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Lockheed delivers LCS 3 to Navy ahead of schedule

The Navy accepted delivery of the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth on Wednesday, and praised contractor Lockheed Martin for the high quality of its second LCS.

"Fort Worth showed significant improvement during her trials when compared to the first ship of the class, USS Freedom," said the Navy's program executive officer for Littoral Combat Ships, Rear Adm. James Murdoch, in a statement.

"We've had two years to operate Freedom at sea, identifying typical, first-of-class deficiencies, learning lessons on her design and rolling those lessons into Fort Worth. That experience, plus the introduction of improved construction processes and shipbuilder facilities, greatly benefitted Fort Worth."

In its own statement, Lockheed proudly announced that it had signed over the Fort Worth about two months ahead of schedule, and promised that it would continue to drive cost and time out of the program as it continues serial production on the next four odd-numbered LCS ships: The USS Milwaukee, Detroit, Little Rock and Sioux City.

The even numbered ships, including the fourth LCS, USS Coronado, are built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

As for the Fort Worth, its next major milestone is its commissioning, scheduled for Sept. 22 down in Galveston, Texas. Between now and then, its crew must move aboard, begin training and eventually sail the ship from its yard in Marinette, Wisc. Like Lockheed's first-in-class USS Freedom, now based in San Diego, the Fort Worth will travel through the Great Lakes, up the St Lawrence Seaway and down the East Coast. Eventually it too will make port in San Diego, before being forward-deployed to Singapore.

The Navy and Lockheed have even higher hopes for the Fort Worth than they did for the Freedom -- with the first ship as a "prototype" and a "testbed," engineers could take its sometimes hard-won experience and incorporate that into the second. The Fort Worth does not need the external buoyancy tanks that were back-fitted onto the Freedom, for example, and officials also expect it to hold up much better against the kind of cracking and other wear that has bedeviled the Freedom. This, advocates say, is the beauty of LCS: By the third and fourth copies, Lockheed's ships could be the Honda Accords of the seas, renowned for their build quality and long-lasting value -- and what a bargain! Or so goes the sales pitch.

A few steps back from this billboard, however, the full picture does not look as good. The Fort Worth now belongs to the American people and the LCS program is moving along, but it has taken a much longer time and much more money to reach this point. The interchangeable mission equipment the ship was built to carry won't fully materialize for years, and the Navy has made clear it's willing to take its time acquiring it. Meanwhile, planners and commanders are already making concessions about the likely limitations of the original LCS concept they've been boxed into. Before a single ship has ever taken an actual mission, the brass is acknowledging it might have to add more sailors, keep the ships out of some dangerous situations, and give them shorter deployments.

The Fort Worth, in short, arrives as a sort of time capsule from a Navy of a different era. It's in great condition, according to what the Navy says its Board of Inspection and Survey concluded -- though you're not allowed to see its report for yourself, of course -- but the Fort Worth still may have to change a lot more to fit in the fleet of today and tomorrow.

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