WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy wants Congress to go easy on “buy American” provisions and balance the need to get new capabilities out quickly and affordably with its desire to push business to domestic industry.
The service opposes a provision passed by the House in the 2020 defense appropriations bill that would prohibit the use of funds for the next-generation frigate if the service tries to contract for any auxiliary equipment, such as pumps, propulsion equipment or shipboard cranes not manufactured in the United States.
The admiral overseeing the FFG(X) program told an audience June 20 that he thought a discussion about expanding the domestic industrial base was worthwhile, but that the approach must be measured against the Navy’s ability to move quickly and achieve savings.
“This is a discussion we need to be having as a Navy and as a nation in regards to the industrial base and the supplying of major equipment on our ships – we certainly comply with existing statutes with regards to ‘buy American,’” said Rear Adm. Casey Moton, program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants. “And I think there is a lot of value in us having the discussion about moving towards a more robust domestic source of supply; We have to get to a place where we have a domestic supply that’s robust enough to support competition, so we are not locked into sole-source in some of those areas. That’s got to be a factor.”
His argument is that if “buy American” means you have to buy from only one supplier because there is only one supplier who makes the part you are looking for, that company can inflate prices because it has no competition. That then, in turn, drives up the total cost of the program.
Moton went on to argue that with the Navy facing down peer competitors such as Russia and China, the Navy needs to be flexible.
“The point is that we have to have a measured discussion,” he said. “It has to happen in such a way so that we arrive to where we want to go as Navy and as a country without impacting our ability to get a new capability out there that the Navy needs, particularly in an era of great power competition.”
The Navy released its final request for proposal to industry June 20, with at least four competitors: Fincantieri, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works with a Navantia design, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Austal USA.
In an information paper to Congress on the measure, which originated in the House Appropriations Committee, the Navy argued that if enacted, it would drive up costs and add critical delays into the program.
“The FFG(X) program is nearing completion of conceptual [design phase], the primary purpose of which is to stabilize requirements and mature the designs in advance of the competition for [detailed design and construction],” 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.
The Democrats’ appropriations bill will not pass in its current form because of policy riders that will be non-starters for Republicans, but it’s unclear whether this particular policy rider will survive the final cut.
Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and the deputy director at Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, said Congress is stepping in too late in the process and the program is already too far along for this kind of meddling.
“I think it’s unwise, meddlesome and I would like to see the adults on Capitol Hill … assert themselves,” McGrath said. “They just put a [request for proposal] out. We’ve been at this for a year and a half with design contracts. This train hasn’t just left the station, it’s already almost at the halfway point.
“I believe the Congress has the power and authority to do this. I think it would be dumb to do this. It’s just too late in the game.”
Joe Gould contributed to this report from Washington.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.