Defense contractors are investing in alternative propulsion and power systems as the Navy develops and upgrades its fleet of warships.
Leonardo DRS, which is currently building its second generation hybrid-electric propulsion system for the Coast Guard's new offshore patrol cutter, is touting its technology as the wave of the future.
Three major advantages of hybrid-electric propulsion for Navy ships include: greater fuel economy, lowered maintenance costs and quieter vessels for advanced warfare operations, said Jamie McMullin, senior director of business development for Leonardo DRS' naval power systems.
"Our hybrid-electric drive can bring the U.S. Navy real warfighting capability ... and then you get all the benefits of fuel economy and less operation on engines and more space in the ship," he said in an interview.
The electric systems' quiet nature makes it advantageous for anti-submarine warfare, noted Clive Wilgress-Pipe, director of business development for Leonardo DRS' naval power systems.
The company is interested in integrating the system onto the Navy's next-generation frigates.
The service initiated the FFG(X) program in 2017 to build 20 guided-missile frigates. Although the department has yet to determine the exact specifications of the vessels, it has awarded five companies contracts for conceptual ship designs, according to a Congressional Research Service report tided, "Navy Frigate (FFG[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress."
Selected designs were all based off of mature ship designs from either U.S. or foreign naval vessels.
The shipbuilding companies chosen include Austal USA, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics' Bath Iron Works, Fincantieri Marine and Huntington Ingalls Industries.
Of the five conceptual designs, only Fincantieri's includes a hybrid-electric drive solution, Wilgress-Pipe said. Although there are various benefits to hybrid-electric propulsion, it can be difficult to convince industry players to get on board with the new technology, he noted. One reason is that shipyard workers aren't acquainted with the new technology.
"They know very well how to do mechanical systems, they've done lots of them, they understand it," he said. However, they "are just not that familiar with the electric drive type solution."
Another reason the Navy could be hesitant to make the shift is that its primary focus is on warfighting, and hybrid-electric engines have been considered by some to be just fuel-savings...