SINGAPORE — The littoral combat ship Fort Worth remains sidelined at Singapore's Changi Naval Base, waiting both for the results of a mishap investigation into how major portions of the ship's propulsion gear was damaged and a decision on where to fix the ship.
Several sources indicated the LCS needs between six to 12 months in a shipyard to repair the damage sustained in Singapore during a pierside accident while undergoing scheduled maintenance Jan. 12.
US Navy officials would not comment on the ongoing investigation, but the top US commander in the western Pacific confirmed that the choices on where to repair the ship are in Singapore, from where the ship has been operating for more than a year; in Japan, where the US Seventh Fleet is based; or on the US West Coast, where the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego is already preparing to overhaul the ship in 2017.
"I'd like to get it fixed expeditiously," Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, Seventh Fleet commander, said during a Feb. 15 interview in Singapore. "I think for that though, I think Yokosuka or back in San Diego would probably be better. That's me personally. But it's still too early."
The full extent of the damage, he said, is still being determined.
"We've got Lockheed Martin, they are helping us look at the extent of the damage, what on the drive train can still be used," Aucoin said.
Unofficially, several US sources indicated the combining gear, a complicated — and expensive — piece of equipment that combines power from the ship's gas turbines and diesel engines to propel water jets that drive the ship, is wrecked, and the diesel engines — installed as the most economical way to drive the ship — cannot be engaged.
Rather, it appears the Fort Worth can get underway on its one power, but only by using the large Rolls Royce MT30 gas turbines, installed to give the ship the propulsive power to reach speeds in the upper 40-knot range.
But the powerful MT30s — larger than the General Electric LM-2500 gas turbines that drive most of the US Navy's surface warships — are notorious gas hogs if used as the ship's sole means of propulsion. Should the ship need to make the long voyage to Japan — at least 3,000 nautical miles — or cross more than 10,000 nautical miles of ocean to reach San Diego, a fleet oiler would need to accompany the Fort Worth and conduct frequent underway refueling operations.
Some Navy officials dismissed those concerns, noting that US ships routinely engage in underway replenishment operations.
Repairing the Fort Worth's drive train is complicated by the densely-packed machinery spaces installed low in the ship, spaces difficult to work in in the best of circumstances. Inspectors have had to dig deep into the ship even to see how far the damage spread. Repairs are likely to involve hull cuts to gain access to the machinery spaces.
"You have to remove heavy pieces of gear, lift it out," Aucoin said.
"There's a lot of things associated" with determining the damage, he added. "Just removing those layers in order to get down to see the extent of damage, that's taken some time."
Aucoin said the investigation is a standard Manual of the Judge Advocate General, or JAGMAN, probe, and that there is no criminal investigation.
"It's just a mishap investigation," he said. "It looks like [someone was] just not following standard procedures. That does happen, people do make mistakes."
Aucoin reiterated his support for the LCS in the western Pacific.
"For a year, Fort Worth has been out here doing really good work," he said. "I'm very pleased with what it's done in the region. And this is a setback. I wish it hadn't happened, but we're going to learn from it.
"I can't wait until we get other ships of that type over here because I really do think it's the size and shape of a platform that can really help us in our efforts out here."
Aucoin decried the lengthy acquisition process in Washington. The Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) and the General Accountability Office continue to urge the Navy to slow down acquisition and deployment of the LCS in favor of more testing, even though the type has been under development for well over a decade. The deployment of the Fort Worth, like the previous cruise of the LCS Freedom, is in many ways seen as a test mission, employing as many operational elements as possible. The Freedom, now in overhaul at San Diego, is expected to deploy again to this region late this year, likely preceded by the Coronado, which will be making the first deployment of an Independence-class ship.
"There is some risk involved in bringing these ships out early," Aucoin acknowledged. "We took that on, and we learned a lot, and I think we need to keep on progressing forward. I'm trying to do this in other areas too.
"You know, our acquisition process is pretty slow. And we're trying to bring these things out earlier, to do some of the test and evaluation out here, to learn from it. To wring it out faster.
"That's one of my key tenets," the Seventh Fleet commander said. "That's the guidance I've given to my fleet ... to not be averse to risk. Let's bring things out early. Let's test, not just platforms, but processes, the way we do things, tactics, to learn from them. And not just do the run-of-the-mill stuff and wait for the whole acquisition process."
So could DOT&E testing and evaluation be carried out in the western Pacific?
"We can do a lot of things out here," Aucoin declared.
GD NASSCO Takes Over
Behind the scenes, a little-noticed development is apparently complicating the question of where to repair the Fort Worth, several sources said.
The General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) is taking over as the prime sustainment agent for LCS, having outbid Lockheed Martin in April. At that time, NASSCO was awarded a $24.1 million contract to maintain and modernize 12 LCSs in San Diego, including both GD-designed Independence-class and Lockheed-produced Freedom-class ships. The initial contract contains options worth up to $96 million, the Navy said.
NASSCO took over the maintenance and repair of the LCS Independence in July, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) said in a Feb. 22 statement, and became the support agent for the latest two ships, Milwaukee and Jackson, when the ships were delivered last year to the Navy.
Lockheed is handling the selected restricted availability (SRA, a type of Navy overhaul) for the Freedom, NAVSEA said, but will relinquish responsibility for the ship when the overhaul is completed later this month.
Lockheed will also turn over responsibility for the Fort Worth "in March," NAVSEA said.
"NASSCO is already ahead of the curve," NAVSEA added, "working toward [the Fort Worth's] SRA in 2017."
Some sources indicated concerns that as Lockheed's experienced management team is replaced by NASSCO managers, a new learning curve will be injected into the LCS program. Other sources said most of the actual work is done by subcontractors and many of those already working under Lockheed on LCS will simply switch over to NASSCO.
Sources also said NASSCO was lobbying heavily for the Fort Worth to make the Pacific crossing, despite the expense, and undergo full repairs in San Diego. Wherever the ship is repaired, the LCS is already scheduled to be overhauled at NASSCO when she gets back to the US, so the argument is that it's better to endure the transoceanic crossing than have the ship undergo major repair periods in two different shipyards.
Sweltering at Changi
Meanwhile, the energy of the Fort Worth's first 14 months on deployment has been been replaced by the ship's enforced idleness at this base. During a Feb. 16 visit, members of LCS Crew 101 indicated they were continuing to carry out basic maintenance and otherwise take care of the ship, but crew members were clearly disappointed.
One problem for sailors is keeping up active qualifications. Flight crew of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35, which operates the ship's embarked MH-60R helicopter and MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter drone, have traveled to Japan to maintain flying hours on the MH-60R, but the drone operators will need to be recertified, a crew member said.
Nearby sat the submarine tender Emory S. Land, a repair ship carrying out a scheduled port call. The tender's presence at Changi, said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson, was not related to the Fort Worth's problems. While Land sailors provided some assistance to the LCS, the Guam-based tender left after a short stay.