There are a lot of unknowns and unanswered questions about the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship, but Lockheed Martin company officials effectively put up their hands Tuesday and said "Hey -- not our problem, guys."
The leaders did not use those words, of course, but they were eager to make clear that from Lockheed's perspective as the builder of the Freedom class, everything is going smoothly. The first LCS soon will finally and formally join the fleet. Lockheed's second ship, the USS Fort Worth, is doing its early sea trials. Its third ship, the Milwaukee, has 17 of its 46 construction modules under construction. Its fourth ship, the Detroit, has three of 46 under construction.
(The ships are built in blocks, like giant Lego sets, then side-launched into the Menominee River.)
Lockheed vice president George Barton expects the Navy to award two more hulls this year, and then right on through until it completes its first batch of 10 ships. Austal USA, down in Mobile, Ala., has a contract to build a parallel run of its aluminum Independence-class design.
But Lockheed can't speak for Austal and it can't speak for the Navy. It can't speak for the other contractors whose products are part of the ships' interchangeable mission equipment. All it's focused on, officials said, is getting into the sweet spot of serial production that was always supposed to be a key advantage for LCS, driving out as much cost and time as possible on subsequent hulls.
Starting with LCS 5, the Milwaukee, the design for the class is "done, locked and stable," said Lockheed's VP for ships, Joe North. So the design changes that plagued the Freedom as it was being built should theoretically be a thing of the past. "From 5 on ... these ships are cookie cutter," North said. Lockheed hopes the shipyard in Marinette, Wisc., should be able to get into a rhythm and just start cranking them out, increasing the company's margin with each saved dollar and each day less than the ship before.
One key difference between the Freedom and its successors is the corrosion resistance build into the ships' "waterborne mission zone," the stern compartment where sailors launch and recover boats and their trademark maritime robots. North said based on the Navy's experience with standing water and rust in the Freedom, the subsequent ships will have better coatings and other improvements to help crews fight rust.
The other, larger issues remain, of course: LCS remains a heavy fuel user, especially at high speeds. It still does not have a long-term surface-to-surface missile with which to defend itself or support troops ashore. Its mission modules may or may not materialized as planned. The Navy still needs to scale up the small, experienced crewing it has used on the early ships to a full fleet scale. The ships still need to do a no-kidding deployment somewhere.
But from Lockheed's perspective, the program is getting into a sweet spot, and it clearly wants to keep that going for as long as it can. If the Navy can keep its ambitions for 55 or more LCSes through the big crunch, Lockheed's early heartache on the ships may wind up paying off handsomely.