Engineman 1st Class Robert Carter works on the diesel engine inside the main machinery room aboard the littoral combat ship Freedom. (US Navy)
Sailors aboard the littoral combat ship Freedom secure mooring lines to the ship during a swap of the embarked gold crew with the blue crew in Singapore in August. / US Navy
WASHINGTON — When a generator problem caused a power loss onboard the littoral combat ship Freedom in July, sailors scrambled to get their ship running again. Engines were restarted within a few minutes, but the crew needed to quickly analyze the situation and make a decision — to continue with the underway exercises or return to port where shore-based maintenance teams could fix the problem.
The decision was made to head back to Singapore for repairs, with the hope that the fix would be quick enough to return to the exercises. The problem was analyzed, shore teams in Singapore and San Diego sprang into action, parts were made ready, and the ship was in and out in less than three days.
The incident, one of the more publicized problems to hit Freedom on the first-ever extended overseas LCS deployment, was also a test of the support systems put in place to keep the ships running. Larger warships — destroyers or cruisers with more than 300 sailors — carry dozens of technicians able to deal with onboard problems. But the standard 40-person crew of an LCS — expanded to about 50 for Freedom’s cruise — is too small to deal with onboard problems in the same manner, relying instead on an extensive shore organization.
“It was deemed the right thing to do was return to Changi [naval base in Singapore] and have the technicians ready to meet the ship,” Capt. Mike Taylor, chief of staff for the western Pacific logistics group based in the island nation, and previously commander of Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 1 (LCSRON), said in a phone interview. “In the planning prior to deployment, we had the required spare parts staged at Changi already.
“I was pleased with the way it all worked out,” he continued. “The communications worked right in terms of the operational command being able to make decisions based on timely information coming in, and keeping the support team back in San Diego informed as well.
“That’s the unique aspect of LCS — reduced crew size, processes moved off the ship and accomplished by San Diego even when the ship’s out here. That we could turn the ship around and make it work goes to say the work we’ve done in developing and implementing these processes is working.”
A bit more than halfway through the planned 10-month deployment, the support team has dealt with a range of issues on Freedom, from the unwanted induction of seawater into the reduction gear cooling system to sporadic diesel generator problems. But the team isn’t reporting too many changes from the pre-deployment plans.
“I don’t think we’re making too many adjustments on the fly. What we’ve planned for has been working,” said Capt. Randy Garner, a former Freedom commanding offer who’s now commanding the LCSRON in San Diego. “In the long term, we’ll need to make adjustments to some of the ships’ systems, work on getting reliability better.”
Both officers seemed pleased with the support available in Singapore, where the US plans to base a force of four littoral combat ships within a few years.
“Singapore is an ideal location because of the very robust nature of the facilities here and the companies that operate out of here,” Taylor said. “A fair number of [the makers of] the hull, machinery and electrical systems on Freedom have offices here.”
The Singaporean Navy’s Formidable-class missile craft have the same type of generator, he pointed out, and naval support facilities in the country are comfortable with ships similar to Freedom’s small size.
One sensitivity has been the number of US people supporting the LCS effort — a footprint the Singaporeans would like to keep small.
The current team of about 10 Navy people supporting Freedom has been about right, Taylor said, although one or two positions might be added as the LCS force builds up.
“We’re not trying to build up a great big organization,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to maintain a small footprint here in Singapore, and still reach out to a very large area.”
The shore support also includes nine contractors from Lockheed Martin, seven for the ship and two for the mission package, said Capt. Dan Brintzinghoffer, the LCS fleet introduction program manager at Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington. At least one contractor, and at times as many as three more, is embarked on Freedom to handle maintenance issues.
“When the ship has a particular casualty or there is some other specific equipment challenge, that technical representative can do some assessment,” Brintzinghoffer said. “He is assisting in the communication back to Singapore. Then, they are able to provide a more defined list of exactly what is wrong and exactly what the course of action would be to make a repair or provide the required support, and work back on shore between the government people and the contractors that are here.”
Rear Adm. Jim Murdoch, head of the LCS program office at Naval Sea Systems Command before his retirement in mid-September, noted that while support personnel costs are running lower than expected, emergent maintenance issues are higher than forecast.
“The diesel generator, the air conditioning plants, the lube oil coolers — those are the areas that have caused us to over-run our budget,” he said in August.
“I want to stress that we are executing to our plan in terms of the support that we have there in Changi,” Murdoch said. “The diesel generator casualty [in July] showed that when the ship had an issue, and she wanted to go in and expedite the repairs, we were able to very quickly flow the parts and the people down to the pier without host nation problems. Got it taken care of, got her back out into the exercise. I was very happy with that.”
Although Freedom still has a couple months of operations in the western Pacific before heading home, the LCS organization already is evaluating the experience.
“While we have an opportunity to take the lessons learned against this baseline of support that is here — in terms of the number of parts, the number of people and how we are executing the plan — our focus is to start evolving,” Brintzinghoffer said. “If there are multiple ships here, what are the efficiencies?
“There is no intention right now, and there would be no reason, to just multiply the number of individual support people by the number of hulls” as the LCS force expands, he said. “Right now, it looks like it is going to be a relatively small increase.”