ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re calling it the “plug-and-play” of Navy vessels, and leaders want it yesterday.

A future combat ship will be smaller, faster, more easily maneuverable — and will feature interchangeable parts.

It’s called the Littoral Combat Ship and the Navy’s need for it is two-fold.

Navy leaders want a vessel in the inventory that doesn’t need to be decommissioned when ever-improving technology makes a combat system obsolete, and they want one that can perform several focused missions, said Cmdr. Joseph Chiaravallotti, the Navy’s LCS requirements officer.

So, whether the task is to conduct maritime interdiction operations, or to hunt for enemy diesel submarines, to pursue threatening high-speed surface craft, or to conduct mine warfare, the LCS would be capable to take ’em on, he said.

The LCS will be part of a new family of Navy surface warfighting vessels under development.

The concept is revolutionary, said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy group in Arlington, Va.

“This demonstrates the revolutionary approach to sea power; the idea of a mixed fleet with modular vessels is very important for the world we’re going into,” Goure said. “It’s a very bold step for the Navy to be taking … .”

The LCS will be designed to operate in narrow and shallow littoral or coastal areas of the world and will complement the advanced, multimission destroyers, the DD(X) class that will be capable of providing precision strike fire, the multimission cruiser, CG(X) class providing sustained air superiority against surface aircraft and missiles and ballistic missile threats.

While specific missions will determine crew sizes, the number of needed sailors could range from as few as 15 to as many as 75.

The Navy wants construction on the first LCS to begin in fiscal 2005, and it to be delivered in 2007. The Navy would like construction on another to begin in 2006 and to buy another three in fiscal 2008 and four the following year.

Its capability to be outfitted to conduct varying types of tasks means the larger, multimission — and pricier — ships can be kept further from coastlines and out of harms way, said Chiaravallotti and Navy Capt. Sam Perez, section head for future ships.

“When you move closer to the shore, you’re talking a whole different ball game. … [The LCS] will give us the capability to dominate the battlefield,” Perez said. “The LCS is the answer call for asymmetric weapons.”

While nothing yet is definitive, developers do envision the LCS, with a preliminary price tag of $220 million apiece, also could be used for homeland defense, surveillance and reconnaissance, or floating medical treatment facilities, and more, Chiaravallotti said. To make the change from one focus-mission to another would take about 96 hours.

The vessel is expected to have a flight deck and hangar for helicopters, but also be equipped to operate and fuel unmanned air and water vehicles.

While they have no crystal ball, they think they can incorporate baseline systems that will keep up with the changing technology.

Today, when a combat system is outdated, frigates and destroyers, for example, are decommissioned because it’s too costly to upgrade the vessels.

The thought behind the LCS and the other family ships is that the vessels will be able to adapt to ever-changing technology.

Development plans were put on an “ambitious” fast track, Perez said. The deadline for industry proposals is April 15 and Navy leaders hope to narrow the field to two or three contractors 90 days after that.

The typical cycle for building a ship, from concept to delivery, takes about a decade. Navy leaders want the LCS in half that time.

“There’s skepticism that we can’t build a ship this fast and Congress is asking for more traditional” vessels, said Edward Lundquist, a defense contractor for surface warfare directorate.

But development of the LCS is Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vernon Clark’s “number one acquisition priority” and the Navy is pushing, well, full steam ahead, Perez said.

Goure, the defense analyst, said not only is the Navy’s plan doable, it’s also smart.

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