UPDATE 1-US Navy commissions newest warship, others coming

Sat Jan 16, 2010 5:16pm EST

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* "Looks like something out of Star Wars"

* Wants contract for next ships as soon as possible (Adds quotes and details from ceremony)

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

MOBILE, Alabama, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy commissioned its newest warship on Saturday, a 379-feet (115.5- metre) aluminum three-hulled vessel built by General Dynamics Corp (GD.N), one of two designs vying for billions of dollars of follow-on orders.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead told reporters as he traveled to the ceremony that the new class of fast, flexible shallow-water warships would be useful for a wide range of missions, including responding to humanitarian disasters like the earthquake in Haiti.

Roughead said the first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) built by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), a more traditional steel monohull ship which is in Norfolk, Virginia, awaiting deployment to the Caribbean, could be used to quickly move supplies from the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, Cuba, to Haiti.

"Right now we're working a lot of different options, but if the LCS would be of value in Haiti, then that's where it's going to be," Roughead said, noting the ship's shallow draft made it well-suited to bolster the U.S. military effort there.

Regardless of which design wins, the Littoral Combat Ships will dramatically shift the way the Navy will operate, featuring interchangeable mission packages to hunt for mines, fight pirates or other enemies in small boats, or track enemy submarines -- depending on what is needed at the time.

If he had more of the new ships -- which carry manned and unmanned helicopters -- already available, they would be deployed like a "swarm of bees" around Haiti, Roughead said.

Independence, whose namesake was commissioned in 1776, was the second of a new "revolutionary" class of ships because of its small crew size and the modular, interchangeable combat systems it will carry, Roughead told the ship's crew and hundreds of guests who braved the pouring rain to attend the ceremony on the dock in Mobile.

"It is truly unique in the world," Roughead said, telling reporters later, "It doesn't even look like a ship. It looks like something out of Star Wars to me."

The ships have a core crew of just 40 people, part of the Navy's drive to cut the number and cost of people aboard its ships. Even adding in a mission package and air crew, the staffing will be just 78 -- far less than comparable ships .

The Navy expects to release around Jan 22 a final request for proposals for the competition between General Dynamics and Lockheed, whose first LCS ship was commissioned in late 2008.

The contract, valued at well over $5 billion, will be 10 ships at a rate of two each year over the next five years, as well as the computer system to run five more ships. The Navy plans to buy a total of 55 of the faster, more agile ships.

Roughead said he was pleased with LCS, and said it was critical to his plan to increase the size of the U.S. Navy to 313 ships from 287.

He said he was pressing Navy officials to award a contract for the next batch of LCS ships "as soon as we possibly can" after allowing industry to review the terms of the competition and submitting their bids. (Editing by Philip Barbara)

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