WASHINGTON – After more than twelve years insisting the unique crewing and modularity schemes for the Littoral Combat Ship will work, US Navy leaders are changing those plans as part of a larger shakeup of the long-troubled program.
Gone is the quick-change approach, where it was expected the ships would swap out mission modules equipped for specific warfare areas with others – such as offloading an anti-mine module and replacing it within hours, or just a few days, with a surface warfare module.
Gone is the three-crews-for-two-ships concept, where crews would rotate between the ships and shore duty in an effort to keep each ship operating at least half the time. Also gone is the idea of splitting core crews assigned to the ships with mission detachments that came and went with specific mission modules.
Gone is the idea that the first four ships are regularly deployable fleet units.
"This is not a major revision," Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, commander of naval surface forces, told reporters Sept. 8 at the Pentagon. "This is a course correction as we are gaining experience operating the ships forward."
Rowden insisted the changes were not a reaction to any of the incidents plaguing the program over the past year, but did acknowledge that the 60-day review ordered in February by chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson was "perhaps prompted by some engineering failures. We had the opportunity to stand back and take a look at this thing. We do this in a lot of areas a lot of the time."
LCS critics have long attacked all the elements being changed, but the moves, Rowden insisted, are "not giving in to criticism. But if you don't listen to people – they've got a lot of great ideas on how to make things better."
In his briefing, Rowden highlighted five major changes:
-- The core crews and mission module detachments will be merged into a single 70-sailor crew, up from the current 50-sailor core crew. With an embarked air detachment, 93 sailors will be aboard. Merging the core crews and detachments will, a Navy statement said, "improve training efficiency, enlisted rating utilization, create crew stability and ownership."
-- Switch to a blue/gold crewing scheme for each ship, similar to the system employed on the Navy's missile submarines. The crews will be permanently assigned to each ship and rotate every four-to-five months from onboard duty to shoreside training and rest. The system, the statement said, creates "a cycle of virtue between the crews who consistently turn the same ship over to each other." When on board ship, each crew will focus on only one mission capability – anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare or mine countermeasures. The transition to blue/gold crews will begin this fall, although, Rowden added, the entire scheme isn't expected to be completed until 2023.
-- The first four ships – Freedom and Fort Worth of the Lockheed Martin-led steel-hulled Freedom class, and the Independence and Coronado of the General Dynamics all-aluminum trimaran design – will eventually become training ships, testing mission modules and other developing technologies. The ships will still be able to deploy, but will spend the majority of their time in the US, based at San Diego. The first four ships – which Navy officials long insisted were fully deployable, operational units – have a number of different components than follow-on ships built by Lockheed and Austal USA, which took over as the prime contractor for the Independence class beginning with the third ship. The ships will also become training ships, certifying crews of ships forward-deployed overseas. A timeline for the ships to transition to their new roles is still to be determined, Rowden said.
-- All Freedom-class ships will be homeported in Mayport, Florida, while the Independence class will continue to be homeported at San Diego. The distinction is driven, Rowden said, by harbor space – the 58-foot-wide Freedom class can nest together in the tight spaces of Mayport, while the 104-foot-wide Independence class cannot. The move means the Milwaukee and Detroit, third and fourth ships of the Freedom class, will remain on the East Coast at Mayport.
-- As the number of ships grows, six four-ship LCS divisions will be formed, three on each coast. Within a division, all ships will carry the same mission module.
The changes, Rowden said, are only part of the review's recommendations. "An implementation team will execute these decisions and continue to look at other areas of improvement to posture the LCS program for success now and in the future," he said in the statement.
The changes announced Sept. 8 are only part of the wider review effort. Asked if the Navy's 52-ship overall requirement for LCSs and LCS frigates remains on the books, Rowden replied that "we'll have to work through that," even as "we certainly stand by that requirement."
The organizational plans above are based on LCS numbers 5 through 28 – a 24-ship fleet. It is not clear what the service's plans are for subsequent LCSs or frigates.
Other factors still to be determined are the overall number of mission modules to be purchased – the current plan is for 64 – and whether every ship will get an over-the-horizon missile installation.
"The team is working through that as well," Rowden said. "Under the concept of distributed lethality it certainly makes sense for me."
Rowden did not address any of the design changes now under consideration or being implemented in new LCSs or the LCS frigate variant, and could not say when the Navy would speak to the issue.
One Capitol Hill source familiar with the changes continues to have questions, particularly about maintenance support and crewing issues, particularly in light of several recent LCS failures.
"Sailors need to know who they should call when they have casualties they weren't prepared to address," the Hill source said. "I just don't think those procedures exists. There's a lot of room there to do more and go beyond what they're talking about."