MILWAUKEE - A federal watchdog agency is raising concerns over the U.S. Navy's $40 billion littoral combat ship program, which supports more than 1,200 Wisconsin jobs and pumps millions of dollars into the state's economy.
The Government Accountability Office recently released a report questioning whether the warships perform as expected. The report identified deficiencies with certain core systems and recommended that Congress consider restricting funding until the Navy completes further studies, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
The Navy said it won't back away from the program, which calls for 52 of the new high-speed warships over the next 15 years. Construction of the first 20 ships is being divided between Marinette Marine, based in Marinette, and Austal USA, based in Mobile, Ala.
The program ran into early cost overruns that doubled the cost per ship. USS Freedom, Marinette's first littoral ship, sustained a 6-inch crack in the hull and had problems with its jet propulsion system. A leaky seal also caused flooding inside the vessel.
Paul Francis, an official with the Government Accountability Office, recently testified before a House subcommittee that the Navy doesn't know how well the ships will perform their missions or how much it will cost to equip and support the ships.
Marinette, which builds its ships under a contract with Lockheed Martin Corp., said some of the cost overruns and mechanical problems with USS Freedom were to be expected for a ship that's the first of its kind.
Joe North, vice president of the littoral program at Lockheed Martin, said about 80 percent of the improvements the Navy wanted following the Freedom's problems have been included in the construction of its next ship.
"I can't speculate on what Congress might decide to do or not do, but we are going to deliver ships as promised and continue to make improvements and increase efficiencies," North said.
Gov. Scott Walker recently wrote a letter to Wisconsin's congressional delegation urging that the program not be canceled.
But one expert said it doesn't make sense to keep pouring billions of dollars into a flawed program just because the initial investment was so high. Norman Polmar, who has advised three U.S. secretaries of the Navy, said the littoral combat ship was a great concept that's been poorly executed.
"We should stop producing the ships right now, put the program on hold, and immediately convene an objective Navy and civilian review group to look at the whole program and decide what to do," Polmar said.
The GAO's report was released July 25.
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