On the Wisconsin shore of the Menominee River a new 3,000-ton Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship sits docked in the water. It’s already been delivered to the Navy by Lockheed Martin and it’s already active.

A crew of 50 live aboard and have been conducting tests for six months on nearby Lake Michigan. Next month, the warship will be commissioned the USS Little Rock before deploying to Florida.

In addition to automation that has cut crew size in half versus more traditional ships of this size, interchangeable “mission packages,” and a top speed of 40 knots, the close-to-shore warship will tout something else: the ability to vertically launch Hellfire missiles (also made by Lockheed) to target threats on land, sea and in the air.

It’s one of the ways Lockheed is looking to make the controversial ship more lethal. It’s a strategy meant to not only silence critics and snag more orders, but better position the top defense contractor for one of the biggest, most-anticipated new Navy contracts.

“This is a warship,” says Michele Evans, Lockheed’s vice president and general manager of integrated warfare systems and sensors, a multibillion dollar Naval systems portfolio that includes LCS and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Dense system.

“It really looks to bring vertical launching systems, take advantage of a lot of what we develop with Aegis, and eventually, we could even look at having a laser-based system on this.

“So, we see the growth potential and I think there’s a desire as the Navy looks toward a future frigate.”

That future frigate is the Navy’s “future guided missile frigate” or FFG(X), a competition for a next-generation small combatant ship to be based off of an existing small surface combatant (like for example, LCS).

Last week the Navy released a design request for proposal that’s expected to be awarded next year, the last step before selected contractors build their concepts. Officials met with industry on Friday to review the hundreds of pages of guidelines.

The final contract is set to be awarded in 2020, with the program likely to be worth about $15 billion, according to Roman Schweizer, a defense analyst at Cowen. It’s expected to span at least 20 ships.

For the Littoral Combat Ship, Lockheed, an LCS co-prime, partners with shipbuilder Fincantieri Marinette Marine and ship designer Gibbs & Cox for its Freedom-class variant.

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