SINGAPORE — The littoral combat ship Fort Worth has been sidelined at a pier here for several weeks after an in-port accident, an embarrassing setback to a deployment so successful that the cruise had just been extended.
Coming just a few weeks after another LCS, the Milwaukee, broke down off Virginia and had to be towed to port, the incidents have further damaged the reputation of a type of ship struggling to prove itself in the face of constant criticism.
But the Navy's senior commander in the Western Pacific still expresses confidence in the ships.
"LCS is dearly needed out here," Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Japan-based US Seventh Fleet, told reporters here Monday.
"I think this is an ideal ship for this area. I like the size, the capability, multi-mission [features], there's also room for growth. And it complements so many navies in this region."
The ship's cruise had been a great success, Aucoin noted.
"Up until this incident, Fort Worth did very well," he said. "It made all its scheduled events."
The accident took place Jan. 12 while the Fort Worth was undergoing maintenance at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore. Early reports, according to Navy sources, indicated the ship's port and starboard main propulsion diesel engines were started — ones that turn shafts into a combining gear, allowing operators to shift between diesel and gas turbines to drive the ship. But lubrication oil for the combination gears apparently was not turned on, and the system suffered serious damage.
Details of the damage, however, remain a secret.
"There's a [mishap] investigation going on with Fort Worth to determine what happened," Aucoin said. "I don't want to get into prematurely saying what happened.
"But it sounds like we didn't follow established standard operating procedures with the startup of the diesel engines, and it impacted the combining gears.
"We're still determining the extent of the damage and how to fix it," Aucoin said, "but it looks like operator error that led directly to this failure.
"This is a momentary setback," Aucoin added. "I wish it hadn't happened. But we're going to fix it and we're going to continue on track, because it's a great platform to help us in this region."
Aucoin spoke to reporters on the eve of the Singapore Airshow, the region's largest. As expected, most questions revolved around China's actions in and around the South China Sea. Aucoin acknowledged the Chinese were being provocative, particularly with extensive artificial island-building that is inflaming already sore tensions in the region.
But he also continually stressed ways to cooperate with China, including having more People's Liberation Army Navy participation in more multinational exercises.
"I'm stressing the multilateralism that is very important to strengthen our alliances and partnerships in this area, that helps us with the collective security in this region," Aucoin said. "I'm pushing for more multilateral exercises working closely with all the countries in the region, to actually include China."
Pressed by reporters to speak to US intentions regarding freedom of navigation exercises through waters that China is claiming as the result of the artificial islands, Aucoin was adamant. "We're going to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.
"We want to make sure this is a global commons that can be used by all countries.
"We would like China to be more transparent about what their intentions are," Aucoin added. "I think that would relieve some of the angst that we're now seeing. We're unsure where they're taking this."
He noted there was risk that at-sea confrontations could grow into serious incidents, and cited work between the US, China and other countries to establish a protocol for such encounters. Called CUES — Code for Unplanned Encounters At Sea — the agreement has been signed by the US and Chinese navies.
But the Chinese have been employing new and ever-larger Coast Guard ships — painted white rather than Navy grey — in carrying out provocative behavior, and many smaller ships, seemingly local fishing or cargo ships, are being manned by Chinese government-organized militia, using aggressive tactics to threaten or even damage other ships.
"We've done a lot with CUES to address combatant-to-combatant [encounters] so there's no miscalculation," Aucoin said. "But I have a greater fear that some of these others, Coast Guard — what we refer to as "white shipping" — cabbage ships [local cargo ships], I'm not sure about their professionalism. I think that having a code of conduct to cover that would be a good thing. That definitely is a concern of mine."
"I'm asking our Coast Guard to become more involved to help us with these types of operations," Aucoin added, because it's not simply grey hulls any more."
Aucoin praised the US Navy's relationship with Singapore, which allows the US to support its LCSs at Changi, and where US P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft will sometimes operate.
"The occasional operation of a P-8 detachment out of Singapore really helps us collectively with the security in the region," he said.