Navy seeks congressional backing to buy combat ships from two builders

The Navy is seeking congressional backing for a plan to buy 20 new littoral combat ships from two builders instead of one as was initially planned.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Wednesday informed key lawmakers that his service is considering buying 10 new shore-hugging ships from both Austal USA and a team of Marinette Marine and Lockheed Martin.

This new strategy would be a departure from the plan to buy only 10 littoral combat ships built by one winning contractor and cannot move ahead without congressional authorization. The Navy may seek to add a provision on any of the defense-related bills for 2011 or a continuing resolution funding the Department of Defense through next year.

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Alabama’s Republican Senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, welcomed the Navy’s plan on Wednesday. The southern part of Alabama could gain as many as 2,000 new jobs from the program.

Austal USA, a unit of Australian Austal Ltd, is based in Mobile, Ala. Marinette Marine  based in Marinette, Wis., is a unit of Italian shipbuilding company Fincantieri.

While Shelby expressed concern about potential costs being added to the program, Sessions said that Mabus indicated that the neck-in-neck competition as well as cost reduction undertaken by the companies would allow for the new strategy to be carried out without additional money.

“I believe that this is a good strategy, and I will strongly support it,” said Sessions, a senior defense authorizer. “The LCS vessels are a critical part of the Navy’s goal for a 313-ship Navy.”

The Navy last year devised a new purchasing strategy after LCS program was plagued by delays and ballooning costs. Lawmakers grew frustrated with the program after the cost of one littoral combat ship more than doubled, to at least $460 million for one ship.

Teams led by General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin previously built versions of the LCS before the Navy overhauled the program.

Under its revised strategy, the Navy planned to award a contract worth about $5 billion for 10 ships and five combat systems for those vessels. The Navy in 2012 as planning to award another five ships to a competing shipyard.

Separate from the acquisition strategy spanning from 2010 to 2014, the Navy also planned to buy four ships in fiscal 2015.

Overall the Navy is now looking to buy 20 ships over 5 years instead of the 19 it has previously planned to purchase.

The Navy plans to buy a total of 55 of the ships designed to sweep for mines in coastal waters, fight pirates and chase drug smugglers. The entire deal could be worth as much a $28 billion over several decades.

If Congress does not back the new strategy, the Navy is still ready to proceed with its initial plan to select one winner for the first 10 ships, said Navy spokesman Capt. Cate Mueller.