The Navy's first littoral combat ship was open for viewing at the International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference last week in Singapore. (US Navy)
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SINGAPORE — If anyone wanted to see evidence of the US Navy’s steps toward rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific last week, it was right there in haze gray.
At the biennial International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX) in Singapore, the littoral combat ship Freedom was open to visitors.
“The Freedom represents a change in force structure” as the US moves more ships to the Asia-Pacific region, said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, US Navy chief of naval operations.
He outlined the importance of the LCS deployment to Singapore and the Asia rebalance policy at IMDEX. The Asia-Pacific is home to five of seven treaty allies, six of the world’s top 20 economies, and a range of emerging partners, he said.
“The rebalance towards Asia will include the deployment of more forces, basing more ships and aircraft, fielding new capabilities, and the development of partnerships and intellectual capital across the region,” Greenert said.
Since the 1990s, the US Navy has deployed 50 ships to the Asia-Pacific region, and by the end of this decade this will grow to 60 ships. This will also include aircraft, such as the first squadron of P-8 Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft by the end of the year, plans to deploy a maritime version of the Global Hawk UAV in the near future, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at the end of the decade.
Greenert said that up to four littoral combat ships would be deployed in Singapore by the middle of this decade. By the early 2020s, there will be up to eleven LCS hulls in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, as replacements for mine countermeasures vessels, he said. “Our counterparts in the region are impressed with the modularity, space, volume, and agility of the LCS.”
Regional navies are also impressed by the automation, said Joe North, vice president of LCS Systems for Lockheed Martin, which is the prime contractor for the Freedom class.
“The automation comes with 50 cameras in and around the ship allowing for better control” and reducing the number of crewmen,” North said. “They can look at the machinery and tell if there is a problem.”
The ship has 7,000 sensors for identifying problems before they become critical. Lockheed’s Oculus-X Predictive System Condition Analyzer serves as a “black box so we can do root cause analysis,” North said.
The unique design of the stealthy 3,000-ton Freedom has become a template for the design of future ships, North said. During IMDEX, Lockheed presented briefings on the new multi-mission combat ship (MCS) for the export market.
Based on Freedom, the MCS will give customers a choice of three different platforms, all within 67 to 150 meters in length and from 1,000 to 6,000 tons. The adaptable design allows for inclusion of partner navy-designated zone placements, sensors and weapons systems, including vertical launch tubes and surface-to-surface missile canisters, without major structural impact.
“The MCS is a highly maneuverable multirole combatant with shallow draft, automation, flexible crew size, and leading edge/open technology to integrate systems, sensors and weapons capabilities,” North said. “Navies can establish their preferred size and overall requirements. A number of countries worldwide are expressing interest in this capability.”
However, countries in the Asia-Pacific most likely will wait before committing to the procurement of Lockheed’s LCS or MCS, said Euan Graham, senior fellow, Maritime Security Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“It’s just too early for realistic export prospects,” he said. Future buyers, the US Navy included, will want to evaluate how both variants perform.” The other LCS class is the all-aluminum trimaran 3,000-ton Independence-class built by Austal USA.
However, Lockheed has a head start with the Singapore deployment and with promoting the MCS in the region, Graham said. “Freedom is a capable ship, but in some sense is still an operationally deployed test bed — with the capacity, as the mission modules are rolled out, to perform across the spectrum of maritime security and naval diplomacy tasks.”
Freedom includes the Sikorsky MH-60R helicopter for anti-submarine (ASW) and anti-surface (ASuW) missions. “It is the most current and capable ASW and ASuW weapons system in the world,” North said.
Regarding criticism of Freedom, North said the LCS did not go through the normal development stage. “Instead, it was an acquisition model. An 80 percent solution and so it didn’t allow you to develop it to the extent of a normal ship.”
North said the “Singapore deployment is a test phase to prove out what’s working and what’s not.”
The modular mission packages for initial operational capability will begin with the mine warfare (MIW) package in 2014 and then ASW in the 2015-2016 timeframe.
“The benefit of the modular plug-and-play design is that the threats and the technology change so quickly they can jump and pull and insert mission packages as things change,” North said, “rather than taking a ship out of service to modify it.”
Beyond MIW, ASW, and ASuW, they are also looking at humanitarian and disaster relief packages. There is also a possible special operations warfare package that would include underwater vehicles and rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs). Freedom has a ramp for receiving and disembarking RHIBs.
“Each discipline is looking at how this can be helpful for our mission,” North said. This includes interest by the US Marine Corps, which has been looking at amphibious warfare mission packages.