By Geoff Fein

General Dynamics [GD] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] have both received the final request for proposals (RFP) for the fiscal year ’10 Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) competition, according to industry sources.

The two competing teams received their copies of the RFP yesterday and responses are due back to the Navy no later than March 29.

The RFP marks the beginning of a new acquisition plan that will see the Navy buy one of the two platforms that will eventually make up the entire fleet of 55 LCS.

Currently, the Navy has taken delivery of both Lockheed Martin’s USS Freedom (LCS-1) and General Dynamics’ USS Independence (LCS-2). The two companies are also building one additional ship each.

Lockheed Martin is building the Fort Worth (LCS-3) at Marinette Marine in Wisconsin. General Dynamics is producing the Coronado (LCS-4) at Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

Although the Navy has had Freedom a year longer than the recently commissioned Independence, service officials believe they understand both variants well enough to make an informed decision on which ship to pick.

That decision likely will come down to which ship provides the Navy the most affordable way to build a fleet of 55 LCS, Rear Adm. James Murdoch, LCS program manager, told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

"I think in both cases we have had enough time to understand the ships pretty well," Murdoch said.

"We did, in fact, sail the Freedom away to a pretty fast pace because of the ice in the Great Lakes. It wouldn’t have been cost effective for us to let her sit there for an additional three to four months and then move her out in the summer," he added.

In the case of Independence, the Navy took longer to get through trials, Murdoch noted. "We didn’t have the ice period staring us in the face."

"But in the case of both ships, the important thing is we understand them pretty well," he added.

Given that Lockheed Martin’sFreedom and General Dynamics’ Independence perform really well, the upcoming downselect is really about what is the most affordable way for the Navy to procure and sustain this class of ships, Murdoch said.

"Certainly, from the standpoint of procurement, having a head-to-head competition between these guys is going to really spur good pricing for the taxpayer, and, the fact I am going to build more of one kind, much more," he said. "When you get to the sustainment side of things, it will make it easier for us to address the life-cycle cost."

Murdoch said Navy leadership has also made it clear to him that the cost of buying ships and owning ships has got to be aggressively reduced.

Although both variants of LCS will operate with a crew of 40 in charge of every ship function except operating the assorted mission packages and the MH-60 helicopters, similarities between Freedom and Independence ends there. Freedom is a semi-planing monohull while Independence is an all aluminum hull trimaran, based on commercial ferry designs.

Each ship has had its challenges, aside from cost. Tanks were added to Freedom’s aft to remedy stability issues. And, almost two years ago, during an inspection of Independence, the Navy’s supervisor of shipbuilding discovered bowing in the transverse beams that support the ship’s flight deck (Defense Daily, Feb. 12, 2008).

While Murdoch has acknowledged weight gain and stability issues with LCS-1, the Navy has made modifications to Freedom and subsequent Lockheed Martin designs to meet stability requirements (Defense Daily, January 25, 2010).

He added there were really no structural issues with the all-aluminum Independence. When the Navy took Austal’s commercial design and developed it into LCS-2, it added a substantial amount of structure to the hull, Murdoch said. "We did a lot of modeling to support that."

"We also have additional modeling in the works over time to demonstrate how it would behave in battle," he added. "The hull design has been modeled extensively. As [I] walk through the ship, I look at bulkheads, structure, you see the extensive use of stiffeners, panel breakers, various other webs and frames that make the ship much stronger than a commercial aluminum ferry."

Some critics have questioned whether the Navy could operate a surface combatant built from a commercial ferry design. Murdoch said the Navy has had experience with these types of ships.

"Westpac Express is built by Austal. That’s a catamaran that has been operating for 10 years now that was built to commercial standards. We are riding that ship hard, putting it away wet," he said. "That gives us some operating experience with multi-hull, aluminum vessels, which we also get from Swift and Sea Fighter which ONR (Office of Naval Research) has built and operated for some number of years."

The Navy, Murdoch added, is confident the ship will give the service a good surface life and be able to deal with rough seas.

"Both of these ships, the requirement was for the ship to operate in high sea state and withstand… survive…on best course in sea state eight, very tough seas," he said.

To ensure the designs of both LCS variants would hold up, the Navy partnered with the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) to leverage the organization’s expertise in approving commercial ship designs. ABS reviewed structural designs of both LCS, Murdoch said.

"In some cases, there was a small population of drawings where [ABS] said they didn’t think the structure was adequate. An example of that was on LCS-2–the aluminum structure around the bridge windows," he added.

Based on ABS’ finding, Austal changed the design and it was eventually approved by ABS, Murdoch added.

Bringing the ABS surveyors onboard was a new process for the Navy, he said.

"It did give us some additional quality assurance. We had both SUPSHIPS like we traditionally do and ABS," Murdoch added. "We were the first surface combatant [to partner with ABS]. That gave us an additional level of scrutiny."

While the two LCS types bring speed and maneuverability to the surface fleet, the ships are much more than just a hull. Both versions are outfitted with state-of-the-art computer networks that enable the Navy to operate with a very small crew.

During one of Independence‘s trial periods, the Navy held a drill where various ship systems were shut down and turned back on, Murdoch said. The Navy and General Dynamics also demonstrated that the ship’s network, the computer backbone, didn’t skip a beat, he added.

"The uninterruptable power supplies were good. You could transfer power, secure diesel generators completely and bring them back up.. I didn’t have to reload any computer programs," Murdoch said. "So far, I have been very happy with the network and combat system design on LCS-2."