U.S. House debates future of littoral combat ships including the USS Detroit

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. House lawmakers debated Wednesday whether to keep or retire a troubled class of warships that includes the USS Detroit, ultimately rejecting a measure that would have let the Navy retire nine of them. 

The amendment to the defense authorization bill by Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Washington, failed by a vote of 208-221 late Wednesday, though that alone won't save the USS Detroit from the scrap heap.

The House later approved the underlying defense package Thursday that would permit the retirement of four Freedom-class littoral combat ships but block the Navy from decommissioning five others.  

USS Detroit arrives at the Riverfront, on Friday, October 14, 2016. (Virginia Lozano/The Detroit News)

Smith argued none of the nine LCS ships are worth saving, even though most are just a few years old, noting their "significant" maintenance problems and operating costs. Also, the anti-submarine warfare system made for them is incapable because it didn't fit onto the Freedom-class ships.

"These ships are not that old. They're not. But they have also not turned out to perform the way they were expected," Smith said. "The Navy has determined that it is better to invest in newer, more modern, more capable platforms, and we are blocking their ability to do that."

Rep. Rob Whittman, R-Virginia, countered that getting rid of the ships is wrong-headed, pointing out the LCS's fast-attack and mine-hunting capabilities and insisting they would be capable to counter China's fleet. 

"If you get rid of this ship, you have nothing, and the replacement for this ship is six years out. You can't fight something with nothing," said Whittman, vice ranking member of the Armed Services panel. "It has its challenges. Let's fix those challenges. Let's get this ship operational. Let's get it out there."

As part of its budget proposal this year, the Navy proposed retiring nine total littoral combat ships, including the USS Detroit, to save money, including the cost of repairing a problem on the Freedom-class ships' combining gear, which connects a ship’s diesel engines and gas turbines.

The USS Detroit, commissioned in 2016, was expected to have a 25-year service life. It was the seventh ship in its class and cost about $440 million when built in Marinette, Wisconsin, part of a multipurpose fleet designed to deal with threats like pirates in waters as shallow as 14 feet.

But critics say the ships are unreliable and don't offer the relevant capabilities the U.S. needs to counter China or Russia, though the Navy continues to build more LCSs and just commissioned the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul in late May. 

Six more littoral combat ships are in some stage of construction, with a total 35 planned, according to Rep. John Rutherford, a Florida Republican whose district includes the USS Detroit's home port of Mayport. 

Rutherford has been trying to save all nine of the targeted Freedom-class LCSs, arguing that the Navy has invested $4.5 billion in them and that decommissioning the ships at the beginning of their service life is "complete financial malpractice."

The future USS Detroit, or LCS-7, is seen during its acceptance trial on July 15, 2016. The Navy announced that the USS Detroit successfully completed its trial on July 22, 2016.

"These ships aren't perfect. ... no new class of ship is. But scrapping these ships at less than half their average life cycle is like throwing away a dime to save a nickel," Rutherford said on the House floor.

In an interview, Rutherford said he'll work to save all nine ships when House and Senate lawmakers meet later this year to work out differences in the defense bill. He maintained that the Navy has a need for smaller ships that are fast, mobile and can get into shallower waters where destroyers and frigates can’t go.

"There’s a move to stop to them from decommissioning them and sell them to an ally who could use them — that way they’re not a complete waste," Rutherford said.

"I think we should keep them in our fleet, so we have that fleet mix that the Navy wants to have. Which is why they started this platform to begin with."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Lansing voted for Smith's amendment to retire all nine LCSs, despite feeling an emotional connection to the USS Detroit, she said.

Slotkin said Congress should let the Navy go forward with their request because forcing it to keep the ships comes at the expense of something else it needs.

"I see the desire to keep certain platforms that the military wants to retire as part of Congress putting parochial needs ahead of the needs of the country in preparing for 21st century threats," Slotkin said in an interview.

"So as much as I would love to always keep a ship called the USS Detroit, I see the bigger picture: That this is about preparing for — God forbid — if we to ever have to fight an adversary and making sure we have a modern military that can do that."

Rep. Jared Golden, a Maine Democrat, noted that lawmakers in committee struck a bipartisan compromise to increase the top line of the defense package by $37 billion. That deal included the provision saving five of the LCSs while allowing the retirement of four others. 

Golden agreed with Smith that "this is not a top priority program for the Navy" but said it's a shame to see the ships retired after so few years.

"I think Congress and our committee really need to crack down on this and do a better job with oversight over the Navy to make sure these programs are going to pan out to be worthy investments," Golden said.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisconsin, opposed Smith's amendment. He said the committee has asked the Navy to report back on how they can make the LCS more combat capable in the Indo-Pacific realm, including gearbox repairs and lethality upgrades to make it a "very" capable platform. 

"Why would we not allow them to come back with that plan, as opposed to proactively cutting Navy force structure?" Gallagher said. 

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, proposed an separate amendment to allow the retirement of all nine LCSs, directing any any cost savings be used to reduce the budget deficit. Her amendment was withdrawn because it was similar to Smith's, a Tlaib spokesman said.