By Philip Taubman
The New York Times
With the crack of a Champagne bottle against its bow, the newly minted Navy warship, bedecked with bunting, slid sideways into the Menominee River in Wisconsin with a titanic splash.
Moments before the launching on Sept. 23, 2006, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chief of naval operations, told the festive crowd of shipbuilders, politicians and Navy brass assembled at the Marinette Marine shipyard, “Just a little more than three years ago, she was just an idea; now Freedom stands before us.”
Not quite. The ship — the first of a new class of versatile, high-speed combat vessels designed to operate in coastal waters — was indeed bobbing in the river, just four months after the promised launching date. But it was far from finished. In fact, the ship floats there still, work continuing day and night.
A project heralded as the dawning of an innovative, low-cost era in Navy shipbuilding has turned into a case study of how not to build a combat ship. The bill for the ship, being built by Lockheed Martin, has soared to $531 million, more than double the original, and by some calculations could be $100 million more. With an alternate General Dynamics prototype similarly struggling at an Alabama shipyard, the Navy last year temporarily suspended the entire program.
The program’s tribulations speak to what military experts say are profound shortcomings in the Pentagon’s acquisitions system. Even as spending on new projects has risen to its highest point since the Reagan years, being over budget and behind schedule have become the norm: a recent Government Accountability Office audit found that 95 projects — warships, helicopters and satellites — were delayed 21 months on average and cost 26 percent more than initially projected, a bill of $295 billion.
In a narrow sense, the troubled birth of the coastal ships was rooted in the Navy’s misbegotten faith in a feat of maritime alchemy: building a hardened warship by adapting the design of a high-speed commercial ferry. As Representative Gene Taylor, the Mississippi Democrat who leads the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces, put it, “Thinking these ships could be built to commercial specs was a dumb move.” (end of excerpt)
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