28 August 2007

Freedom Star Crossed

Life isn't looking good for the Littoral Combat Ship "Freedom" which was christened last September (I, incorrected, said in the headline that it was commissioned then).

The Lockheed Martin designed ship was to be the first of two prototypes in its class, in a competition against the Indepedence Class (LCS-2) interpretation of the Littoral Combat Ship by rival defense contractor General Dynamics. The Lockheed Martin design looks more or less like a conventional frigate (from which the LCS concept differs mostly because it has a higher peak speed, a shallower draft, a smaller core crew, and more versatility due to a modular mission package).

But, Congress cancelled funding of the second ship in the Freedom class (LCS-3) because the project was overbudget on April 12, 2007. Then, on April 25, 2007, Freedom caught fire in the course of outfitting work, causing significant damage to a project that was 80% complete. Furthermore, and the Saudis are more interested in buying a version of the innovative General Dynamics trimaran design which is still under contruction.

The official U.S. Navy fact sheet comparing the Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics designs superficially seems to favor the General Dynamics design because the trimaran has less displacement, more deck space to accomodate helicopter landings, more range, and a smaller core crew. Other differences don't obviously favor one ship over the other to the untrained observer. Despite being first built, the Freedom still doesn't have an officially designated weapons control system, while the General Dynamics veresion does. And, of course, General Dynamics hasn't gone so far overbudget that its second ship has been cancelled.

I don't pretend to know which ship is actually better. Short fact summaries are easy to twist to favor one ship over another, which is part of what makes the official summary so telling. But, Lockheed Martin's situation looks grim. It is fair to say that General Dynamics will probably get the contract barring a major screw up on its part, and that the purchase of the Freedom LCS-1 is simply a way for the Navy to cut its losses from a class of ships that will be abandoned -- a sting less bitter because the competition was designed for one of the teams to fail anyway. Freedom has, in a sense, already served its primary purpose by keeping the General Dynamics team relatively honest in its dealing with the Department of Defense so far.

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