In the launch ceremony, speakers said the 378-foot-long, 3,000-ton littoral combat ship with only a 13-foot draft is ideal for the missions the Navy faces in shallow waters around Pacific Rim, where the Navy is increasing presence as it keeps an eye on China, which is expanding its naval forces and its presence in the South China Sea.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the launching of the Little Rock is emblematic of the Navy's commitment to have a fleet of 304 ships by the end of the decade, enough to maintain a strong presence in all the world's waters.
That presence means "being where it counts, when it counts," Mabus said Saturday. "That presence reassure allies, it deters potential foes."
"LCS is a fast, agile, focused-mission platform designed for operation in near-shore (littoral) environments
yet capable of open-ocean operation. It is designed to defeat asymmetric 'anti-access' threats such as mines, quiet diesel submarines and fast surface craft," a Navy fact file on the ships says.
LCS ships are designed with what the Navy calls "mission modules," which can be switched out quickly according to assigned tasks. The ships have a core crew of around 50 with accommodations for 97 sailors, depending on the mission.
LCS vessels come in two variants, the monohull Freedom class and the trimaran Independence class. Freedom-class ships hold odd hull numbers. Ships of the Independence class hold are designated by even hull numbers.
Littoral combat ships made news earlier this year when the USS Fort Worth, LCS-3, the second in the Freedom class, cruised through the South China Sea, where China is building facilities on reclaimed land in the disputed Spratly Islands.
The U.S. Navy said at the time that LCS vessels will be making more frequent visits to the region.
"Routine operations like the one Fort Worth just completed in the South China Sea will be the new normal as we welcome four LCSs to the region in the coming years. Deployment of multiple LCSs to Southeast Asia underscores the importance of this 'region on the rise' and the value persistent presence brings," Capt. Fred Kacher, commodore of the Navy's Destroyer Squadron 7, said in a press release.
Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, executive officer of the LCS program, said Saturday the Navy will have four LCS vessels based out of Singapore by 2018 as it focuses on the Asia-Pacific region.
The Little Rock will now undergo sea trials before official delivery to the Navy, expected in 2016.
The Little Rock follows LCS-10, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, in launching this year. The Gabrielle Giffords, named after the former U.S. congresswoman who was shot in an assassination attempt in January 2011, was built in Mobile, Alabama, by Austral USA. The Giffords will be the 16th naval ship named for a woman.
LCS-9 carries on the heritage of the Little Rock name previously held by a guided-missile cruiser. The first USS Little Rock began service as a light cruiser shortly after World War II, then was converted to the guided-missile format.
That ship, which is now a museum in Buffalo, New York, was decomissioned in 1976.