"Plug-and-Play" Ship Hits the Water

Navy Captain Don Babcock was in a hurry, when I met him earlier this year, in his office, tucked in a red-brick battleship shell factory along the Potomac River. Most people is his position, running big military development programs, tend to think in deadlines of approximates: a funding decision will come some time in the next few weeks, a test will happen some time in the spring, a system will be fielded in fiscal year 2009 - or was that 2010? Babcock, on the other hand, had a big, digital clock on his wall, detailing the exact number of days, minutes, hours, and seconds until his first Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, would be commissioned.LCS_christening-6_thumb.jpgThe restless attitude seems to be paying off. The first LCS -- the "Freedom" -- was christened on Sunday. And that's a pretty major milestone for the Navy. Because the LCS is much, much different than anything in the American fleet today. Unlike the Navy's new DD(X) destroyer, the Freedom didn't cost billions to put together. And it's not planned for 1000 different kinds of missions, as a I noted in a Popular Mechanics article earlier this year:Instead, each LCS will concentrate on a specific coastal mission: antisub warfare, mine clearance or ship-to-ship fights. Every LCS comes with a core crew of 40 and a weapons suite that includes a 57mm gun and missile interceptors. The boat is then customized with "mission modules" -- 40-ft. cargo containers, crammed with sonar arrays for sub-hunting, unmanned helicopters for surface warfare or robotic swimmers for minesweeping. The modules can be swapped out in less than a day. Then a second crew of about 35 comes on board to run the new machines. If the DD(X) is a 14,000-ton Swiss Army knife, then the LCS is a 3000-ton power drill-with interchangeable bits. "We're making a huge course change in the way we do business," Babcock says...With a top speed of 45 knots or more, the LCSs will be fast enough to chase down terrorists in small boats. They're stealthy enough for effective reconnaissance. And, at about $400 million each, fully loaded -- about a tenth of the new destroyer's price -- the LCS is affordable enough for the Navy to send dozens of them skipping around the seas. It's a distributed, fast-moving response to a distributed, fast-moving foe. Now, there a still a bunch of question marks surrounding the program. The basic shape, for instance. The Freedom looks like a speedboat on steriods. The second LCS, the Independence, will be a 419-foot trimaran. But the idea of building a cheap, adaptable, plug-and-play fleet that's future-proofed for uncertain times looks like a winner. And, unlike so many other Pentagon projects these days, the Littoral Combat Ship looks like it just might happen on time.UPDATE 2:54 PM: Interesting: the Saudis want to buy the trimaran LCS... but with a stronger radar, and a whole lot more guns.UPDATE 09/26/06 9:51 PM: Check out this sa-weeet video of the LCS being launched.(Big ups: JH, TW)

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