By Chris Jennewein
At a time when many politicians are warning that the Navy is too small, one shipbuilding program is churning out new vessels at a surprisingly rapid rate.
This week the Navy awarded full funding for the 23rd ship in its planned fleet of 52 Littoral Combat Ships, small, fast warships designed to counter a variety of threats, from submarines to mines to surface ships. When completed, the class will be more extensive than the naval fleets of most countries.
The ships are being built in two variants. One is a single-hull design developed by an industry team led by Lockheed Martin, the other a futuristic trimaran initially developed by a General Dynamics team and subsequently led by Austal USA. The Lockheed Martin design is built in Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan; the Austal version on the Mobile River in Alabama.Almost every month now comes news reports of a new ship being ordered, launched or commissioned. The USS Gabrielle Giffords was christened in June, the future USS Little Rock launched in July, the future USS Oakland ordered in August, the future USS Tulsa ordered in September, the future USS Omaha launched in November and the future USS Cooperstown ordered in December.
The ships are not without controversy, with critics saying they are too small, too expensive and lack sufficient firepower, but the Navy defends the program as it ratchets up production. It has also beefed up the firepower of later versions.
The Navy is buying between three and four a year for the foreseeable future, and ultimately the LCS vessels will make up one-sixth of the Navy’s targeted fleet of 306 combat ships. As production increases, the cost has come down, from $750 million for each of the first ships, to $350 million apiece now.
The Navy defends the ships, saying their high speed and modularity allow them to meet a variety of threats, both on the open ocean and close to shore. By comparison, they are longer, heavier and faster than a World War II-era destroyer.
“The beauty of the LCS is that it’s modular so that you don’t have to build a new hull, you don’t have to build a new ship as technologies and requirements improve and change; you simply change out the modules,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at a Congressional hearing.
These ships are already showing up in San Diego, with 16 of the first 24 to be based here as part of the Navy’s pivot toward the Pacific. The USS Fort Worth is already in the thick of Pacific Naval diplomacy, having tested new encounter rules when it came upon a Chinese frigate in the South China Sea in February.
In just a few years this new fleet of ships will become a common sight on San Diego Bay, and that’s a good thing for both San Diego and the nation’s security.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.
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