As the littoral combat ship USS Freedom sets out for Singapore this spring, Navy officials are hoping a smooth first deployment will finally prove the ship’s worth to critics.
The ship’s defenders boast that it is lighter, faster and adaptable, with a modularity that will allow it to accomplish many different missions. However, opponents claim the program is too expensive and the ships are not tough enough to withstand combat.
The Freedom’s 10-month deployment to Southeast Asia will be a chance for vindication, said Navy Capt. Kenneth Coleman, requirements officer for the LCS.
“I think when you see the ship operating overseas, doing the kind of missions she’s going to be assigned over there, I think that will have a positive feedback loop, that we’ll realize that we built a pretty capable platform,” Coleman said. “We’ve manned it with some very talented sailors, both individually and as a team, and we’ve prepared them to go out and operate in some difficult areas and some difficult circumstances.”
The Freedom left San Diego March 1 with plans to proceed to Pearl Harbor and Guam before making its way to Southeast Asia. Its first major event will be the International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference in Singapore this May, said Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, director of Navy staff and chairman of the LCS council.
Like other surface combatants, Freedom will conduct maritime surveillance and patrolling operations, interact with the navies of local nations and generate situational awareness, he told reporters in February.
One of the officers of the ship, Cmdr. Tim Wilke, said he expects to conduct training exercises with nations such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. It could also carry out military security or boarding missions as required by U.S. 7th Fleet.
The Freedom set sail with a team of 50 sailors collectively called the Gold Crew, which Wilke commands. It will hand over duties to the Blue Crew after about five months. The Navy originally intended a core crew of 40 sailors to staff the littoral combat ship, but officials decided last year that the vessel needed more manpower.
The Freedom will operate independently during its current deployment, though the vessels will sail in groups of four or as part of a strike group in the future.
USS Freedom's 57mm gun
The Navy envisioned the LCS as a small, quick ship that could easily maneuver in the littorals. Both variants — Lockheed Martin’s Freedom-class and Austal USA’s Independence-class — can sail at 40 knots. They also are equipped with a 57mm gun and have hangars for an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter, but each variant differs in its design and combat systems.
The Navy in February reduced the number of littoral combat ships it plans to buy from 55 to 52. The ship’s manufacturers, however, are chugging away to roll out new vessels.
The decision has had no effect on current LCS contracts between Lockheed and the service, said Joe North, the company’s vice president of littoral ship systems. Austal and Lockheed have already gotten awards to build 10 ships apiece.
LCS 3, the USS Fort Worth, is preparing for final contractor trials to be completed this year, and three other Freedom-class littoral combat ships are under construction, North said.
The Navy is planning on fielding different modules so that the LCS can carry out mine countermeasure, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare missions. None have undergone operational testing yet, but one of the major draws of the ship is that it can be updated with additional mission packages and more advanced weapons.
For instance, the Navy could put energy weapons such as a rail gun on the ship 10 years down the road, Hunt said.
Navy officials insist the program is sailing smoothly, while critics have blasted its escalating costs.
Originally, the service envisioned the LCS as an inexpensive, adaptable ship that it could buy in bulk. Costs per ship have shot up from $220 million to $560 million since the program’s inception.
It has also come under fire from Defense Department organizations that say the ship still has significant performance deficiencies.
The Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E), J. Michael Gilmore, made waves when he concluded in a December 2012 report that the ship was “not expected to be survivable” in combat after taking a significant hit.
The report also took a crack at the ship’s 57mm gun, stating that inadequate training and vibrations at high speeds make accurate use of the weapon difficult.
Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work pushed back, telling sailors and industry gathered at the Surface Navy Association’s National Symposium in January that the DOT&E disagreed with Navy leadership on making LCS a level-I combatant. “In my view, that was not their call,” he said. “They said the ship is not expected to be survivable because it’s not a level-II [combatant]. Well, the difference between a level-I and level-II is, you sustain operations if you take a hit [in a level-II ship], and in level-I you go home if you take a hit.
“If a level-II combatant takes a heavy supersonic cruise missile with a terminal impact speed of Mach 3, I guarantee it will not sustain operations for some period of time. The key is not being hit, and operating as part of a battleforce that protects all of the different units,” Work added.
Simply put, the LCS is different than the ships in the current fleet, Coleman said. “We’re going to rely on speed in a lot of respects, but you can’t exactly build a heavily armored ship and expect to get 40 knots.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert established the LCS Council in 2012 to oversee the program and prepare the Freedom for deployment. The council in January delivered a plan of action and milestones focusing on improving everything from the platform’s manning and maintenance to its designs and mission packages.
Hunt said the council expects to incorporate lessons learned from the Freedom’s time in Southeast Asia and roll them into future operations.
The LCS has “pretty robust” self-defense capabilities, such as the 57mm gun turret, that are well-suited to small boat attacks, Coleman said. He believes the engineering, damage control and firefighting water mist systems are better than those on legacy platforms.
“Is this a ship that can be overwhelmed by tactical aircraft coming in or a much larger force of ships? I don’t disagree with that,” he said. “I think the intent there would be that the ship would fall back under the protection of a strike group that was operating in the area.”
Meanwhile, sailors aboard the Freedom can expect hard, continuous work. The day-to-day duties will vary, but usually a sailor is scheduled for four hours of standing watch, Wilke said. Afterwards, he will conduct maintenance, clean the ship and perform other duties such as preparing for helicopter operations.
Life on the LCS has been described as grueling, and Wilke said it is sometimes a challenge to ensure sailors are getting at least six hours of sleep a night.
Because the crew of an LCS is so small, developing “hybrid sailors” who are skilled in multiple rates, or specialties, is paramount to the success of the mission. This can take anywhere from one to two years of training, Coleman said.
“Every sailor on the ship is very proficient in a number of things, for medical response, say, or anti-terrorism force protection, small arms use, damage control,” Coleman said. “A bulk of them are actually involved in the flight-deck firefighting teams.”
At first, during the so-called “basic phase” of training, sailors learned how to steer, fight and maintain the LCS by using simulators. Then, sailors boarded the Freedom to receive further instruction on operating the ship and conducting damage control in situations such as fires, Wilke said.
Once the basic phase ended, the crew took part in a week-long surface warfare exercise where sailors trained for situations they may encounter during their deployment, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations or search and rescue.
Also onboard with each crew are three ensigns, who will receive training in surface warfare. The ensigns will be fully integrated with the crew and the mission officers and work in departments such as engineering and operations, Wilke said.
Wilke and Coleman anticipate that a core crew of 50 will be sufficient to man the ship going forward, and this deployment will help to gauge the right mix of experience and skills needed onboard.
“We’re starting with some pretty junior sailors, but we want to take a look at how the deployment works out to make sure we’ve got the right training pipelines and the right mix of rates to fill those positions,” Wilke said.
Having a small crew is economical, but the downside is that if a sailor is sick or injured, it can be difficult to absorb the loss of expertise and labor, he added.
The Freedom will operate on a 30-day maintenance cycle where it will spend five days pierside for every 25 days at sea.
Although the cost of such frequent maintenance work is expensive, Coleman argues that bringing in the ship for repairs is actually less costly than keeping personnel onboard.
“I can put an engineman onboard LCS to do diesel engine maintenance, or I could have that engineman on a shore organization do diesel maintenance on three, four, five, six ships, so I’m able to utilize him much more efficiently to do the maintenance tasks,” he said.
That would be welcome news for Navy officials such as Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, commander of the Naval Surface Force and the U.S. Pacific Fleet, who has said that managing maintenance costs is one of his biggest concerns for the deployment.
A crew of six Lockheed Martin personnel will be stationed in Singapore to conduct maintenance, said North. The company is using onboard systems to monitor the health of the ship.
“That allows our technical experts back on the shore to basically use distance support type tools to review and make sure that our material and her readiness on the systems are up and ready,” he said.
Before the deployment, the Lockheed team clocked about 60,000 hours in four weeks as the crew painted the vessel in a camouflage scheme designed by the Freedom’s Blue Crew, installed a new stern ramp and did preventive maintenance.
Freedom then set out on her quest to Singapore to prove her worth.
Photo Credit: Navy