WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy hopes to boost the number of days the littoral combat ship is operational by targeting the drivers of down time: design flaws in 32 parts that need to be replaced and a sluggish contractor-based maintenance model that needs to be made more responsive.
Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener, the commander of naval surface forces, told reporters that the LCS class will soon be fully fielded and expected to provide fleet commanders the presence and war-fighting capability that has been promised over the years. To achieve that vision, he stood up a task force that gives him clearer authority to make quick decisions to fix what’s wrong with the ships today and helps set them up for success in future missions.
Kitchener said Task Force LCS focuses on four buckets of improvements: reliability, or addressing the design flaws; sustainability, or addressing the maintenance model; lethality improvements that can be added to the ships; and streamlining the force-generation process.
The Navy has found 32 key reliability issues between the Freedom- and Independence-variant LCS designs, Kitchener said, that slowed “our ability to get underway and meet those fleet commander requirements.”
Of those 32, the Navy is now focused on five on the Freedom-variant ships and four on the Independence-variant ships that have resulted in the most lost operational days during LCS deployments and whose correction would lead to the biggest boost in performance.
Kitchener said he asked both the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants and nonprofit research and analysis group CNA to look at, “which ones make the biggest impact? What’s the biggest return on investment? Let’s go after those, and then drive towards funding those and have an implementation plan to get those on board our ships quickly, with obviously the priority going to the deployers and then backfilling from there.”
Some of these flawed parts have cost the Navy hundreds of days of operations, Kitchener said.
Chief among the readiness drivers for the Freedom variant has been the combining gears, which have plagued the class since at least late 2015, when Milwaukee suffered a failure on its maiden voyage to its homeport in Mayport, Florida.
Kitchener said Freedom-variant builder Lockheed Martin has already conducted ground-based testing on a proposed solution with manufacturer RENK in Germany and will install the new combining gear system on one of the newest ships, Minneapolis-St. Paul, for at-sea testing.
“We’ve tried to fix things on the combining gears before, some of the bearings. And, unfortunately, they weren’t successful. ... Until we get it underway and test it at sea, to me that’s where the proof is and that’s what I told them – but I remain cautiously optimistic,” Kitchener told Defense News during the call.
The other Freedom-variant issues include parts related to the diesel generator rigid mount, fuel lines, water jets and boat davits.
On the Independence variant, the Navy has identified parts related to water cylinders, water jet pressure switches, diesel engines and water jackets for the engines that need to be replaced with more reliable parts.
The parts will be installed on ships either during a continuous maintenance availability or when one of the old parts fails and repairs are needed.
For example, Kitchener said one Independence-variant ship that is currently deployed in the Western Pacific – either Tulsa or Charleston, both of which are on their maiden deployments now to WESTPAC – had a casualty in one of these components recently, and the Navy was able to send one of the newly designed replacement parts out for installation on the ship. This will provide a chance to get early feedback and data on the performance of the new part and its impact on ship reliability.
“One of the biggest factors we’ve seen, if you look for your biggest return on investment when you do all the analysis, is the downtime that was created by ... unreliable parts or parts on critical systems that were failing. And so that’s why we stood up a [strike team within PEO USC] to say, alright, look, we’ve got to make these water jets more reliable, the intercoolers. So I think that that list of 32 upgrades that we need to do is probably the number-one thing” that Task Force LCS will go after. “And then I would tell you that sustainability is next.”
LCSs deploy for long stints of time – the longest so far being 17 months, with plans to grow to 24-month deployments – with crew swaps every few months and monthly maintenance work performed by contractors at a forward hub like Singapore.
These monthly maintenance periods, though, can span as long as 14 days, Kitchener said – meaning a ship could be tied up for half the month.
He said the task force believes moving to maintenance every other month would be a low-risk change that would provide more days at sea for the fleet commander.
“If you can go to doing less maintenance but focused maintenance, you gain so many days back for operations. And then if you drive that reliability up, again, you gain more,” Kitchener said.
There’s also a move to shift more maintenance to sailors instead of contractors, through Maintenance Execution Teams either ashore or on ships serving as LCS tenders.
The task force will reexamine the MET construct, questioning “do we have the right people, is the number right, do we need less, do we need more, what rates? I think we have the rates about right, we’re just building some of the experience. And where do they fit into the scheme of things” in terms of organization. Kitchener said the METs might be placed under the regional maintenance centers so that, when there isn’t LCS maintenance work to do, they could support other ship maintenance work at a fleet concentration area.
Kitchener said there will always be a need for onsite technical assistance, though, and he wants to ensure that technical experts can be called in and start working on LCSs on a faster timeline. He said today it can take as long as three weeks to identify the right technical experts and get them to a deployed LCS to start fixing it; he wants to trim that down to five days.
Kitchener praised the effort to field Naval Strike Missiles onto all LCSs as a way to boost the ship’s offensive punch.
“We really think that improves the lethality of LCS quite a bit, and we’re going to continue to put those weapons on the ship. … We prioritize our WESTPAC deployers to get the missile first. [Gabrielle Giffords] just finished up firing the new version, the 1A version. And we’re also looking at other options, things that we can put on these ships to give them a longer reach, and hope to do some kind of proof-of-concept demonstration for increased surface lethality next spring, perhaps in the summer,” Kitchener said.
The Navy continues to develop and test the LCS anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures mission packages, which should be done by fiscal 2023, according to Kitchener and Rear Adm. Robert Nowakowski, a reserve officer who Kitchener tapped to oversee the task force on his behalf.
The vision for LCS
Kitchener said that, in the short-term, he saw some improvements coming for LCS in the next year or two.
“We can improve the reliability, and I think we can improve our ability to meet the operational commanders’ requirements, be able to sustain ourselves in theater to execute the missions.”
Longer term, though, he’s holding himself and the LCS to a high standard of being able to provide significant presence to deter high-end adversaries like China and Russia.
“If you look at 2026, and that’s a number that I keep in my head: that’s when we’ll have 31 ships available. And so my goal is to build up the presence every year. I keep a little scorecard – based on reliability, sustainability, we should be able to put this many out in theater next year; this many of the following year,” Kitchener said. “And 31 ships – and you know, if you look at all the studies the Navy’s done, even the latest ones, forward presence counts. And if you put strike missile on those, and perhaps some other promising things that we could use to increase its offensive capability, it’s a viable ship” for great power competition in any theater around the world.
“Thirty-one ships and the ability to stay deployed 24 months is powerful. And we all know that we’re not really talking about the fight yet – they’ll be capable in the fight. But in phase zero, presence is what it’s all about, and you get a lot of presence with those ships.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.