WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is satisfied with the solution to its littoral combat ship combining gear woes, having accepted delivery of the first ship to receive the new system, service leaders announced.
The Freedom-variant LCS, made by Lockheed Martin at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin, has suffered several propulsion-related casualties over the years. In January, the Navy announced it would not accept any new ships from Lockheed following the identification of a classwide defect: The bearings in the combining gear failed when the ship tried to operate at full power, with the system unable to withstand the pressure of fusing max power from both the gas turbine and the diesel engine to help the ship reach speeds near 40 knots.
Since that time, subcontractor RENK, Lockheed and the Navy underwent a rigorous engineering and testing process, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, Rear Adm. Casey Moton, told reporters Thursday. The parties involved agreed the fix was appropriate, and the Navy was ready to accept delivery of ships outfitted with a new bearing system in the combining gear.
“Based on the results of the land-based and at-sea testing, both Lockheed Martin and the Navy assessed that the combining gear design modification is satisfactory and, once installed, will allow unrestricted operations of Freedom-variant ships,” Moton told reporters in a teleconference announcing the end of testing and the acceptance of the LCS Minneapolis-St. Paul (LCS-21).
Moton said the next ship in construction, Cooperstown (LCS-23) is undergoing modifications at Marinette. The Cleveland (LCS-31) was early enough in construction to receive the modified design for the combining gear system during build, as will the rest of the class of odd-numbered littoral combat ships.
Additionally, the four multimission surface combatants that Lockheed is building for Saudi Arabia, based on the Freedom LCS design, will have the new combining gear system built into them without the need for modifications.
That leaves four ships under construction — LCS-23, -25, -27 and -29 — as well as seven in-service ships located in Mayport, Florida — odd numbers LCS-7 through -19 — that the Navy and Lockheed’s industry team must repair.
That process is rather extensive, Moton explained.
The clutch that failed is inside the combining gear, so to access it, the Navy has to get inside the casing of the combining gear. To do that inside LCS machinery spaces requires “significant” removal of other systems that are in the way of people and tools that need to get to the combining gear system.
Moton called the whole effort a “complex industrial undertaking” that spanned just shy of six months on Minneapolis-St. Paul. Workers had to remove the other gear, install the new bearings, perform in-port testing, restore the rest of the machinery room and then go to sea for final at-sea testing.
However, Cooperstown is partway through its installation process and appears to be on track to take four to five months for the whole effort, due to the team learning better processes to access and fix the combining gear.
Due to the complexity of the work, Moton said his office is in talks with surface Navy leadership about the best way to move forward on the in-service ships, on a hull-by-hull basis. He would not comment on when and where the ships are to receive the modification. He did say that St. Louis (LCS-19), the last ship to be delivered before the Navy stopped accepting them, will receive the fix during its post-shakedown availability.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday on Nov. 17 told reporters that “the issue with the combining gear is probably the most challenging engineering problem that we’ve seen on any class of ship since I’ve been in the Navy.”
Added Moton: “It’s a complex mechanism in the gear itself, so just the forensics that had to be done by the team to determine where the failure occurred, specifically in the design why the failure occurred, to be confident that that had been the root cause; to look at a modification to the gear that would prevent those root causes in the future, which is a difficult thing to do on an existing gear; and then to ensure that that fix allows full operation and allows the ship to do what it’s supposed to do — that entire technical effort was ‘complex,’ is the best word for it.”
It’s still unclear how much this whole engineering and repair effort will cost the Navy. Moton declined to discuss the cost, saying the Navy and Lockheed are still negotiating who will pay for what portion of the engineering, testing and installation price tag.
Defense News first reported in August that, even in the best-case scenario, the Navy would still incur some cost. The service is arguing the failure is a latent defect, meaning it was present when Lockheed built and delivered the ships but hadn’t revealed itself yet through operating the ship. If Lockheed agreed it was a latent defect, then the two parties would share the cost in accordance with sharelines outlined in the original ship construction contract. In this case, Moton said, the contract outlines a 50-50 cost-sharing agreement between the two.
Gilday said reliability of LCS is the Navy’s top priority for that ship type. The combining gear issue was just one challenge among several the Navy faces. He said the service is increasing the ships’ lethality through the addition of over-the-horizon anti-ship weapons, but that the hulls had to be ready and reliable to support overseas operations.
“Our intent is to scale the use of LCS around the globe and to get as much as we can out of that platform,” he said. “We’re going to continue to double down and get as much as we can out of that hull.”
He wants to see the Freedom-class ships in locations beyond the Caribbean, including in the Middle East. He also wants to see more Independence-class ships in the Pacific, compared to the two-strong LCS presence the Navy has achieved in recent years, in order to provide more presence in and around the South China Sea and to give regional commanders more options for deterring China or winning a potential fight.
Moton said the fix would allow the Florida-based littoral combat ships to go from operating near home in U.S. 4th Fleet waters under operational restrictions to being able to confidently push out further from their homeports, to locations such as the Middle East or Europe.
Asked in what way the ships were restricted in their operations pre-fix, Moton said it was a “fairly small impact to the ship’s speed” and no impact to range or capability. Still, he said, the fact that a new ship class was restricted at all in its operations for an extended period of time was “unacceptable.”
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.