The Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship has had a troubled design and deployment history. Development on the LCS began after the Cold War had ended and was intended to deliver a new, relatively small vessel capable of operating close to shore (hence the word “littoral”). Over time, the goals for the program expanded, until the LCS was expected to field advanced modules that could be swapped out in a matter of hours and allowed the ship to perform a variety of tasks. In theory, the LCS can tackle anti-submarine warfare, minesweeping, surface warfare, and special warfare missions, provided the proper hardware is installed first. Cost overruns, metallurgical problems, and technological difficulties have all plagued the LCS classes, and an ongoing lawsuit alleges that one of the two classes of Littoral Combat Ship currently in service violated critical patents awarded to a ship designer several decades ago.
One point of clarification before we dive in. The allegations we’ll discuss apply only to the Freedom-class LCS, which uses a monoplaning hull design. The trimaran-hulled Independence-class LCS is not implicated in the case. The Daily Beast has done an extensive report on this issue and the accusations against the Navy brought by one David Giles, a shipbuilder with decades in the business. In 1992 and 1993, Giles (who owns the company Fastship) was awarded patents on a monohull design that combines semi-planed ship hulls (hulls with a flattened underside) with waterjets that fire water across that flat plane while the ship is underway. The specific ships Fastship envisioned in its patent applications were vessels longer than 200 feet with a displacement in excess of 2,000 tons. Giles’ original goal was to build cargo ships that could hit 38 knots or more, compared to the 23 knots standard cargo vessels average. Fastship was incorporated in 1997 but had trouble finding buyers for its technology due to the high cost of prototypes and, later, the Great Recession.
Enter Lockheed-Martin, which did substantial work on the Navy’s LCS vessels. Fastship formed a strategic partnership with Lockheed and handed over its design specs and test data from prototypes the company built itself. Fastship has also testified in court that it shared this information with the Navy under confidential agreements from 1998 – 2000. The original design that Fastship had contemplated was significantly larger than the Navy’s 2003 proposal for an LCS — Fastship’s sweet spot for its technology was a vessel roughly 300 feet long with a maximum speed of 40 – 50 knots and a 2,450-ton displacement.
But as the Navy’s LCS concept evolved, the ship became much larger. The USS Freedom is 378 feet long, displaces 3,500 metric tons, and has a maximum speed of 47 knots, which puts it much closer to the type of ship Giles envisioned, as opposed to the far smaller vessel the Navy originally contemplated. Lockheed dropped its partnership with Giles in 2004, Giles first wrote to the Navy about its violation of his patents in 2008, but the Navy rejected his claims. The current lawsuit was filed in 2010 after the Navy rejected Giles’ claims of administrative infringement. Both sides have lined up expert witnesses to argue whether Giles’ patents were or were not obvious (this is common in patent suits) as well as whether or not the current Independence-class design actually violates the patents themselves. Giles recently upped the ante with testimony from Richard Garwin, a physicist who worked on the development of early spy satellites, contributed to early work on spin-echo magnetic resonance (which laid the foundations for the development of the MRI),helped discover algorithms critical to digital signal processing, and helped develop both laser printers and touchscreen displays. If that’s not enough, he’s also widely known as the author of the first hydrogen bomb design (Mike, tested in 1952).
Garwin has argued that the improvements made to ship performance by adding water jets were non-obvious to other shipbuilders, and that the government’s other expert witnesses made a number of errors in their attempts to disprove the importance of Giles’ patents. So far, the trial judge has limited the lawsuit to the single LCS ship built before Giles’ patents expired in 2010, the USS Freedom, but won’t rule on whether or not the Freedom infringed on Giles’ intellectual property until early 2017.