* Fast, agile and stealthy warship has 91 people on board
* Lockheed sees continued foreign interest from Asia, Middle East
* Navy says program doing well after early struggles
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, April 17 (Reuters) - The USS Freedom, the first of a new class of U.S. warships, is due to arrive in Singapore on Thursday for an eight-month stay that the ship’s builder, Lockheed Martin Corp hopes will stimulate foreign demand for the fast, agile and stealthy ship.
The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) left its home port of San Diego on March 1, stopping in Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines before heading to Singapore. The Navy plans to rotate four of the new LCS warships through Singapore in coming years.
The Navy plans to buy 52 of the new LCS warships in coming years at a cost of more than $30 billion for a range of missions, including surface warfare, minehunting and ant-submarine missions. It plans to buy some of Lockheed’s steel monohull design and some of an aluminum-hulled LCS trimaran design built by Australia’s Austal.
Top Navy officials underscored their commitment to the LCS program during a House of Representatives hearing on Tuesday, saying the program had overcome early problems and was on track to help the Navy reach its goal of a 300-ship fleet by 2019.
Navy Lieutenant Anthony Falvo, spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said the ship and a crew of 91 people would be welcomed in Singapore by the U.S. ambassador, David Adelman, as well as Colonel Timothy Lo, fleet commander of Singapore’s Navy.
He said the ship had completed a series of drills and milestones during the journey to Singapore. “The transit was great,” Falvo said. “She (the ship) performed very well.”
Joe North, who has run Lockheed’s LCS program since 2002, told Reuters that Lockheed was seeing continued interest in the ship from possible buyers in the Middle East and Asia, although he declined to name any specific countries.
“We’re hoping to see even a boost in that (demand) from the Asian market once Freedom has time to go show herself off,” North said in an interview. He said foreign sales of the ship were possible in fiscal 2014, with deliveries to follow in 2017.
North said Freedom’s journey to Singapore had also demonstrated the ship’s integrated logistics system, which tracked and monitored parts to ensure that any problems could be corrected quickly.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert highlighted the new parts monitoring system during his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, saying it would be particularly helpful in a region like the Pacific, where distances are so great.
“When we use the concept of operation of these ships in the future, we will have to have a network of logistics to respond very quickly to have the right parts in the right place because the crews are small,” he said.
Freedom’s first operational deployment was in the Caribbean, where the ship participated in four drug busts and captured a total of five tons of cocaine. It has also traveled to Hawaii and back, but this is the ship’s first longer-term mission.
North said the ship performed well during the trip, although there were several issues involving the ship’s four Isotta Fraschini power generators built by Italy’s Fincantieri.
He said Lockheed was working with the supplier to improve the reliability of the generators.
“We had a lot of early struggles to get a new class of ship together and get the program up and running. I’ve seen lows, I’ve seen highs, and this is probably the best it gets,” North said, adding that despite early cost and technical challenges the ship was operating well just eight years after its start.
He said LCS-3, the second ship built by Lockheed, had just completed its final builders trial and was preparing to enter drydock in San Diego to correct some issues and get a fresh coat of paint.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told lawmakers on Tuesday he was “absolutely confident” that LCS would be “one of the backbones of our fleet for years and years to come.”
The Pentagon’s fiscal 2014 budget calls for $2.4 billion to buy four LCS ships, two each from Lockheed and Austal. The Navy has agreements to buy 10 ships from each firm through 2015, with a fresh competition for additional orders to follow later.
“The LCS program today is one of our very best programs,” Mabus said. “It’s coming in under budget. It’s coming in on schedule. And it’s coming in with capabilities that we have to have.”