MARINETTE, Wis. — The launch of a new littoral combat ship on July 18 was another festive occasion here at Fincantieri Marinette Marine, marking the fifth time this heartland shipyard has put an LCS in the water.

But the Little Rock (LCS 9) will also become a milestone departure of sorts for the US Navy's LCS program when, after she's delivered to the fleet next year, the warship will be the first East Coast-based LCS, operating from Mayport, Florida. The first eight LCSs — half of which already are in service —– are based at San Diego.

"All of the odd-numbered hulls starting with 9 won't have to go through the Panama Canal," noted Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, program executive officer for LCS and the Navy's top official on the program. "The Mayport basin is smaller, so [they] get the monohull versus the trimaran."

Antonio spoke in July at Marinette, taking a break from a program review held just prior to the Little Rock's launch.

Freedom-class ships — the ones built at this shipyard under contract to Lockheed Martin — are 387-foot-long monohulls with a 58-foot beam, all with odd numbers in the Navy's LCS designation system. The trimaran-hulled Independence class, built by Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, and carrying even hull numbers, are 418 feet long with a beam of 104 feet. The smaller Freedom class is easier to handle in the relatively confined Mayport basin, enclosed on three sides, while the California base sits along much wider San Diego Bay.

Another consideration for placing Freedom-class LCSs in Mayport, Antonio noted, is the experience already gained operating the surface warfare mission module, deployed aboard the Freedom during its 2013 deployment to Singapore and currently operated in the southwest Pacific by the Fort Worth. While the Mayport-based ships are expected to conduct deployments operating out of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf, they'll also be called upon for more operations closer to home.

"If they are not going to Bahrain and you deploy them to the Fourth Fleet [around Central and Latin America] and you are doing counter-drug operations, a surface warfare mission package would be more appropriate to use as opposed to mine countermeasures or anti-submarine warfare" package, Antonio noted.

The ships of the Independence class have yet to officially operate a surface warfare package, although a module using most of the available components was shipped on the Independence last summer when the Navy made a late decision to send the LCS to RIMPAC, a major fleet exercise held every two years off Hawaii. But the Coronado (LCS 4), now coming out of a yard period in San Diego, will soon carry out the first formal tests of the package on the class.

"This is the first full-up [surface package] test, with the 30mm guns, the VBSS [visit, board, search and seizure team], the 11-meter boat as part of the complete package," Antonio said. "She will go into her tech evaluation period, take a short break to look at the data and make sure that the systems are ready." By the end of September, he added, "I've got high confidence" the testing will be complete.

In 2017, Antonio said, the Coronado will become the first Independence-class ship to deploy to Singapore. By then, she's expected to join with one of the Freedom-class ships as the Navy tries operating both LCS variants simultaneously while forward-deployed.

"I don't like to use the word challenge, I like to use the word opportunity," said Antonio. "It was pretty easy to be focused on one ship and make sure it is going to be successful."

Program officials have been eager to point out how much better the Fort Worth's current deployment has gone compared with the earlier Freedom cruise.

"We have gotten a lot better with LCS 3 not only in the part support but understanding the command and control, how to contract for work getting done, the whole concept of the expeditionary maintenance," Antonio said. "We will use those concepts and those lessons-learned that were non-hull specific and we will apply them to LCS 4 when she comes over."

Comparative data made available by the LCS program illustrated the dramatic improvement of the Fort Worth over the Freedom cruise at the 180-day mark. Some examples: Fort Worth has been underway for 96 days out of 89 planned, while Freedom was underway for 51 days with 72 planned. The Fort Worth lost no days to maintenance, Freedom lost 21. Overall, the Fort Worth needed 8,100 fewer maintenance man hours than Freedom.

The four LCSs now in service will soon be joined by four more as the long construction pipeline begins to deliver ships at a much faster rate. The Jackson (LCS 6) is expected to be delivered to the Navy this month. The Milwaukee (LCS 5) will follow in October, the Montgomery (LCS 8) in December and the Detroit (LCS 7) in February. At each shipyard right now, three ships are in the water with four others ashore in various stages of construction.

As more ships enter service, the LCS crewing plan will become more apparent. Ships are being paired, with three crews rotating among the two ships. So, for example, the Independence (LCS 2) will relieve the Coronado in Singapore, and those two hulls will remain paired together.

"One and 3 are paired and 2 and 4 are paired in the 3-2-1 [crewing] concept," Antonio explained. "When 3 gets back 1 will deploy for her notional 16 months, be relieved by 3, be relieved by 1. The three crews rotate between those.

"There is a way to work it out where the crew is on board for notionally four months. When they finish overseas they come back and are shoreside for four months — leave period, training period, time to do personnel turnover. I believe that would be the best time to bring new personnel in."

The LCS program is also developing a Flight 1 version referred to as a frigate. The program is still working to determine what specific components will be installed on the newer ships, scheduled to be included in the fiscal 2019 shipbuilding program.

"We are still in the system selection phase," Antonio said. "It will be happening throughout the summer and into the early fall. … The goal is in late 2017 to get to a technical data package that we can then turn into a request for proposal and give it to both the shipbuilders in time to inform a 2019 award."

Work is also moving ahead to determine what over-the-horizon missile system to use on the frigates. A request for information (RFI ) was issued in late June to gauge industry interest and capability in providing weapons, fire control systems, launch systems, software and electronics. The Navy, in the RFI posted on a government website, noted it is seeking a "non-developmental item solution."

Meanwhile, eight more LCSs need to be ordered between current contracts and the frigate variant, Antonio noted.

"We are not ready from a design perspective yet to go buy those frigates. We have to get the engineering work done," he said.