WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s program to buy a new frigate, known as FFG(X), has been smooth sailing since it was announced in 2017, but congressional protectionism could torpedo much of the progress the service has made to date.
The House Appropriations Committee’s defense bill, which was adopted and passed by the House on Wednesday as part of a larger spending package, funds from the Navy’s frigate program if the service tries to contract for any auxiliary equipment, such as pumps, or propulsion equipment or shipboard cranes not manufactured in the United States. In other words, those components must be manufactured in the United States, or Congress won’t fund them.
The Navy opposes the measure, saying the provision would increase the cost of the program and delay it by at least a year.
“The Navy does not agree with the proposed language in the HAC-D bill,” the Navy said in an information paper dated May 17, referring to the Defense Subcommittee. “If enacted, it will result in the potential for: redesign, loss of commonality with the rest of the US Fleet, increases in cost, and delay to the FFG(X) Detail Design and Construction (DD&C) contract award.”
Furthermore, the language would undermine almost the entire purpose of the FFG(X) program, which sought to drive down costs and speed up acquisition timelines by adapting parent designs for U.S. Navy purposes, the service said.
“The FFG(X) program utilized a strategy to require parent designs to reduce cost, technical, and schedule risk to get to a competitive DD&C contract award,” the paper said. “As such, many of the referenced components are proven on the parent designs.
“An insertion of change of this magnitude would negate much of the progress achieved during the Conceptual Design phase. This would result in a loss of design maturity and the FFG(X) DD&C award will be delayed a minimum of one year.”
The spending package that passed Wednesday but could still be killed in negotiations with the Senate and the White House. But if it survives, much of the work the Navy and the four main competitors — Fincantieri, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works with a Navantia design, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Austal USA — could be undone. The Navy wants to award the final detailed design and construction contract by the end of fiscal 2020.
“The FFG(X) program is nearing completion of Conceptual, the primary purpose of which is to stabilize requirements and mature the designs in advance of the competition for DD&C,” the Navy information paper said. “The proposed language would delay the Primes readiness to respond to a DD&C Request for Proposal.”
Several of the components that would be covered in the bill, such as auxiliary propulsion units, are not available in the United States and would require redesigns to fit American-made parts, the paper noted. Furthermore, it would put systems in the fleet that are not common with systems that are already in service on other ships, reducing commonality and driving up the cost of spare parts and training for unique systems.
Achieving commonality with systems already in the fleet was one of the key goals spelled out by the Navy at the outset of the program.
The delays would undercut Navy efforts, pushed on by pressure from lawmakers, to cut down the time it takes to develop and acquire major systems, said Thomas Callender, a retired submarine officer and analyst with The Heritage Foundation.
“Congress will tell you: ‘We want you to go faster and cut costs.’ Then they’ll turn around and add requirements that slow the program down and increases costs,” Callender said.
Rising costs and schedule delays introduce the possibility of another dynamic with Congress where programs that get behind and run over budget face funding cuts, which further drives up the overall cost of the program, Callender said.
There is already some pushback on the provision from lawmakers. In the House Armed Services Committee, the National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision pushed by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., that directly counters the appropriations bill. But it’s unclear if the language in the authorization would allow the services to override the appropriations law.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.