The littoral combat ship Independence (LCS 2) is seen underway in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. (U.S. Navy)
Throughout its decadelong existence, the littoral combat ship (LCS) program has had one enduring characteristic — promise.
Critics have had a field day decrying the U.S. Navy program’s concepts, management and execution, while supporters herald the ship type’s advantages. But eight years after construction began on the first ship, one inarguable fact remains — no LCS has yet been sent on a mission for which it was designed.
Public support for LCS remains strong at the top of the Navy. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. Jon Greenert, chief of naval operations (CNO), eagerly and repeatedly proclaimed the new ship’s value during Capitol Hill testimony this spring.
“The LCS is one of the backbones of our fleet today and for the future,” Mabus told the Senate on March 7.
“These are relevant ships for the relevant future and they resonate with the need out there,” Greenert said alongside Mabus. “They’re not only incredibly competent and capable now, but they will continue to be over the lifetime that they are in our fleet,” Mabus declared March 1 before the House.
The Navy leaders repeatedly spoke of the deployment of the first ship, Freedom (LCS 1), to the Caribbean, its participation in the last Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise and its upcoming deployment to Singapore.
But they were less eager to highlight when those events took place or are to happen. Freedom’s Caribbean drug-hunter demonstration cruise and RIMPAC participation took place in 2010, and it will be at least another year before it begins its proof-of-concept cruise to Singapore. It has spent much of the past year under repair.
Specific accomplishments of the second ship, Independence (LCS 2), are harder to quantify. For more than a year, the ship has toiled in Florida waters, testing components of the anti-mine mission module and remaining out of sight of much of the fleet and the Navy’s public-relations machine. Observers have begun referring to the angular, trimaran ship as the “stealth LCS” — not for its design, but because of its remarkably low public profile.
Another RIMPAC is set to begin in June — the exercise is held every two years — but no LCS will take part. Independence will be on the Pacific coast — it left Florida on April 7 to transfer to San Diego — but it will be engaged in a series of ship tests. Freedom, now wrapping up a repair period after springing another leak earlier this year, is scheduled to begin yet another maintenance period in July.
The promise of LCS has been a mantra of Navy leadership since the first construction contracts were issued in 2004. The entire program was wrapped around high speed; not only were the ships expected to cut the water at nearly 50 knots, but they also would be built and delivered in two years.
“I need ‘em yesterday,” Adm. Vern Clark, the CNO who kicked off the LCS program, constantly told anyone within earshot. Personnel leaders encouraged young, capable sailors to get in the program early and begin the numerous qualifications that would be needed to join the small, 40-sailor core crews.
Despite all the high-level boosting, enthusiasm in the fleet has never been strong for LCS, a type of ship that has no precedent along the waterfront. Many doubted the efficacy of the concept, preferring traditionally armed surface combatants. Critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, continue to bash the program for past and current transgressions.
After hearing years of promises with little to show for it, young officers and sailors seem to be turning away from the type. More and more senior surface officers admit they don’t see a bright future for the ships and are urging juniors to further their careers elsewhere. And those who support the ships find it harder to spread the cheer.
Casting aside arguments about whether LCS will be effective or represent a good investment, one hard-core fact is that when the Navy finishes its planned buy of 55 ships, the type will comprise one-sixth of the Navy’s goal of a fleet of about 300 ships — more than any other ship type.
Take away LCS, and the Navy drops to a fleet of about 245 ships.
Working Through Delays “There’s a lot of goodness in the program,” Capt. John Neagley, LCS program manager at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), said during a March 30 interview. “Perhaps we need to continue to get the word out.”
The Navy in 2010 purposely delayed testing and regular new-ship maintenance so Freedom could get to sea early. The effort, Neagley pointed out, was to get “the ship into the fleet’s hand so we could develop and refine the [concept of operations] and get a lot of good lessons-learned from an operational standpoint.”
Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, a veteran surface ship commander who is now the director of surface warfare, echoed that rationale, but also acknowledged the frustration factor during a March 21 interview.
“It’s like with anything — you want to get to where you need to be, and you can never get anywhere fast enough,” Rowden said. “And when you’re talking about the complexities of bringing a brand-new ship on line, you have to work your way through the research and development, test and evaluation, of all those different areas.”
Despite the positive publicity from Freedom’s 2010 cruise, both Freedom and Independence have had a series of well-publicized teething problems, most notably underwater corrosion issues and a weld-seam hull crack on Freedom in mid-February 2011 that caused some flooding. Freedom has also had cracks in its aluminum superstructure and in early February suffered another leak when a shaft seal broke just after another yard period.
The shaft seal problem is especially worrisome, and investigators from the Navy and its contractors have yet to definitively determine the cause, even after the ship spent a month sidelined at a pier and nearly six weeks in dry dock to have the shaft examined and repaired.
Neagley declined to speculate about the cause, but NAVSEA responded in an April 10 email.
“The Navy’s root cause analysis is not final,” wrote Chris Johnson, a spokesman for NAVSEA, “but the most likely cause is a deficiency in the new seal assembly. All other stern tube seals on Freedom were inspected and found to be satisfactory. The LCS 3 seals were not at risk of the same issue.
“The LCS 3 seals have been fully stressed through two series of builder’s sea trials,” Johnson continued. “If an issue were present with LCS 3 seals, it would have presented during this operation.”
LCS 3 is the Fort Worth, second ship of the Freedom class, soon to be delivered by Lockheed Martin’s shipbuilding partner at Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis. After pausing for the winter, sea trials have resumed, and on Aug. 1 the ship is expected to begin its long journey through the Great Lakes to the sea. A wave of positive publicity is expected to accompany the ship through a mid-September commissioning in Texas and to its October arrival in San Diego.
But some weeks sooner, another long-awaited event will take place. Independence will finally reach San Diego — where all LCSs are to be initially based — and Freedom should be operating again, allowing the never-before-seen sight of LCSs sailing side by side.
The photo opportunity won’t last long. Freedom is to go back into the yard for another three months of maintenance beginning July 9. The work will be the second and final part of the ship’s post-shakedown availability (PSA), a fix-up period that all new ships experience, but usually accomplish all at once. Ships are rarely considered ready for duty until all PSA work is completed.
Even more unusual is that Freedom will finish its PSA more than four years after delivery, a virtually unheard-of situation and one certainly to provoke more negative comment along the waterfront.
Independence is to begin Part 1 of its PSA in September and won’t finish the second part of the overhaul until October 2013, nearly four years after its delivery from shipbuilder Austal USA.
The work was put off, the Navy said, because of Freedom’s 2010 Caribbean cruise and RIMPAC participation, and the need to keep Independence in Florida to test mission module components.
The situation for both ships was further complicated by the continuing resolutions of 2011, when Congress failed to pass a defense budget before the end of the fiscal year.
Beginning with Fort Worth, the Navy intends to return to a single PSA for subsequent LCSs. Fort Worth is to complete its PSA in June 2013. After that, the ship is expected to train up and eventually become the first ship to be regularly forward-deployed to Singapore, an event unlikely to transpire until late 2014 or some time in 2015.
As for Coronado, the second Independence-class hull, completion is taking longer than expected. Once scheduled to deliver in May 2012, the date has been extended to March 2013. Reasons, Neagley said, include the Navy requiring more work to have been done prior to the ship’s launch last January, and process changes at Austal’s yard in Mobile, Ala., as it ramps up to series production of the ships.
Keeping Faith All is not lost among service members, however.
“I’ve gotten fairly positive feedback,” Neagley said. “I sponsor a plebe at the Naval Academy. I think it’s inculcated in the culture, the excitement at that level about that ship. The young naval officers at the academy always ask me about it when I go out there, are curious about it and excited about it.”
Rowden, who addressed an all-surface warfare officer call at the Pentagon in March to urge officers to get behind the program, likened problems with LCS to developmental issues that struck all new cruiser and destroyer programs since the 1960s. But he also acknowledged the challenges.
“We are really in uncharted water here,” he said. Unlike previous transitions of frigates and destroyers to newer models, with LCS, “we can’t go back and say this is how we did it in the past, and therefore can charge into the future. We’ve never had to experience this, there’s a blank sheet of paper with LCS.”
U.S. Navy officials have referred to the littoral combat ship (LCS) as the “backbone” of the fleet; the 55 planned hulls represent more than one-sixth of the future 300-ship inventory.
FREEDOM (LCS 1)
Sept. 18, 2008: Delivered by Lockheed Martin/Marinette Marine.
Nov. 8: Commissioned in Milwaukee.
Mid-Feb. 2011: Hull crack discovered while conducting seakeeping trials off Eureka, Calif. Cofferdam placed around crack at San Diego during Continuous Maintenance Availability (CMAV).
March 17: Repairs completed.
Late June: Entered BAE shipyard in San Diego for planned three-month overhaul, dubbed Post Shakedown Availability (PSA) No. 1.
Sept. 16: PSA 1 scheduled to be finished.
Oct. 24: PSA 1 actually finished.
Jan. 5, 2012: Post-PSA sea trials completed.
Jan. 9-27: Another CMAV conducted pierside at Naval Station San Diego.
Feb. 1: While underway off the California coast, shaft seal leak discovered in the port inboard water jet; flooding in the bilge contained and the ship returned to San Diego for evaluation.
Feb. 26: Entered Navy Graving Dock at Naval Station San Diego for shaft seal inspection and repair by Rolls-Royce and Propulsion Controls Engineering.
April 7: Undocked to complete shaft alignment and light-off assessment prior to tests.
May 2-4: Post-repair trials.
May to early July: To conduct surface warfare mission package testing, quick-reaction assessment and other trials.
July 9: Begin PSA No. 2 pierside at Naval Station San Diego, to be completed Oct. 19.
October: Begin crew qualifications and training cycle, module validation and testing, and preparation for upcoming Pacific deployment.
Late March, early April 2013: Departure for Singapore tentatively scheduled (the Navy has not publicly committed to a date). A 10-month cruise is planned — one month for transit, eight months operating out of Singapore, one month to return to San Diego around February or March 2014.
INDEPENDENCE (LCS 2)
Dec. 18, 2009: Delivered by General Dynamics/Austal USA.
Jan. 16, 2010: Commissioned at Mobile, Ala.
May to August: Carried out Industrial Post-Delivery Availability at BAE Norfolk.
September 2010-March 2012: Began ship tests and mine mission module testing out of Florida (Panama City, Pensacola, Mayport). Primary breaks included a public open house at St. Petersburg, Fla., in early September 2011 and a cruise to Newport, R.I., in mid-October 2011 for the International Seapower Symposium.
April 7: Left Naval Station Mayport to transfer to San Diego.
Early May: Arrive in San Diego.
Late May: Begin “seaframe testing” of various onboard systems to determine safe operating envelopes for the ship class, hull performance testing, and hull, mechanical and electrical systems testing.
Sept. 4, 2012-Jan. 4, 2013: PSA Part 1 at General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego.
Jan. 23-24: Post-PSA sea trials.
Aug. 8-October: PSA Part 2 in San Diego.
FORT WORTH (LCS 3)
June 6, 2012: Delivered by Lockheed Martin.
Aug. 1: Sailaway scheduled.
Sept. 22: Commissioning in Galveston, Texas. En route to Texas, ship tentatively scheduled to stop at Norfolk, Va., and Jacksonville, Fla. Additional stops may be added.
Early October: Arrive in San Diego.
March-June 2013: Single PSA in San Diego; the overhaul contract has yet to be awarded.
2014 or early 2015: Ship tentatively scheduled to sail to Singapore to become the first regularly forward-deployed ship stationed there.
CORONADO (LCS 4)
Jan. 9, 2012: Launched.
Jan. 14: Christened at Austal USA.
March 25, 2013: Delivery (planned in 2009 for May 2012).
Summer 2013: Sailaway for San Diego. Details of the commissioning ceremony have yet to be decided.
Spring 2014: PSA to be conducted in the San Diego region; contract has yet to be awarded.
Milwaukee (LCS 5): PSA scheduled to be completed October 2015.
Jackson (LCS 6): PSA scheduled to be completed July 2015.
Detroit (LCS 7): PSA scheduled to be completed June 2016.
Montgomery (LCS 8): PSA scheduled to be completed November 2015.
Little Rock (LCS 9): PSA scheduled to be completed March 2017.
Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10): PSA scheduled to be completed October 2016.
Sioux City (LCS 11): PSA scheduled to be completed September 2017.
Omaha (LCS 12): PSA scheduled to be completed April 2017.
LCS 13: PSA scheduled to be completed March 2018.
LCS 14: PSA scheduled to be completed October 2017.
Notes: Freedom (LCS 1)-class ships from Lockheed Martin are odd-numbered. Independence (LCS 2)-class ships from Austal USA are even-numbered. PSA completion dates for LCS 5 through 14 were provided in fiscal 2013 budget supporting documents. Future dates are subject to change.
Compiled from data supplied by the U.S. Navy