WASHINGTON — This time it's USS Freedom.
In yet another blow for its seemingly perpetually-troubled littoral combat ship program, the US Navy revealed Sunday that one of two main propulsion diesel engines on the San Diego-based Freedom has been damaged so badly it either has to be completely rebuilt or replaced.
It's the third time since December that a Freedom-class LCS has suffered a serious malfunction. In December, the brand-new Milwaukee broke down at sea and had to be towed to a Virginia port. In January, the Fort Worth — in the midst of what was until then a remarkably successful deployment to Singapore — was severely damaged by an in-port accident to her propulsion system. The ship languished the last seven months in Singapore, and only got underway on Aug. 22.
The Freedom's latest problems began July 11 when a sailor noted a drain leaking into the bilge from a seawater pump seal attached to the ship's No. 2 main propulsion diesel engine as the LCS was operating off Southern California. Sources familiar with the incident told Defense News the leak was plugged using a damage control plug.
Seawater then entered the engine's lubrication oil system, said Lt. Rebecca Haggard, a spokesperson for San Diego-based Naval Surface Forces (SURFOR), but the ship continued to operate.
In a statement, SURFOR said Freedom returned to San Diego on July 13 on her own power to conduct repairs on a separate, unrelated issue and, while in port, carried out procedures to decontaminate the lube oil system of seawater. The Freedom then got underway on July 19 for more than a week of Rim of the Pacific Exercises off Southern California, returning to San Diego July 28.
But back in port, an investigation of the engine on Aug. 3 "found significant damage to the engine caused by rust and seawater," SURFOR said. So many engine components were damaged that, SURFOR added, the engine "will need to be removed and rebuilt or replaced."
Freedom's main propulsion diesel engines are made by Colt-Pielstick. The ship has a combined diesel and gas turbine power plant — two diesels and two turbines — allowing the LCS to reach speeds above 40 knots on gas turbines and diesels, or using just the more-economical diesels for slower speeds.
SURFOR is still working to decide how and where the repairs will be carried out, Haggard said, but the ship will likely require drydocking, either at the Navy's drydock at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego or the floating dock at nearby General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO), which has the primary LCS support contract.
One issue to look out for is how long the Navy takes to decide on the repairs. When the Fort Worth was damaged in Singapore on Jan. 12, the Navy took three months just to decide where to fix the ship. And although the decision to fix the ship in San Diego was announced in April, the Fort Worth has only just begun its trans-Pacific voyage and is not expected to reach California for several weeks.
Meanwhile, SURFOR's investigation as to how the Freedom's diesel engine came to be damaged is still ongoing, Haggard said, adding that she was not aware of any reason the repair decision would need to be delayed for the mishap investigation results. The investigation, she added, will determine whether the damage was caused "by a mechanical failure or crew error or both."
LCS Crew 106 was operating the ship during the incident, Haggard said, and is still on board. Under the LCS program's rotating-crew scheme, crews generally come aboard for about four months before switching to either another LCS or a shore rotation.
Haggard noted that Freedom "is not scheduled to deploy during the time frame of the repairs."
SURFOR commander Vice Adm. Tom Rowden is heading the investigation, Haggard said. Rowden also led a recent review of the LCS program directed by chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson, which is expected to be made public in September.
The Navy's top leadership is known to be especially unhappy with this latest incident.
"Given the engineering casualties on USS Freedom and USS Fort Worth, I believe improvements in engineering oversight and training are necessary," Rowden said in the SURFOR statement.
"The recently-completed LCS Review of manning, design, and training looked at a number of sailor performance and ownership factors, to include crew rotation, size and proficiency. From this work, I believe we will be able to make immediate changes to help reduce chance for future operator error. I am fully committed to ensuring that our ships and the sailors who man them have the proper tools and training they need to safely and effectively operate these ships."