There seems to be good news and bad news for the Navy’s long-suffering littoral combat ship (LCS) program. The good news is that the USS Freedom (LCS-1) has finally undertaken a long-term deployment, arriving at Singapore for several months of forward-area operations.
The Freedom previously operated for a short period with the 4th Fleet in the Caribbean, taking part in several drug seizures in 2010, and participated in the Rim of the Pacific exercise that year. Following those operations, the Freedom underwent extensive maintenance and modification to correct material problems. Also, additional accommodations were installed as it became obvious that the core crew of 40 was too small to maintain a warship of almost 3,000 tons.
The current ten-month deployment began when the Freedom departed her home port of San Diego on 1 March, with planned stopovers at Pearl Harbor and Guam. While in the Far East the ship is to demonstrate the potential for LCS-type vessels with exercises involving U.S. 7th Fleet and allied ships as well as independent operations. Midway through the deployment the ship will undergo a “crew swap” while at Singapore.
Even as the Freedom deployed, a panel of four vice admirals was addressing areas of concern for the LCS program: Fleet introduction and sustainability; platform and capabilities evolution; and concepts of operation, doctrine, and policy. To many observers—in and out of uniform—such concern for these LCS issues should have begun a decade ago when the program was initiated by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark. Indeed, the program was begun with minimal analysis (some observers say “none”) and no clear view of several key factors, such as ship missions and manning.
In the spring of 2013 the Navy has three ships of two completely different LCS designs in service with another 13 under construction and on order. An early plan to evaluate two prototypes and to then select the better design for production had been scrapped, with the current 16-ship buy evenly split between the two designs. Because essentially all components and systems of the two designs are different, this requires two crew-training programs, two spare-parts “lockers,” two sets of manuals, etc.
The Freedom’s current deployment has been marred by at least three power outages, believed to have lasted from two minutes up to 12 minutes. The ship had suffered a similar problem in previous operations, believed to be caused by water getting into the exhaust system of one of the diesel generators. The ship has suffered other diesel problems, with the engines having been overhauled and replaced during the four-and-a-half years that the Freedom has been commissioned.
Numerous other modifications and changes have been made to the ship during her time in service, such as adding “water wing” buoyancy tanks to address stability concerns. (Later ships of this design have improved stability, a larger flight deck and mission bay, greater fuel capacity, significantly improved internal arrangements, and other features found lacking or not satisfactory in the LCS-1.)
More changes are in the offing. The commanding officers of both LCS prototypes, the Freedom and Independence (LCS-2), have expressed the view that their electronic-warfare system is “outclassed” and that a “good” system is needed.1
But the most critical issues related to the Freedom—and, indeed, the entire LCS program—appear to be crew and mission modules. For her deployment to the Far East the Navy has added three officers and ten sailors to the core crew, almost a one-third increase. In addition, there is an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter detachment (19) as well as personnel to man what is called the “partial” surface-warfare module (19)—a total of 91 crewmen. With a “full” mission module on board, the current “threshold target” for LCS manning is 110.2
However, the crew relies on shore-based maintenance from contractors because of the limited number of personnel on board. A Navy-contractor maintenance detachment has been sent to Singapore. In the future, Navy Reserve personnel may rotate to forward bases to help support deployed littoral combat ships.
The Freedom is currently outfitted with a partial surface-warfare mission module. The original LCS concept was for the ships to have interchangeable mission modules. The basic LCS armament consists of a 57-mm Mark 110 cannon, four 12.7-mm M240B machine guns, and a point-defense system—the 21-cell RAM missile system in the Freedom. The mission modules would give the LCS a warfighting capability. Initially three modules were planned: antisurface “swarm,” antisubmarine, and mine countermeasures.
The partial mission module in the Freedom provides two 30-mm Mark 46 rapid-fire cannon, the MH-60R helicopter, and two eight-man rigid-hull inflatable-boat teams for boarding and searching suspect vessels. A key component is missing from the module: the planned antiship missile. This was to have been the non-line-of-sight launch missile. However, the Army-developed system was canceled in 2010 because of higher-than-expected costs and technical problems. That missile system was to have had a range of 21 nautical miles. That compares to ranges of 2.3 miles for the ship’s 30-mm guns and 3.5 miles for the 57-mm gun. The Griffin and other missiles are being considered for the LCS module, but today the Freedom’s longest-range weapons are her helicopter and 57-mm gun.
The two other LCS modules also are in trouble—behind schedule and not yet ready for production. The Navy had hoped to have the mine countermeasures (MCM) module ready by 2014. Recently it was determined that the MH-60S helicopter component of the MCM module cannot effectively tow the mine-countermeasures “sleds.” Similarly, the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) module had to be completely redesigned, and now is planned to become operational in 2016.
The module situation is ludicrous, as most if not all of the components of the ASW and MCM packages already exist or are derivatives of current systems. (Similarly, several navies have operational short-range antiship missiles that would be suitable for the LCS.)
Another mission-module problem is the “quick-swap” concept. From the beginning of the LCS effort it was envisioned that an LCS could enter a secure port where modules (and crewmen?) were prepositioned and, possibly within hours, swap modules, thus quickly changing the ship’s mission capabilities.
It now appears that the mission packages cannot be swapped except in a major shipyard, assuming that the modules and their specialized crews are available. And there are reports that there are commonality problems between the modules and the two LCS designs that would prevent such swaps from taking place between the Freedom class and the competitive Independence class.
Also, there appears to be no meaningful data available on the current cost estimates for the modules. This is understandable as none is ready for production. A February 2011 official estimate listed: $89.4 million for the MCM module, $19.6 million for the surface-warfare package, and about $46.3 million for the ASW unit. These costs are exclusive of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.
In view of the severe delays and cost overruns of the LCS program, and the lack of an existing concept of operations despite the huge investment in time and dollars, the deployment of the Freedom to the Far East is being watched with great attention by the supporters and opponents of the program. The total LCS program recently was reduced from 55 to 52 ships, an irrelevant change in the scheme of current Navy programs, issues, and fiscal constraints. The real question is: Should the LCS program continue beyond the 16 ships now committed? Hopefully, the Freedom’s deployment to the Far East will help to determine the answer.