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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Increasing pressure on the overall U.S. defense budget means the Navy must focus even more buying flexible and affordable weapons systems that can adapt to changing threats and needs, the Navy's top officer said.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, calling himself "a capacity guy," said his top priority was to proceed with plans to buy dozens of smaller, relatively inexpensive littoral combat ships (LCS) to expand the Navy fleet from 287 to 313 and meet growing demand for naval forces.
He said he was also focused on cutting costs across the board, which means reining in any efforts to add new "bells or whistles" to existing programs, streamlining maintenance and keeping the new F-35 fighter jet development program on track.
Roughead declined to comment on the Navy's budget for fiscal year 2011, which begins October 1, but said shaping the budget was always "a tough drill" given competing demands. "You always want to be able to do more, but I'm not dissatisfied."
Industry executives are anxiously awaiting the fiscal 2011 Pentagon budget on February 1, amid signs that defense spending is beginning to flatten out after eight years of strong growth.
Roughead said the flexibility and affordability of weapons systems would be the key to their future success, especially given mounting demand for naval forces.
"The stuff that we buy is going to be around for a long time so we need to get as much flexibility out of it," Roughead said during a trip to Alabama to commission a new aluminum three-hulled ship built by General Dynamics Corp, the second of two competing designs for the new class of warships.
Roughead lauded what he called the "eye-watering" performance of both the General Dynamics vessel, and a more traditional steel monohull design built by Lockheed Martin Corp that entered service in September 2008.
Both ships will revolutionize Navy operations since they have a smaller crew and carry interchangeable packages that will allow them to rapidly switch missions, including hunting for mines or enemy submarines, or providing disaster relief.
Roughead said he was pressing the Navy to award a contract to one of the teams as soon as possible. "It doesn't make any difference to me if it's the LCS-1 design or the LCS-2 design. I've seen enough of both that I'm satisfied. Now it's about getting the cost down and getting the numbers."
He said the LCS concept of modular mission sets would be used in future ship designs, although few new programs are likely to start development in coming years. For instance, work on new command and control ship will not begin until next decade.
Roughead said he was already exploring ways to use an LCS-type approach on new DDG-51 destroyers the Navy will build after truncating its more expensive DDG-1000 destroyer. Sending those ships out with one helicopter instead of two would leave space for a separate interchangeable mission set, he said.
The Navy is also looking at putting payload tubes on its Virginia-class submarines, which would allow them to perform more missions and make them more flexible, Roughead said.
"If you can give me 20 ships that can do 80 percent of what four ships can do, I'll go for the 20," said Roughead, who became the Navy's top uniformed officer in September 2007.
The Navy needed self restraint and more of a "good enough" approach rather than continuing to chase technology, he said, adding that maintaining a highly skilled shipbuilding workforce was as important to U.S. national security as the ships themselves.
Roughead said a greater focus on smaller ships like LCS and a new Joint High Speed Vessel built by Australia's Austal in Mobile, would help the military respond to changing threats and needs, such as the Haiti earthquake.
Given budget concerns, it made sense for now to continue building DDG-51 destroyers, rather than embarking on a costly program to develop a new cruiser, he said, adding that new programs should be based on common hulls to save money.
He said he also remained a strong proponent of amphibious ships, two of which are en route to Haiti to help with the recovery effort, saying they offered just the kind of flexibility the Navy and Marine Corps needed.
Roughead said he also continued to look for other ways to save money and overhead on weapons, including talks with the Air Force on combining separate program offices for the Global Hawk unmanned plane built by Northrop Grumman Corp.
At the same time, he said it was critical to keep the pressure on the $300 billion Lockheed F-35 fighter jet program, which is developing three separate variants for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps and has seen its costs rise.
The Navy expects to spend more than $20 million each to upgrade its existing F-18 fighters to bridge the time until the carrier variant of the F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter, is available.
He declined to comment when asked if the Navy could decide to buy fewer F-35s if problems emerged with that program, saying only: "I think the most important thing is that we stay focused and keep the pressure on getting the JSF."
Editing by Maureen Bavdek