By Eric Lipton
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The 387-foot-long warships tied up at the Jacksonville Navy base were acclaimed as some of the most modern in the United States fleet: nimble, superfast vessels designed to operate in coastal waters and hunt down enemy submarines, destroy anti-ship mines and repel attacks from small boats, like those often operated by Iran.
But the Pentagon last year made a startling announcement: Eight of the 10 Freedom-class littoral combat ships now based in Jacksonville and another based in San Diego would be retired, even though they averaged only four years old and had been built to last 25 years.
The decision came after the ships, built in Wisconsin by Fincantieri Marinette Marine in partnership with Lockheed Martin, suffered a series of humiliating breakdowns, including repeated engine failures and technical shortcomings in an anti-submarine system intended to counter China’s growing naval capacity.
“We refused to put an additional dollar against that system that wouldn’t match the Chinese undersea threat,” Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told Senate lawmakers.
The Navy estimated that the move would save $4.3 billion over the next five years, money that Admiral Gilday said he would rather spend on missiles and other firepower needed to prepare for potential wars. Having ships capable of fulfilling the military mission, he argued, was much more important than the Navy’s total ship count.
Then the lobbying started.
A consortium of players with economic ties to the ships — led by a trade association whose members had just secured contracts worth up to $3 billion to do repairs and supply work on them — mobilized to pressure Congress to block the plan, with phone calls, emails and visits to Washington to press lawmakers to intervene.
“Early decommissioning of littoral combat ships at Mayport Naval Station would result in the loss of more than 2,000 direct jobs in Jacksonville,” a coalition of business leaders from the Florida city wrote last summer.
The effort targeted members of Congress who represent communities with large Navy stations and have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the same military contractors that help maintain and operate these ships. They included Representative Rob Wittman, Republican of Virginia, who represents the Hampton Roads area, home to the world’s largest naval facility.
Within weeks, lawmakers offered amendments to the 2023 Pentagon spending authorization law that prohibited the Navy from retiring four of the eight ships in Jacksonville and the one in San Diego.
“These ships are not perfect — no new class of ship is,” said Representative John Rutherford, Republican of Florida, who represents the Jacksonville area and introduced one of the amendments after a meeting with a delegation of Florida officials who had flown to Washington to protest the Navy’s decision. “But they are fulfilling operational needs as we speak.”
In December, the amendments were adopted as part of the spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden, stymieing the Pentagon’s wishes by allowing only four of the nine targeted ships to be retired.
“Lawmakers are acting like hoarders and forcing the services to keep stuff they don’t want and need,” said Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a conservative group that seeks to limit government spending. “This is more about parochial concerns than defense priorities.”
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Lobbying campaigns built around the economic impact of strategic decisions about weapons systems are a longstanding tactic, but they have taken on new importance as the United States reshapes the military to defend against an ascendant China and a more aggressive Russia.
The Freedom-class ships were first conceived of after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as part of an effort to combat nontraditional threats. They ended up costing more than twice what had been expected, about $500 million per ship, compared with an early estimate of $220 million. It had taken a dozen years longer than expected to get them operational, at which point the Navy’s war-fighting needs had shifted back to countering global rivals.
The Navy and Lockheed are still negotiating how much the contractors should have to pay to resolve design flaws in the ships’ propulsion systems.
But having largely won the battle, at least for now, to keep the Freedom-class ships operational, the contractors who built them have already returned to promoting a new class of vessels with an even higher price tag.
Fincantieri has already started work on the first of 20 new ships that will be known as the Constellation-class frigate, a $1.1 billion vessel that will eventually replace the troubled Freedom-class ships.
“Now let’s deliver the frigates,” Robert Tullar, a sales executive at Fincantieri, said during a Navy conference last month.
A Failed Mission
Cmdr. Brad Long was on the bridge of the U.S.S. Little Rock on what was to be its maiden military mission. The Freedom-class ship and its crew of 110 were heading out to help Central and South American nations combat drug trafficking and other illicit activity.
It was a proud moment for him and his crew, a chance to show off the strengths of their new ship. It was designed to travel in shallow, near-shore (littoral) waters, and to go as fast as about 50 miles an hour, an extraordinary speed for a warship.
The vessel was also equipped with an armed MH-60S Seahawk helicopter and an autonomous helicopter, known as a MQ-8 Fire Scout, which could provide surveillance of any drug traffickers in nearby waters.
“You are sitting up there and it was kind of amazing,” said Commander Long, now retired, recalling the moment they set out on the deployment in early 2020, after more than two years of training and preparation. “Just how fast you were going and how smooth.”
But the dream began to crumble as the ship approached the Panama Canal, Commander Long said in an interview, detailing the sequence of events publicly for the first time since he left the Navy in late 2021.
First, the ship’s diesel generators started to malfunction, and the ship briefly lost electric power. The littoral combat ships were built to be operated by a relatively small crew, and did not carry sailors to fix complicated mechanical issues. So Commander Long decided to head back to the Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the ship sat for about a month waiting for repairs.
An even more complicated issue had emerged with the ship’s radar system — meaning it could not target its guns or look for incoming air threats. A contractor repair team was flown from Germany to Cuba, but the necessary fix was so complex that the Navy decided to send the U.S.S. Little Rock back to Mayport.
And that is when an even bigger problem surfaced.
Commander Long was in his cabin near the bridge when a crew member brought him a sample of the ship’s engine oil. Instead of the caramel-colored, slippery stuff that lubricates the gears, the oil looked like it had been mixed with silvery glitter. The oil was polluted, it turned out, with specks of metal from high-speed clutch bearingsof the gears that had broken into tiny bits.
The ship had lost half its engine power — and it had to limp back home.
The Navy soon confirmed that the gear system failure was a design flaw in the Freedom class, meaning all of the vessels then based at Mayport. (A second version of the littoral ships, known as the Independence class, is also in service but has fewer problems.) Engine failure reports were filed on 10 of the 11 deployments these ships were sent on, according to a report last year by the Government Accountability Office examining both classes of the ships.
The final insult came early last year, when the Navy concluded that a towed sonar system developed for the littoral combat ships by Raytheon Technologies, another major military contractor, was not up to the job.
Raytheon had already produced a promotional video featuring this sonar system, nicknamed DART, as it and a second device tracked down an enemy submarine. “Target acquired, launching torpedo,” the video’s narrator says, before the enemy submarine is shown as it is blowing up and sinking.
But in real life, the Pentagon found that engines on the Freedom-class ships were so loud that they handicapped the ability to detect enemy submarines. The Raytheon sonar system itself also swerved erratically as it was dragged from the ship at high speeds.
As a result, the Pentagon said last year, the ship’s most vital mission — hunting submarines — would be abandoned.
Since the ship had been conceived in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks as a “street fighter” to confront less sophisticated enemies from rogue states, according to an official Pentagon history of the vessel, it was built with less extensive protective armor than typical warships. As a result, it is more vulnerable to anti-ship missiles or mines of the sort that it might confront in a conflict with enemies like China. It also is a “gas hog” at its top speed, limiting its range.
As the threat from China rose, doubts intensified within the Pentagon about the value of the littoral combat ships, with some even giving them a new nickname: little crappy ship.
“We need a capable, lethal-ready Navy more than we need a larger Navy that’s less capable, less lethal, and less ready,” Admiral Gilday told a Senate committee. “Those ships, relative to others, just didn’t bring the war-fighting value to the fight.”
Asked about the ships’ troubles, Mark Vandroff, the chief executive of Fincantieri Marinette Marine and a retired Navy captain who served in the Trump White House, referred questions to Lockheed, the primary contractor on the project.
Patrick W. McNally, a spokesman for Lockheed — when also asked what went wrong— said that the company was “proud of our longstanding partnership with the United States Navy,” and was working with the Navy to “deliver aﬀordable capability improvements.”
The lobbying campaign to block the retirement of the ships started with a burst of phone calls to Capitol Hill, local officials in Jacksonville, and the Navy’s ship-maintenance division. Orchestrating the appeals was Tim Spratto, the general manager at the sprawling Jacksonville shipyard for BAE Systems, which in 2021 had won part of a Navy contract worth as much as $1.3 billion to do repairs on the troubled Freedom-class vessels.
Mr. Spratto, who joined BAE after a nearly two-decade Navy career, also serves as the president of a local trade group representing the Jacksonville yards. He started his pitch with a call to the office of Mr. Rutherford, Republican of Florida, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
“He is a great friend of the shipyard,” Mr. Spratto said in an interview. “He carries the water for us.”
A delegation of business leaders from Jacksonville headed to the airport for a “fly-in” to Capitol Hill for a series of meetings with lawmakers including Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, and Representative Jack Bergman, Republican of Michigan, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Those gatherings were set up by the lobbying firm run by Brian Ballard, a top Republican fund-raiser with close ties to former President Donald J. Trump.
Other industry players joined in, targeting key House lawmakers in Virginia where work on the littoral combat ships is also performed. Letters, emails and other appeals, including opinion pieces in trade magazines, began to pour in.
“Don’t give up the ship,” Tony Parisi, the retired Navy captain, wrote in an opinion piece for Breaking Defense, a trade publication, citing the War of 1812 warning from a Navy captain, James Lawrence, as his ship was sinking.
Mr. Parisi did not mention that he was part of the team at General Dynamics that trains the crews that operate the littoral combat ships at Naval Station Mayport.
One Fincantieri executive, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said he was instructed to be careful not to be too public about the campaign, given that they were also trying to convince the Navy to buy its new class of ships as replacements.
Soon enough, several lawmakers, including Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Wittman, were introducing amendments to block the retirement of all or at least some of the ships, even as other lawmakers, mostly Democrats, pushed to allow the Pentagon to retire all nine ships.
“If the LCS was a car sold in America today, they would be deemed lemons, and the automakers would be sued into oblivion,” Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, told her House colleagues in June. (She has since retired.) “The only winners have been the contractors on which the Navy relies for sustaining these ships.”
There remains a great deal of pride in these ships among those who work on and around them, as was apparent during a visit last month to the Mayport base near Jacksonville.
The Little Rock and six other littoral combat ships were tied up there, with teams of Navy sailors working and in some cases living on the ships. The Little Rock — one of the ships now slated for retirement — still has not been out for its second deployment since the failed trip in 2020. During sea trials early last year that followed 19 months of repairs, the Little Rock’s engines broke down again.
But U.S.S. Sioux City, another of the Freedom-class ships that is slated for decommissioning, spent five months last year on a deployment that took it a total of 31,000 miles through waters around Europe and as far as the Gulf of Oman, while it did training exercises with foreign allies. It was proof, Navy officers and backers of the ships said, that the ships should be saved.
“I’d love to see us keep all the ships,” said Captain David Miller, the commander of the Florida-based littoral combat ship squadron, said in an interview. “We have stuff we can do with all the ships.”
Mr. Wittman, who helped lead the effort to save the ships, is one of the biggest recipients of campaign contributions from military contractors and their employees, including many from companies that help build, equip or maintain these ships, such as Lockheed, Raytheon and General Dynamics.
In an interview, Mr. Wittman said that the lobbying from the ship repair contractors had played a role in his efforts.
“I can’t tell you whether it’s a predominant factor,” he said in January, while at a conference sponsored by Fincantieri and other shipbuilding companies in Virginia. “But I can tell you it was a factor.”
Fincantieri, the builder of the Freedom-class ships, has not suffered from the squabble over the ships it built.
Its Wisconsin shipyard is still building the Navy’s last Freedom-class littoral combat ship while also starting work on the new $1.1 billion Constellation-class ship that will replace it.
“When you’re a ship builder, your goal is to build the ship that the Navy tells you to build,” Mr. Vandroff, Fincantieri’s chief executive, said in an interview as dozens of Navy commanders, midshipmen and others were assembled in front of him at the Surface Navy Association conference in Virginia to grab a glass of Prosecco and some Wisconsin cheese. “What the Navy chooses to do with it — that is their choice.”
John Ismay contributed reporting