Navy Looking for Fresh Thinking on Future Warships

By Sandra I. Erwin

It took the Navy more than 10 years to design and start building its littoral combat ships. The warship that would succeed the LCS — dubbed "small surface combatant" — might be in the fleet within just five years.

The Navy took the first step toward that goal April 30 when it issued two "requests for information" on ship technologies and designs that could be applied to the future combatant. Proposals are due May 22.

A team of naval warfare and ship technology experts — led by John Burrow, executive director of the Marine Corps Systems Command — has until July 31 to evaluate suggestions and decide which ideas merit further consideration.

The message to the industry is "tell us what you think," Burrow told reporters April 30.

Burrow's group was stood up in March following marching orders from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The secretary told the Navy to truncate LCS orders from 52 to 32 ships. The littoral combat ship had come under relentless criticism after Pentagon testers concluded it lacked sufficient firepower to survive in heavy combat.

The process by which the Navy will go about selecting a new, more lethal ship is being compressed into just a few months. Funding to kick start the program would be requested in the fiscal year 2016 budget. If all goes as planned, a new ship could be in production as early as fiscal year 2019.

Giving shipbuilders and weapons contractors just 21 days to respond to the RFI is reasonable, Burrow said. "These are ideas that industry should already have, with supporting information."

The Navy will consider how industry proposals fit into "capability concepts" such as air, surface, undersea and mine warfare, said Burrow.

At the same time that Burrow's team sifts through industry white papers, it will also solicit input from fleet sailors in Virginia and Hawaii. Sailors will be asked to offer their views on what "capabilities and missions" they would want for small surface combatants, Burrow said.

The RFI does not specify "requirements" in the traditional sense, he said. In Defense Department procurement programs, defining requirements usually is the first step that gets the program rolling.

Burrow said he was only asked to provide "design alternatives" that could satisfy a future requirement for a small surface combatant.

After the task force submits its recommendations, Navy and Defense Department officials will take over and determine whether the suggested ship designs and technologies are adequate and affordable.

Cost overruns — from initial estimates of $220 million per ship to more than $700 million — nearly sank the LCS in its earlier days, so the Navy is likely to place extraordinary focus on the cost estimates for the new combatant. If a new ship is deemed unaffordable, the Navy might consider upgrading existing LCS vessels with offensive and defensive weapons and sensors.

Burrow cautioned that the compressed schedule does not mean the Navy is bypassing proper acquisition methods. "We're not building a ship in four months or designing a ship in four months," he said. His group will separate the wheat from the chaff and narrow down the choices for the Navy. 

"There's a lot of complexity and interactions in making those decisions," he said. "Our job is to inform that, and to provide information we have confidence in." The task force does not have the authority to decide whether a particular ship is affordable but it will provide detailed cost data, said Burrow.

Two RFIs were issued. One asks for design concepts, which could be existing ships or ships that could be built using "mature" components and technologies. The other request is for weapons systems and other components that could be integrated into existing hulls.  

"We want industry to tell us what is technically feasible ... To help us understand performance, risk and cost." The shipbuilding industry "has been thinking about this problem for some time," said Burrow. "I'm sure they have some good ideas."

The Navy expects that current LCS builders will want to stay in the game and propose improved, more survivable versions of current designs. The option of continuing to buy modified versions of current LCS hulls is on the table, said Burrow. One of the designs, the Freedom class, is made by Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine Corp. The other, the Independence class, is made by Austal and General Dynamics Corp.

Topics: Procurement, Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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