WASHINGTON — Over two days in May, a bizarre scene played out in Washington involving the U.S. Navy’s controversial littoral combat ship program and the fiscal year 2018 budget request.
On May 23, the U.S. Navy rolled out its 2018 budget request that included one littoral combat ship, or LCS. The logic was that since Congress had given the Navy three in fiscal year 2017, an additional one would keep both builders — Wisconsin-based Marinette Marine and Alabama-based Austal USA — afloat.
But inside the White House, alarm bells went off in some sectors. Peter Navarro, the head of U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade and industrial policy office, was looking at information indicating one ship could trigger layoffs at both shipyards. Those concerns were shared by senior Trump aides Rick Dearborn and Stephen Miller — both old hands of long-time Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — and together they lobbied and prevailed upon Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to add a second ship to the request.
The White House estimated that one ship in 2018 could trigger more than 1,000 layoffs between Marinette and Austal — not a good look for an administration that rode a populist wave into office months earlier on a message of preserving and growing the manufacturing and industrial sectors, and who flipped Wisconsin red for the first time since 1984.
Concerns were mounting that continuing a tepid buying strategy could even lead to the closure of one or both shipyards ahead of the Navy’s planned shift from LCS to a new, more deadly frigate by the end of 2020.
“Maintaining the industrial base was really the sole consideration,” said a source familiar with the White House deliberations.
On the morning of May 24, acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley testified to the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee that the Navy was asking for the one LCS as the “minimum sustaining” amount to keep the shipyards viable. But by that afternoon, acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy Research, Development and Acquisition Allison Stiller testified to the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee that the…