(Adds details on separate Austal ship)
WASHINGTON, April 1 Both the Lockheed Martin Corp and Austal versions of the U.S. Navy's new coastal warship performed well in a major war game last week and surprised some "enemies" with their capabilities, a top Navy admiral said on Tuesday.
Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, director of surface warfare for the Navy, said the war game held at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island underscored the effectiveness of the new smaller warships in potential future conflicts, even in deeper waters.
"This is going to be a force to be reckoned with," Rowden told reporters on a teleconference, noting that U.S. Navy officials went home after the weeklong exercises with a new appreciation for the Navy's newest class of warships.
"The LCS represents a new tool in the tool box," he added.
The war game was planned long before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Navy to reassess its plans to buy 52 of the new smaller warships, and launch a study on what it would take to make give the ships better protection and more firepower.
A small group of military officials is studying the issue in a secluded office outside the Pentagon, with results due back by July 31 in time to inform the fiscal 2016 budget debate.
A Navy task force is studying options for meeting a requirement for 52 small surface combatants, including buying more of the current LCS ships, modifying them, or switching to a new design, all with a focus on affordability.
A separate advisory group, chaired by Rowden and Allison Stiller, deputy assistant secretary of Navy for ships, is also looking at the issue.
Rowden said pairing the smaller Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) with larger guided missile destroyers increased their ability to survive enemy attacks and sharply increased the Navy's ability to hunt for enemy submarines.
Rowden said the LCS ships were "played" using a new missile with a 120-mile (193-km) range that officials believe will be available for use on the ships in the mid-2020s.
Navy officials were also able to "confuse the enemy" by using Joint High Speed Vessels, smaller U.S. ships also built by Australia's Austal, to supply the LCS ships and move them around the shallow waters of the western Pacific region, he said.
He said the war game - which involved 32 LCS ships and a broad range of other ships, fighter jets and other U.S. military equipment - showed how changing the concept of operations to pair up ships during a battle could be an affordable alternative to adding air defense equipment to the LCS ships.
The ability of the LCS ships to switch equipment and take on new missions, or modularity, proved helpful in some circumstances during the game, Rowden said.
Over 800 pages of notes from the war game will be analyzed over the next two months with conclusions likely to be released in mid- to late May, Rowden told reporters.
He said Austal's aluminum trimaran LCS design had "a little bit longer legs" and proved more advantageous on the open ocean, while Lockheed's steel monohull design was more effective in areas closer to shore. (Editing by Eric Walsh)