Defense Media Network

Interview: Joe North

Vice President, Littoral Ships and Systems, Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors

The U.S. Navy currently has two contractors – Lockheed Martin and Austal USA – building two starkly different versions of its new littoral combat ship (LCS). The stated requirement is for 55 ships – about one-sixth of the projected Navy fleet in the 2020s – at a total program cost of more than $30 billion. Both designs have standardized interfaces, enabling them to share the same multiple “mission packages” to change capabilities at any time, providing much more flexibility than the largely single-mission ships they will replace.


During the past decade, the program has gone from building both designs to a 2009 decision to down-select to one design built by two contractors to a November 2010 return to the original plan, but with a fixed price cap of $480 million per ship. Both approaches called for two independent production operations to get the LCS into the fleet more quickly, as the ships they will replace reach the end of their operational lives around mid-decade.


The first block contract – Flight 0+ – for 10 ships from each contractor has an estimated value of about $10 billion. The first two ships – USS Freedom (LCS 1) from Lockheed Martin and USS Independence (LCS 2) from Austal – are being deployed; the next two – USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) and USS Coronado (LCS 4) – are nearly complete. Lockheed Martin’s next two LCS hulls will be named USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) and USS Detroit (LCS 7).


The first block options call for each company to deliver two ships per year from 2012 through 2015. A new RFP will be issued in 2014-15 for the second block, beginning in 2016. That is expected to be an open bid, meaning either, both or neither current contractor may go forward. The number of ships to be built under that contract and during what timeframe are not yet known.


LCS has been a highly controversial program since it was first proposed at the start of the century and the first contracts were awarded in 2004 for two ships each from Lockheed Martin and what then was an Austal/General Dynamics team. Both contracts were canceled due to cost overruns estimated at about 50 percent on the first ship from each contractor, then re-instated based on assurances the early problems had been resolved.


When two or more companies are contracted to produce platforms for the same requirement, they typically build to a single, standardized design. With LCS, while both meet the Navy’s requirements on speed, endurance, mission capability and shallow draft (less than 20 feet) to operate close to shore, the platform designs have little in common – a futuristic aluminum hull trimaran from Austal (it has been compared to a Klingon battlecruiser from Star Trek) and a more traditional high-speed, semi-planing steel monohull from Lockheed Martin.


Separate contracts and contractors are providing the first three mission packages the Navy is requiring to work interchangeably on both ships – mine warfare (MIW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (SUW).

Joe North, Vice President-Littoral Ships & Systems and LCS program manager at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems & Sensors, spoke with Defense Media Network senior writer J.R. Wilson about the LCS program, from his company’s perspective.

J.R. Wilson: With a draft of about 13 feet, the LCS can operate in much more shallow water and closer to shore than the larger, single-mission ships it will replace in the coming decade. How does that maintain or enhance the overall capability of the U.S. Navy fleet?

Joe North: In today’s world – and for some time – there have been threats in smaller bodies of water. . . [and] the U.S. wants to take the fight to those waters if there is a perceived threat. That’s a benefit of what this class can do.

Does this bring a capability to the Navy that could not be met by the U.S. Coast Guard, which does operate worldwide under DoD command when needed?

The Coast Guard mission is more involved with domestic securing of areas; they do go beyond U.S. borders [with shallow water ships], but the Navy is worldwide and this capability allows the Navy to forward-deploy ships and leave them on station, which is a very different concept than anything the Coast Guard has in their mission.

What does LCS bring to the fleet that differs from current capability?

MCMs [mine countermeasures ships] are one-mission ships – mine-hunters – and that’s it. The Fig-7s [Oliver Hazard Perry-class (FFG 7) frigates] are multi-mission surface combatants and can do both surface warfare and ASW with their helos and sonars, but they don’t have any mine-hunting capability.

In addition, the Navy asked for low draft, speed, and flexible mission packages, which allows them to go into mine warfare, surface warfare, ASW or other shallow water missions with the flexibility of one ship being able to do all of that with swap-out packages.

Why is “modularity” considered a better approach than producing a multi-capability ship?

LCS gives the Navy the flexibility of a smaller, affordable ship, with the ability to be whatever they need it to be, with the mission packs, wherever they are needed anywhere in the world.

To what extent is the LCS an “open architecture” vessel, in terms of both hardware and software, and what are the advantages – or disadvantages – to the user?

I wouldn’t say there are any disadvantages. The advantages are we have learned, as the Navy and industry have moved into the COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) world and practices the past few years, we needed to change the old model. In the old days, you might have a specific computer that would always be there. COTS requires you, as you do updates and refreshes, to be flexible and able to adapt and move with the software.

What would be involved in terms of time to make a switchout and crew training? Do you need a separate crew for each mission or is the ship crew trained to handle all missions?

The core crew on the ship – 40 sailors – are trained for all three missions. Then there are additional crew added for each mission package who are trained specifically for those mission packages. The highest is about 25 sailors for the ASW module, about 20 for MIW, and surface is somewhat smaller, since that is basically an inherent function.

What about maintenance and logistics – and can a module be swapped out anywhere or does it need to be at a homeport?

Mission modules can be swapped out anywhere the ship can pull up to a pier and have access to remove one module and replace it with another – the concept is anywhere, worldwide.

The mission packages themselves are separate contracts, not part of the seaframe contract, and those contractors take care of the logistics and maintenance training; the ship crew is in charge of all maintenance and logistics on the ship.

From the contractor perspective, please address the following areas where there have been criticisms of the LCS program:


1 – Technical Risk versus Technology Insertion

The technology risk on LCS, if anything, may be down in some of the systems you normally didn’t see on a U.S. ship, such as a launch recovery and handling system – a crane – to move all the packages around. Lockheed went to a very low cost solution there, finding vendors already capable of lifting from above and moving things in the open mission modules bays we have.

The biggest risk on the lead ship may have been the new main propulsion control system. However, when we took it on trials the first time, it operated flawlessly and has continued to do so ever since. It is only good for a ship with the unique propulsion plant we use on the LCS.

2 – Complexity – from rotating mission modules to high levels of automation

I don’t think we’re too complex. Part of the cost-cutting is to reduce the crew size. For example, there are 11 people on the bridge of an Arleigh Burke; we have three. Ships crossing the ocean have only one. We have unmanned machinery spaces, where everything is monitored by sensors and cameras, allowing one person to sit at a station anywhere on the ship and pull up displays to check the systems and verify everything is OK. And they are all alarmed so you know about any problems right away.

Again, taking real, known technology and applying it to a U.S. Navy program.

3 – Stability

I have no concerns there. We have four generators on the ship, for example, and can operate on just one, if we need to do so.

4 – Endurance – including speed to destination, onboard stores (munitions, fuel, food, water, etc.)

The Navy defined endurance at both cruise and high speed – 3500 miles at cruise and 1000 at high speed – and we meet both. As to food and other storage, we meet the 30-day mission requirement.

Setting aside any corporate bias, to the extent possible, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the decision to split LCS construction between two contractors?

I think they are all advantages; the Navy got the ships they wanted, meeting their requirements, and doubled the speed with which they can bring that to the fleet and save money in the process. So it is sort of a win-win-win for the Navy.

To what extent will the two versions differ?

Theirs [Austal] is an aluminum trimaran and ours is a steel mono-hull, so they are two very different ships, but both meet the requirements the Navy put out. We were given ranges within the RFP to meet on draft, less than 20 ft; speed, 40 knots or greater; range, 1000 nautical miles at top speed, 3500 nautical miles at cruise. Crew size is set at 40 on both platforms; the same with the crews coming aboard with the mission packages.

How would you sum up the LCS program and milestones to date?

Freedom [LCS 1] is in the fleet and has been deploying; Fort Worth [LCS 3] will be delivered to the Navy in early 2012 and we just got the award for LCS 5 – [USS Milwaukee] – and will start production this summer. 

We are in full production with each block buy. IOC [Initial Operating Capability] is a milestone in the government schedule and defined by the Navy, but Freedom is complete from our perspective and testing with the mission packages.

A longer version of this interview with added content appears in the Spring 2011 edition of Defense.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...