ARLINGTON, Va. -- When the U.S. Navy was facing the replacement of a class of aging small frigates, leaders wanted new ships that were small, fast and maneuverable.

Planners conceived of a ship that could be reconfigured so that it could take on various missions rather than serve one specific purpose. Named the littoral combat ship, the new vessels had a jet propulsion system to offer speed and a system of modules that can be switched out to change the ship's mission.

On Saturday, the USS Sioux City will be commissioned at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, officially joining the Navy fleet and adding to the growing number of LCS in service. Still a relatively new class of ships in a program that began in February 2002, the Navy continues to test them under many circumstances, said Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly.

"It's still sort of in its proving grounds right now, but we are committed to it," Modly said during an interview with the Journal at his office in the Pentagon. "I think they've outperformed in some areas and there are some things that they're working through."

Because of the ongoing testing and the flexibility of the LCS, the USS Sioux City could be deployed in a variety of ways. The LCS ships are designed to sail in shallow waters closer to the shore than other Navy ships and could play important roles in pre-conflict areas or in a post-conflict peacekeeping force, Modly said.

Modly said he recently returned from visiting islands in the Pacific Ocean, where a ship like the USS Sioux City is perfect for operating in island environments found there or in the Caribbean Sea. That capability means the LCS can access ports other U.S. Navy ships have not accessed in decades, if ever. Already, the first LCS has visited smaller ports in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and India.

Other LCS have conducted counter drug trafficking and counter piracy operations, and Modly said their size fits in well when participating in exercises with allied nations that have smaller navies and ships.

"It helps us work with our allies better," Modly said.

Appropriations have been approved for 35 LCS, and plans call for a total of 52 small-surface combatant ships, which includes a mix of LCS and new frigates, said Modly, who works with Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer to determine the future structure of the Navy and budget for those changes.

The USS Sioux City and ships like it will be part of that future. Visiting other LCS, Modly said he's been impressed with their flexible space and the automated technology on the bridge, where a single crew member can operate the ship on three touch-screen monitors.

"It looks like something from the future," Modly said. "I think it's a real modern-looking warship."

A Naval Academy graduate, Modly will speak at Saturday's commissioning ceremony. It will be a special day for him to witness the commissioning of the USS Sioux City, the first warship to ever be commissioned at the Academy.

"You can't script it any better than that," he said.

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