Waves crash over the U.S. littoral combat ship Fort Worth's bow as the ship enters the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
ABOARD USS FORT WORTH — As storms go, it wasn’t a biggie. Eight-to-12-foot waves, 40 mph winds.
But the ocean’s saltwater was a baptism of sorts, as the U.S. Navy’s latest littoral combat ship (LCS) left behind more than 2,000 miles of Great Lakes freshwater sailing and entered the Atlantic on Aug. 17 for the first time.
Water flared off the bow as spray and occasionally green water washed over the sleek superstructure of the low-lying LCS. With a draft of only about 13 feet, the ship’s bow repeatedly rose clear of the water, slamming back down yet still gliding forward. She pitched and rolled like a small, 2,800-ton ship — several sailors more used to an aircraft carrier or large-deck amphib rode out the storm in their racks — but she was in her element.
Delivered this summer from Lockheed Martin and Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis., the Fort Worth is on a nine-week, 8,000-mile voyage that will end in mid-October at her new homeport of San Diego. The ship will spend about a week in Galveston, Texas — where her commissioning ceremony will be held Sept. 22, attended by several Texas longhorn cattle — before continuing through the Panama Canal into the Pacific.
It’s been more than two years since the Navy received a new LCS, an innovative type of warship intended to field modular mission packages and manned by as few sailors as possible. Each of the first two ships, the single-hull Freedom and the all-aluminum trimaran Independence, are at San Diego undergoing months-long maintenance periods, and for now, the Fort Worth, second of the Freedom class, is the only LCS running.
Cmdr. Randy Blankenship, skipper of the Blue Crew that is manning Fort Worth, already is a three-time veteran at putting new Navy ships into service.
“With the LCS, everybody’s learning at once — the shipyard, the program office, the supervisor of shipbuilding, we’re all learning at one time,” he said Aug. 17 during a break at sea. “It brings a unique challenge over the other. You don’t know what you don’t know yet.”
The Navy is still figuring out how the entire LCS concept will work — how to manage the ships, the multiple crews, the mission detachments, the maintenance and support schemes, not to mention the operational picture.
Blankenship, a prior enlisted sailor who, as a second class boatswain’s mate, helped commission a destroyer, then as an officer put a cruiser and another destroyer into service, noted that the LCS was quite a different animal.
“The destroyer and cruiser programs were so much more mature, it was easy to do reach back” for support, he said. “If you had a part that failed you could reach back to [shipbuilders] Bath or Ingalls and they could get it to you.
“Here, you don’t have that reach back yet. Everything on the ship is new, different vendors, it’s not on the stock shelf yet.” But, he added, “as more ships come on line that will change.”
The fleet introductions of the first two ships were anything but normal. Before regular tests and maintenance were finished, the Navy sent Freedom and Independence off on specific missions that took about a year and a half. Then, when it was time to undergo the normal post-shakedown availability (PSA) overhaul that all new ships go through, the lack of a regular federal budget caused the Navy to split the PSA for both ships into two parts.
Freedom is undergoing the second part of its PSA, while Independence is starting the first portion. Each ship will finish its PSA nearly four years after delivery, an unusual situation.
Blankenship declared his intention to make Fort Worth’s entry into service as normal as possible, geared to have his ship ready for deployment by 2014.
“Our PSA should closely follow a destroyer model,” he said. “Normally you come out of the shipyard, you’ve got 11 months during the [contract] obligation period” when the shipbuilder is responsible for most fixes.
“We want to follow the exact same model. Do final contract trials, solidify those things, normally within 60 days after you start PSA.”
After that, “you solve those problems and then you’re under operations funding.”
Beginning next spring, Freedom is set to carry out a demonstration deployment to Singapore, intended to set the stage for four more ships of the same class to operate from the Asian city state. But Freedom will be brought home after 10 months to carry out further LCS development work.
Fort Worth, probably in 2014 or early 2015, will likely become the first truly operational LCS operating from Singapore.
The voyage from Marinette hasn’t been without incident. Blankenship and his Blue Crew — accompanied by most members of the Gold Crew as well as 13 sailors from the anti-submarine warfare detachment — were acutely aware of the issues encountered in 2008 when Freedom made her transit through the lock systems of the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
Freedom did not carry enough fenders to act as a barrier between the ship and the concrete-and-stone lock walls, and a fender bender with a lock gate banged up a bridge wing.
The Fort Worth crew was determined to avoid those missteps. A smaller, handier tug, necessary in the locks because the LCS has no bow thruster, was assigned to the ship. A more robust fendering package, including two, huge “Yokohama” fenders and many more small units, proved better able to withstand the lock walls.
Still, not all was smooth running. At Port Colborne, Ontario, a handling line dropped in the water was sucked into a waterjet intake and partially wrapped around a propulsion shaft. A local diver had to be found to clear the intake.
Later, a fender hung over the starboard side at the aftmost point became hung up on a lock gate as the ship descended in the dock. Riding up the side, pinched between the ship and gate, it rolled over a section of flight deck netting. The mangled net was taken off in Montreal to be replaced later, and the space roped off.
Vibrations in one of the two steerable waterjets caused it to be shut down, and extra time was taken in Montreal to discover the problem. It was traced to a leaking union nut assembly in the port waterjet, and again, local divers were hired to go down and replace the parts with new ones obtained locally.
As the ship moved into the wider Gulf of Saint Lawrence, a high-speed run began, affording the crew a chance to watch an impressive “rooster tail” kicked up by the combined gas turbine and diesel propulsion machinery. About 15 minutes into the run, however, rising temperatures in one of the diesels indicated a sea water pump had failed, and the engine was shut down. A replacement pump was to be flown in from Marinette, Navy officials said, and the unit would be fully repaired during a stop in Florida.
Blankenship and his crew did not consider the loss of the diesel engine critical, however, and two days later the ship rode out the storm with no apparent propulsion problems.
Other minor issues included several incorrect sensor readings, and a sudden loss of shore power while berthed at the Canadian naval dockyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia, led to a couple hundred gallons of lubrication oil spilling in a shaft alley — a mess that was cleaned up by the crew.
Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), in response to questions about the problems, noted in an Aug. 30 email that “repairs were completed in a timely manner by the shipbuilder, either through the warranty process or assigned as ‘new work,’ while meeting all operational commitments.”
The cost of many of the repairs, NAVSEA said, was being borne by the shipbuilder.
“The ship’s new construction warranty clause has been invoked in correcting many of these minor repairs,” NAVSEA said, while “other normally-planned maintenance efforts” funded by the Navy will take place in Mayport, Fla.
Although not mechanical, a couple other issues affected the ship’s comfort. Normal use of showers and toilets was cut off while cruising the Great Lakes, since the dumping of holding tanks is forbidden in the freshwater lakes and the Saint Lawrence River. As on Freedom’s delivery trip, port-o-potties were set up in the hangar, creating an olfactory challenge.
The helicopter hangar — one of the biggest such installations on a Navy ship — also sported hundreds of big, brown spiders, refugees from the Wisconsin summer. All along the bulkheads, all over the overhead, and on the inside of the hangar roller door, the critters lay waiting for insect victims unlikely to appear at sea. Sailors hoped they would eventually starve and die off.
Adapting to LCS
Crewmembers seemed eager to find a rhythm in operating their new ship and to find out what works or doesn’t work. A key factor in a ship with only 40 members in each core crew is the ability to handle multiple responsibilities.
“This ship doesn’t allow you to not understand the systems,” said Cmdr. Matthew Kawas, executive officer of the Blue Crew. “We didn’t get rid of watch standers, we made them automatic,” he said, referring to automated systems that allow for reduced manning. “Seaman Sperry is your master helmsman,” he quipped, referring to the automated piloting system.
Lt. Phillip Dennis, the ship’s chief engineer, noted that although the ship’s design allows for automated operation, he still requires watch standers to walk through the engineering spaces at least twice a watch, “at least until we have more faith in the systems.”
After a brief stopover in Norfolk, Va., Fort Worth arrived at Mayport on Aug. 31. There, the ship will spend a week in a planned maintenance availability, a five-day work period each LCS is expected to undergo every month or so.
After the commissioning festivities in Galveston, the ship will continue to San Diego, where she’s expected to arrive in mid-October.
At that point, her sister ship Freedom should be finishing up her PSA and begin workups for next year’s deployment and, for the first time, two LCSs of the same type will have the chance to operate together.
“We want to get to the ship and do what we’re doing now,” said Cmdr. Hank Kim, executive officer of the Gold Crew, who will take over Fort Worth next spring. “We’re starting out with almost a clean slate.”