WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is seeing improved maintenance on deployed littoral combat ships amid efforts to boost readiness and operational endurance, now that is has switched from contractor-based work to sailor-performed maintenance, the commander of a destroyer squadron said.
The two LCSs deployed to the Pacific are also carrying hybrid surface warfare and mine countermeasures systems — another deviation from original operational plans that called for using strictly defined mission packages that could solely perform in one warfare area at a time.
Capt. Tom Ogden, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7, told reporters this month that the Navy is trying to maximize the capability and adaptability of LCS in the current deployments of Independence-variant LCSs Tulsa and Charleston.
“As we look at the maintenance model of LCS, we are steadily increasing maintenance execution teams, so active-duty sailors who are doing the maintenance. Over the last two availabilities that we had on Tulsa and Charleston in Guam, we had maintenance execution teams from the LCS Division 12 in San Diego [who] came out and conducted maintenance on the ship. And the maintenance execution teams during those maintenance periods executed maintenance at a greater than 100 percent level. So not only did they do all the checks that were scheduled for them to complete, they completed checks that had been deferred in availabilities in the past,” Ogden said during the June 10 media roundtable.
Because the sailor are performing the maintenance, “they’re getting expertise on the equipment which they are maintaining, so they’re building a level of knowledge and understanding of the equipment, which allows them to not only do preventive maintenance but then corrective maintenance as needed,” he added.
The Navy originally designed the LCS program around the idea that ships would be minimally manned, and contractor teams would perform the bulk of the ship maintenance both at homeports and on deployment.
The service, through a series of reorganizations of the LCS community over the last decade, increased the ships’ crew size and embraced the Maintenance Execution Teams concept to grow the amount of technical expertise of the LCS hulls within the uniformed Navy.
Earlier this month, Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener told reporters that the Navy was trying to boost operational availability of LCSs by improving the reliability of parts that have high failure rates and by moving monthly preventative maintenance checks to every other month.
Ogden told Defense News during the June 10 call that as the Navy changes the maintenance schedule, “we have to do it thoughtfully.”
“As we have these ships rotationally deployed for 18-24 months, we have to think through how to maintain that ship for that period of time while it’s deployed. So doing proper maintenance — and consistently — is the only way that you’re going to increase operational availability in the long run over that two years. And we need to consider the impacts if we try to drive [operational availability] in the short term because, you know, anybody who’s operated ships or boats knows that they require maintenance to keep in good condition,” Ogden said.
As part of the drive to boost operational availability, Ogden said the Navy is paying closer attention to which spare parts are most needed to be staged forward so that if a part fails, a replacement is on hand rather than having to wait for one to be flown from California, for example.
Using the intercooler for the LCS’ diesel engine as an example, Ogden said “that was something that you look and say: ‘We think intercoolers are [a] potential weak spot. Let’s make sure we move some of these parts to the locations we think we’re going to operate.’ So that reduces the time: Should something go, should one of these pieces of equipment break, we’ve already got it on station. We bring the ship pier side, we do the install in two days and it’s back out. And I think that’s a really positive step to move some of those potentially higher fail parts … to the places that we’re operating.”
This is especially important now, he said, because the LCSs had previously operated just out of Singapore, but Tulsa and Charleston are now increasingly operating out of and conducting maintenance in Guam, too.
Additionally, the Navy is getting its first operational experience with pieces of the LCS’s mine countermeasures mission package, with Tulsa and Charleston fielding a combination of the MCM and surface warfare mission packages to create a new “hybrid” small combatant model.
The two hulls are carrying both a long-range anti-ship missile for surface warfare as well as aviation-based mine-hunting systems, Ogden said. The Naval Strike Missile is being added to all the hulls — outside of the mission package construct — to give them more of an offensive punch, regardless of which mission package they’re operating.
The aviation-based half of the MCM mission package includes the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System and the Airborne Mine Neutralization System that deploy via the MH-60 helicopter and the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis system that deploys from the MQ-8 Fire Scout drone.
The ships are not using the rest of the MCM mission package while those systems undergo testing, including the Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle and the Common Unmanned Surface Vessel for towing mine-hunting and mine-sweeping systems.
Though the MCM package as a whole isn’t tested and certified for operation, having pieces of it at sea and an LCS that can simultaneously perform two missions allow the ships to work with more partners and under more task groups than previously imagined.
“They can do a lot more than mine warfare, and that’s what we want to do. And then if we have to [assign them specifically] to do mine hunting, mine warfare, then we can do that as well. But we want to keep them to be as adaptable as possible,” Ogden said.
Two decades ago, the littoral combat ships were envisioned to have Lego-like mission packages: Each would plug into a specified space and contain gear for a single kind of mission, such as surface warfare, mine countermeasures or anti-submarine warfare. The ship could perform just the one mission, and if fleet commanders needed it to do something else, it would pull into port to take out the mission package and put in a different one.
Having two ships in the Pacific today outfitted with individual systems outside the mission package construct deviates from the original vision, but Ogden said it shows off the adaptability of the platform.
In creating this hybrid combatant, the LCSs are able to conduct routine surface warfare missions like training with partners and conducting Oceania Maritime Security Initiative patrols against illegal fishing and other crimes. But they’re also beginning to work with regional mine countermeasures units.
Ogden said the LCSs have been working with U.S. 7th Fleet’s amphibious force (Commander Task Force 76) and its subordinate command Mine Countermeasures Squadron 7.
“We have a really tight relationship between Commodore [Capt. Derek Brady] and MCMRON 7 with the minesweepers up in Japan, and now mine warfare-capable LCS in Singapore with me as the commodore of DESRON 7. So we’re able to think through the command and control, the tactical availability, and how we would use a multimission ship that LCS is to do maritime warfare and mine warfare at the right time and in the right spot,” Ogden said.
“There were some pictures that we released [recently] where I was out with CTF 75, observing some aviation mine capability with Commodore [Capt. Gareth Healy] at CTF 75. And we look for all these opportunities to go across task forces to see how far we can move things forward and how quickly we can do that. So we’ll keep trying to do things across the task forces and across the DESRONs and MCMRONs that are out here in 7th Fleet. And I think that’s the right way of doing business.”
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.