Color me Cynical – Letting Politics Outweigh Value in Shipbuilding


By Joseph Stark, Vice President Engineering, TotalTek

Over the past 20 years, what is apparent to me is that repeatedly the U.S. Department of Defense, aligned with our elected federal officials, has prioritized politics over experience, value, and quality when making major shipbuilding acquisition decisions. Like the decisions made regarding the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC), contract awards for major programs can depend on how much influence a state’s congressperson has or if a “swing” state is considered vital for an incumbent’s re-election. Elected politicians believe that if they play (or are perceived to play) a role in having a major job-producing defense contract awarded to their state, their re-election prospects improve. This is a long-standing and entrenched dilemma when the wrong decisions not only waste billions of dollars but also increase risks for our soldiers and sailors. You don’t have to look far for evidence of costly boondoggles.

In 2010 the U.S. Navy had a major decision to make regarding the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Two companies/shipbuilding yards had each built two prototypes of their version of the LCS. The plan was to select one variant from either Lockheed Martin’s Freedom Class to be built in Marinette, WI or Austal USA’s Independence Class to be built in Mobile AL. Instead “the Navy” (and I use that term loosely), decided to have each yard continue building their variants – sixteen ships each. Ultimately, the Navy planned to purchase 52 of the ships.

Maintaining two classes of ships overburdened the Navy. Operational problems plagued the program from the start. One of the ship types had major propulsion system flaws rendering it inoperable. This was just a harbinger of what was to come. The Navy anticipated the cost for each ship at $220 million. In 2016 the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated the cost per ship for the first 32 at approximately $655 million or almost three times the original estimate. Over almost two decades the Navy spent $30 billion on 35 ships. As of 2018 just 16 of these ships were in service, four were test ships, six were training ships and just six were deployable.

The Navy is now requesting that most of the Freedom Class be decommissioned as they are too difficult to operate and maintain – annually costing about $50 million in support costs. This is just one example of how politically motivated decisions that anticipate a reward in the form of local voters’ support take precedence over the nation’s best interests.

Here’s another recent example – one with a candid admission. In 2020 Fincantieri Marinette Marine of Marinette, WI was awarded the $1.3 billion FFG(X) guided missile frigate program. At the time it was widely thought that the award was driven by the backlog at other shipyards and that this award would keep the Marinette yard working. This was an important political factor given the state’s standing as a swing state in the upcoming presidential election. Suspicions about the motivation for the award were confirmed during a speech by the President of the United States at the shipyard. After reading aloud how these frigates were to be the “fastest, most advanced, and most maneuverable combat ships anywhere on the ocean,” he went off-script to add: “I hear the maneuverability is one of the big factors that you were chosen for the contract. The other is your location in Wisconsin if you want to know the truth.” To me, that translates into, “Wisconsin is an important swing states and I’ll need your votes in the upcoming election.” The vote-getting ploy didn’t work but the potential damage to the nation’s best interests from this tactic could be significant and long-lasting. This isn’t to say Fincantieri’s program was a poor choice, or that it is destined to fail. The ship it is modeled after, the FREMM, is an excellent warship. I mean only to suggest that the decision wasn’t based on the right factors, as suggested by President Trump and others.

Going forward I am going to cling to the perhaps naïve perspective that when it comes to spending taxpayers’ dollars and assuring that our military has the best equipment we can give them, quality needs to matter more than where the votes are located. We have a long way to go to get to this point. For this to change we can’t be complacent. What can we all do? Call or write your elected officials and make them aware of the magnitude of the waste we incur when defense spending decisions are based on political outcomes rather than on what’s in our nation’s best interests. Also, we need to choose leaders who are willing to place the effectiveness of our military and the well being of the men and women in service above their own political interests.

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