An MH-60R Sea Hawk prepares to land aboard the littoral combat ship Freedom (LCS 1). (U.S. Navy)
When the littoral combat ship Freedom needs scheduled maintenance overseas, the workers who step onboard had better be Americans.
U.S. law bars foreign shipyard workers from doing such tasks as preventative and corrective maintenance, deep cleaning and corrosion control — crucial work for a ship manned by only 50 or so sailors, meaning it will rely more on shore-based support than other U.S. Navy ships.
And as more LCS hulls come into service, that foreign-based support will become ever more important. The U.S. plans to base four ships in Singapore — Freedom will sail there next year — and another eight in Bahrain, starting as soon as 2014.
Yet if foreigners aren’t allowed to do the work, the LCS force will need to be supported by U.S.-based “fly-away teams,” a situation that could be unaffordable.
That’s just one of the conclusions reached by participants in a war game earlier this year designed to study LCS sustainment — how the ships would be kept ready for battle while operating from foreign ports. Along with another game and a classified study on the Navy’s readiness to operate the ships, the work is part of a major Navy effort to assess the LCS program and understand its problems and issues.
The sustainment war game was held in January by U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. According to an unclassified assessment of the four-day game, participants were asked to identify a single issue as the chief risk to LCS mission success. The answers were:
Shore support is directly related to mission readiness and effectiveness, with the San Diego-based LCS Squadron (LCSRON) key to coordinating the process.
“Adherence to the maintenance schedule will drive operational availability.”
The legal maintenance restrictions barring foreign workers from many onboard tasks need to be “fully vetted,” and “fly-away teams may be financially unsustainable.”
The game also produced seven major findings:
“The logistics of mission package exchanges are more complicated and time-consuming than currently reflected in the wholeness CONOPS [concept of operations].”
“LCS manpower is overtaxed by anti-terrorist/force protection requirements.”
Facility, supply and logistics systems in the operations area “require investment and improvement” ahead of an LCS arriving on station.
The permanent support plan and maintenance strategy needs to be better defined in light of the legal restrictions.
The traditional planned maintenance system strategy “requires significant procedural and organizational revision.”
Overseas management of LCS ordnance and hazardous materials needs to be defined and refined in host nation agreements and U.S. Navy policies.
LCSRON distance support is “the critical node.”
The limited ability of the LCS crew to perform onboard maintenance, and the need to return to port for even basic repairs, “negatively impacts” the ships’ availability to operational commanders, according to sources familiar with the classified report.
Further, the contractor teams handling maintenance duties are not performing up to snuff or being held accountable for their work. Many contractors are doing the work twice — the second time to correct problems with their initial work — avoiding penalties and billing the Navy twice for the jobs.
According to some LCS crews, the reliance on contractors actually results in more work for the crew, which is too small to supervise the contractors. Navy sailors often have to fix the problems after the contractors have left.
Extensive contractor services also are required to maintain spare parts inventories for the ships, since each of the two ship designs features a number of non-standard systems and the vessels are too small to carry many spares. Ships will be based on either the Lockheed Martin Freedom-class design or Austal USA’s Independence class.
But the reports note the parts and work requirements need to be identified and ordered well in advance, so they’re available when needed — a situation that severely limits the flexibility of the LCS.
The classified study included the examination of operations aboard the first two LCS vessels, each relatively new. Maintenance requirements generally increase as ships age, and neither LCS has performed an extended overseas deployment.
The classified study was done this year by a team headed by Rear Adm. Samuel Perez, reporting to Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations. Known as the OPNAV report — for the offices reporting directly to the chief of naval operations — the study is the first major examination of the LCS effort from an operational point of view, rather than a study of the program’s concepts or acquisition progress.
The Navy has been reluctant to discuss the OPNAV report, “A Review of the Navy’s Readiness to Receive, Employ and Deploy the LCS Class Vessel.” Like the war games, the report’s intention was to uncover problems, and it does not focus on program successes or accomplishments.
“This review was intended to be critical, to take a hard look at what needs to be addressed before LCS deploys to Singapore, to determine what needs to be studied during the deployment and what issues need a longer-term look,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, director of surface warfare and chief coordinator of the LCS effort.
The Small Crews
Rowden revealed in late June that 20 berths would be added to the Freedom ahead of next year’s deployment. The revised manning plan has yet to be announced, but most of those racks will be used by sailors added to the current 40-person core crew, although several might be reserved for additional mission package detachment members.
The additions represent a long-awaited reversal of the original minimal-manning construct applied to the entire LCS concept. Heretofore, Navy officials rigidly opposed any crew increases despite widespread acknowledgement of the problems, including statements such as that in the 2009 version of the ships’ concept of operations: “There are no spare sailors or officers assigned to LCS. The unplanned loss of any crewmember may result in major mission degradation.”
According to sources familiar with the OPNAV report, the study reported that while LCS crews are functioning at the current 40-sailor level, safety and readiness are being harmed as a result. Crews tend to be exhausted after only three days of normal operations and soon begin to perform poorly. Navy studies show that the effects of several days of low-tempo LCS operations equate to high-tempo operations for a cruiser crew.
Even when in port, LCS duty sections are limited to three sections, meaning fewer days off and less time off the ship, and underway watches rarely exceed two or three sections — at a time when increased automation on ships with larger crews is seeing increases in many cases to five or six sections.
The manning margins are so thin on an LCS that crew members who need to be off the ship for training, briefings or any other reason may find the request denied if they can’t be even temporarily replaced. If a sailor holding one of 21 critical positions on the ship isn’t available, the ship might not be able to get underway, since there might not be another crew member with the required qualifications.
With only two ships in service, the LCSRON reportedly is meeting the short-term unplanned manning losses. But as the number of ships and crews grows, the problem will get worse, according to sources familiar with the OPNAV report.
The manning studies also point out that the multiple-crew LCS manning scheme places a heavy burden on the need for sailors to be certified before they come on board, since there’s no margin for on-the-job training. But if they miss out on shore-based training, gaps will appear in individual crews’ readiness levels.
The Navy has conducted a number of workload reduction studies and initiatives for the LCS, and at least 40 waivers or deviations have been enacted to ease the situation. But the reports recommend that further work be done.
The OPNAV report, according to sources, concluded that, in light of what the ships can and can’t do, the entire LCS concept of operations needs to be reviewed, along with the minimal-manning requirements and the contractor-based maintenance schemes.
The studies make plain the Navy’s concern with exhaustion and fatigue among LCS crews and the need to improve their quality of life, and cite “the reality of the workload” to bolster those positions.
The review efforts also highlight the extreme complexity of the LCS program — the multiple crews, additional mission module packages and aviation detachments, and two distinct ship classes — as major factors in developing solutions.
“The pieces come together to make a mosaic,” said one participant in the war game. “When you put the mosaic into the theater’s dynamic environment, it becomes a kaleidoscope.”