The U.S. Navy's plans to send Lockheed's first Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS-1, to Singapore in mid-April, could deepen international interest in the new warship, said Michele Evans, vice president of business development for Lockheed's mission systems and training business.
"When LCS gets over in the region, we might see more momentum and acceleration," Evans told Reuters at a conference hosted by the Surface Navy Association. She said she was optimistic that an initial foreign military sale could be reached within the next two years.
Lockheed and other U.S. weapons makers are scrambling to increase foreign military sales to maintain revenue in coming years as they brace for cuts in U.S. military spending after sharp growth over the past decade.
Lockheed's upbeat view comes as its first LCS ship, the USS Freedom, a steel single hull vessel, prepares for a six-week voyage to Singapore, where it will be deployed for nine months.
Unlike earlier warships, littoral combat ships can operate in shallower coastal regions, have smaller crews and can be easily reconfigured for different missions, such as surface warfare or mine-hunting.
The U.S. unit of Australia's Austal is also building a separate LCS ship for the U.S. Navy, based on an aluminum trimaran design.
The Navy is proceeding with the Singapore deployment of LCS despite continued problems with the ship's 30 mm and 57 mm guns and a mine countermeasures system identified in a new report by the Pentagon's chief weapons tester.
The report also noted that "LCS is not expected to be survivable" since it was not designed to continue operating if it took a significant hit in a hostile combat environment.
The Pentagon's office of Operational Test and Evaluation said it was deferring tests of the ships' overall survivability, and separate shock trials for at least a year.
Vice Admiral Tom Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Forces, told the conference he was aware of criticisms of the LCS ships, but said the program was important because it was affordable and would enable the Navy to expand the size of its fleet.
Lockheed executives said they were in talks with six to seven possible foreign buyers in the Middle East and Asia for the ship, down from 22 countries that initially were interested.
The Navy plans to buy 55 of the new smaller warships in coming years, a key part of its drive to replace aging vessels and increase the overall number of ships in the Navy.
Joe North, Lockheed's vice president of littoral combat ships, said the program was showing continued progress and Lockheed should be building a new ship every six months by 2015.
Lockheed is also proposing possible integration of ballistic missile defense capabilities on the LCS ships in the future, which could enhance their attractiveness to foreign buyers.
Lockheed officials also see bright export prospects for MH-60 maritime helicopter that it builds with Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, forecasting that it could sell over 200 of the helicopters overseas in coming years.
Australia and Denmark are already buying the aircraft, and Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and India are looking at possible orders, they said.
Austal spokesman Craig Hooper said his company was also in early discussions with foreign countries interested in buying its LCS model, but the Australian parent company could also sell a different model to other countries directly.
Austal's Joint High Speed Vessel, a less expensive ship being built for the Navy, was also attracting international interest, he said. (Reuters)