* Ship’s commander lauds stability, speed
* Could be used for fighting pirates, many other missions
* Offers flexibility for future, company says (Adds Navy comment on unmanned mini-submarine, Lockheed ship)
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
MOBILE, Ala., Jan 5 (Reuters) - U.S. Navy Commander Curt Renshaw says the size, speed and stability of his new ship, the first General Dynamics Corp (GD.N) Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), make it ideal for a wide range of missions, including chasing down modern-day pirates.
The Navy is due to commission the USS Independence on Jan. 16, almost exactly four years after General Dynamics and its subcontractor, Australia’s Austal Ltd (ASB.AX), began work on the new shore-hugging warship at a new shipyard in Mobile.
Renshaw and a crew of 40 will move on board about two weeks after the commissioning, when the ship enters active service. They then plan to sail up the East Coast this spring after contractors finish correcting minor problems found during the ship’s acceptance trials in November.
Renshaw says the Navy has not yet assigned the ship a first mission, but fighting piracy could well be one of its jobs.
“I think we would be very capable to do that kind of mission,” he said, noting that the Navy had added a boarding capability to the ship’s surface warfare mission package.
Independence is a 419-foot (128-metre) trimaran, with a massive center hull and two side hulls that increase its stability and give it a 7,300-square-foot flight deck — nearly twice the size of that on the larger DDG-51 destroyer.
Renshaw said the side hulls make the aluminum ship more stable, even when making turns at high speeds using four big water jets, sort of like a giant jet ski.
“It is a jet ski,” he says with a laugh, leading reporters on Monday to peer over the back of the ship for a glimpse of the jets.
Built for use in coastal or littoral waters, the ship can reach sprint speeds of more than 45 knots (52 mph).
“The faster you go, the more stable it tends to get,” said Renshaw, who previously commanded the USS Patriot, a mine-clearing ship, off the coast of Japan.
Accepted by the Navy last month, Independence is one of two rival designs for a new class of more agile, cheaper warships.
Lockheed Martin Corp’s (LMT.N) first LCS ship, a more traditional monohull, went into service in late 2008 and has sailed more than 8,000 nautical miles. The USS Freedom is due to deploy for the first time this year, in the Caribbean and then in the East Pacific, two years earlier than planned.
Lockheed and General Dynamics are now locked in competition for 10 more ships after the Navy decided last year to proceed with just one version of the new ship.
The Navy is due to make that decision later this year, probably in July. Over time, it plans to buy a total of 55 LCS ships, which were initially seen costing just $220 million each, but now have a congressional cost cap of $460 million.
The current competition also includes electronic packages to run five more ships to be built by a second source after a separate competition in 2012, and is worth well more than $5 billion in the short run. It will essentially establish one or the other company as the key LCS supplier for the next decade.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said the General Dynamics ship had seemed to be trailing Lockheed’s vessel before recent sea trials, but its innovative three-hull design performed very well in tests.
“It looks like a fight to the finish between the two teams,” Thompson said.
The LCS ships were designed for three main missions — detecting mines, fighting smaller surface craft, and anti-submarine warfare. But the idea was always to make the ships more able to respond to changing military needs, such as anti-piracy, counter-narcotics and even disaster relief.
Interchangeable mission packages were delivered last year, but reliability issues prompted the Navy to drop a remotely piloted mini-submarine built by Lockheed from the anti-submarine module, said Navy spokesman Commander Victor Chen.
He said the decision to buy half the mini-subs initially increased the unit cost of the remaining vehicles and triggered a Pentagon review that could lead to its termination. He said the Navy was working closely with the Pentagon on the review, and with Lockheed to increase the sub’s reliability.
Renshaw said the Navy was still learning a great deal about the mission modules, and how to operate the new ships.
“There’s a lot of roles that this ship can play to complement the ships that we already have out there,” Renshaw said. Other ships might have more firepower, but lacked the speed of the LCS. Others could carry more and had a larger flight deck, but could not defend themselves as well.
The ship has an advanced computer system that allows the engines, weapons and other systems to be operated from anywhere on board, even from a laptop in Renshaw’s stateroom.
Carlo Zaffanella, vice president of the General Dynamics unit that designed the computer system, says senior officials leave tours impressed with the flexibility that the ship’s large size, ample flight deck and open electronic architecture will give the Navy to meet future warfighting needs.
“The overall importance of LCS is how ready it is to handle changes; not only the current requirements, but whatever comes up in the future,” said Zaffanella.
Both LCS models operate with far fewer crew members than earlier warships. They use satellite broadband connections to allow certain tasks — like keeping track of food stores on board — to be done more efficiently from shore, said Rear Admiral Jim Murdoch, the Navy’s LCS program manager.
The reduced crew size will be a major change for the Navy in coming years, and means that everyone on an LCS must essentially be able to do any job on board, Renshaw said.
It has also prompted some unusual ideas, he said, such as possibly using robotic vacuums like those built by iRobot (IRBT.O), freeing sailors for more important jobs. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Tim Dobbyn)