommittee’s top Republican, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, said the Navy is on the wrong side of what he called the “ships built versus the ships retired” ratio at a time when the Navy fleet is set to shrink by 18 ships in the next five years.
“Shrinking the Navy sends absolutely the wrong message. We’re not opposed to retiring legacy ships; what we are opposed to is a plan to replace that capacity [with new ships later] that potentially never comes to fruition,” Wittman said.
The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved its draft FY23 defense spending bill, which also protects five LCSs from retirement. The chair of the committee’s defense panel, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., stopped short of backing a Republican amendment to protect all nine, but the bill directs the Navy to report on alternate uses for the ships by U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Africa Command and the feasibility of transferring them to a partner navy.
“These ships have functionality to them,” McCollum said during the committee’s markup. “The first round of conversations I had with the Navy were unsatisfactory, and they are coming around to the seriousness of making sure the taxpayer’s dollars are, at a minimum, repurposed in a way that helps with our national security.”
Before the Navy could transfer the ships, it would have to fix a faulty combining gear on these Freedom-variant LCSs. The service and industry have already designed and approved a fix, but face limited shipyard capacity to install the new combining gear system, meaning it could take years before all LCSs have the new system installed.
Kyiv turned down the LCS when lawmakers explored sending them to strengthen the depleted Ukrainian navy against Russia’s ongoing invasion, House Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Joe Courtney, D-Conn., told Defense News on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s defense attaché told lawmakers Ukraine’s military would prefer more vessels like the two refitted former U.S. Coast Guard Island-class patrol boats it received in November, according to Courtney.
The LCS, though among the smallest combatants in the U.S. fleet, is significantly larger than the Island-class boats, and it would require some time for Ukrainian forces to be trained to operate them.
Asked whether the U.S. might offer the LCS to Taiwan ― as it has other weapons to deter a potential seaborne invasion by the Chinese military ― Courtney said the Philippine navy, which operates former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, might be a candidate.
“The Philippine navy is riding around in Coast Guard cutters that are ancient so I would think there’s an attractive case there,” Courtney said. “We have to fix the combining gear, or that would really be violating the lemon law. There is a fix, and it’s about $8 million.”
Bryant Harris and Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.