WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday he is seeking cuts to a Navy combat ship program that is linked with thousands of jobs in Wisconsin.
Hagel said at a press conference that he plans to limit an order of littoral combat ships to 32 total vessels — 20 fewer than had been planned. The ships are built in Marinette, Wis., and Mobile, Ala.
"I am concerned that the Navy is relying too heavily on the (littoral combat ship) to achieve its long-term goals for ship numbers," Hagel said. "Therefore, no new contract negotiations beyond 32 ships will go forward."
Hagel said the Navy needed to examine whether littoral ships had the "independent protection and firepower to operate and survive against a more advanced military adversary and emerging new technologies."
He said that was particularly important in the Asia-Pacific region.
Trimming the number of ships on order by nearly 40 percent would have a disproportionate impact on Wisconsin. Marinette is one of two locations where the ships are built. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin builds a version of the ship through the Marinette Marine Corp. based in the northern Wisconsin city of Marinette. Roughly 2,000 jobs are linked directly with the program.
Hagel said littoral ships were designed "to perform certain missions, such as minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare, in a relatively permissive environment."
Local lawmakers have fiercely resisted cuts to the program in the past. Earlier this month, both of Wisconsin's senators — Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Ron Johnson — signed on to a letter with four other senators urging President Barack Obama to avoid cuts to the littoral combat ship.
"Tens of thousands of hardworking Americans have jobs that depend on the continued construction of these valuable ships," the letter, sent Feb. 4, read. "The failure to produce all 52 Littoral Combat Ships would significantly reduce the size of our fleet, set back the Navy's shipbuilding program for decades, and thus damage America's national security. Truncating this important program would also harm our recovering economy."
Congress would have to approve the proposed cuts in its budget process. Obama is expected to submit his budget for fiscal year 2015 to Congress next week.
Hagel's comments about the littoral ships came after a broader speech in which he outlined a broad vision for a smaller military. He said the Pentagon should be focused on maintaining a technological edge and being agile in the face of new threats.
"Overall, the Navy's fleet will be significantly modernized under our plan," Hagel said.