WASHINGTON — Struggling to overcome nagging problems with its littoral combat ship, the Pentagon on Thursday announced that the Navy will upgrade the program and build a more lethal fighting vessel that can better survive today’s volatile security threats.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has approved the Navy’s plan to build a new small surface combatant ship, which will have better air defense radar and electronic warfare systems and improved sonar, torpedo defenses and armor protection.

The decision comes in the wake of persistent criticism about the cost and viability of the $34 billion littoral combat ship program, including design and construction problems and budget overruns. Earlier this year, Hagel cut the planned littoral ship buy from 52 to 32, and ordered a review of the program.

The so-called LCS ships were designed to be smaller, faster, more versatile and able to operate in littoral waters, which are more shallow and close to shore. They are comparable in size to a Coast Guard cutter. Hagel toured one of the ships, the USS Freedom, in June 2013, when he was in Singapore. The USS Freedom was first of the littoral ships to deploy overseas.

But critics, including a Congressional Research Service report issued last year, questioned whether the ships could withstand battle damage and whether they were sufficiently armed to perform their missions.

On Thursday, Hagel issued a statement saying the new small surface ship “will offer improvements in ship lethality and survivability, delivering enhanced naval combat performance at an affordable price.” Upgrading the littoral ship rather than developing a whole new ship design, he said, is the most cost effective option.


Hagel said the Navy will still buy a total of 52 ships, but it will be a mix of littoral combat ships and the new smaller surface vessels. The final numbers have not been determined.

Production of the new ship will begin no later than 2019.

An official at Maine’s Bath Iron Works said “it would be premature for us to speculate” about whether the shipyard would seek to be involved in the LCS program.

“We’ll continue to monitor the program as it progresses, however,” BIW spokesman Matt Wickenheiser said.

BIW was involved in designing one of the two versions of the LCS accepted by the Navy, but later severed ties with shipbuilder Austal USA in order to preserve BIW’s option to bid on building five of the ships in Maine. The Navy subsequently changed its procurement policy and awarded all of the ships to Alabama-based Austal and Marinette Marine Corp. in Wisconsin.

Earlier this year, however, the Navy awarded BIW a “planning yard” contract potentially worth $100 million that gives Bath lead responsibilities for handling maintenance, ship alteration design and other material support for the current littoral combat ships.

BIW builds destroyers for the Navy and is also competing for a Coast Guard cutter contract. BIW labor unions are contesting a proposal from BIW managers, however, to save money by outsourcing some work as it competes for the Coast Guard work and future Navy contracts.

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