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The Navy has few small-ship options if its littoral combat ship program continues to lag behind schedule, the service's top requirements officer said Tuesday, because the fleet's frigates are too old or maxed-out on equipment to upgrade further.
Vice Adm. Barry McCullough told lawmakers at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee's seapower subcommittee that the fleet's Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates' hulls were rusting and wearing thin, that the ships couldn't bear the weight of additional weapons or sensors, and that it generally wouldn't be worth trying to extend their lives to have them around in place of the planned LCS platforms the Navy thought it would have by now.
"The ships have been great," McCullough said of the frigates — he told Navy Times after the hearing "they're doing God's work," and that he "had nothing against frigate sailors" — but, he told lawmakers, "upgrading them would provide little return on investment."
Also, the frigates can only accommodate the SH-60B variant of the Navy's workhorse Seahawk helicopter, which is scheduled to leave the fleet in 2017. But LCS is designed to carry the SH-60R and -S Seahawk variants — helicopters that are vital to its ability to do its jobs because LCS carries no onboard sonar, surface-to-surface missiles, torpedo launchers or mine-countermeasure gear, and needs its helicopter for those weapons or sensors. So even as-is frigates today couldn't accommodate the anti-submarine, anti-mine or anti-surface equipment designed to fly on a helicopter carried by an LCS.
The topic of potential frigate upgrades was broached by Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., as part of a larger discussion by the subcommittee concerning problems the Navy has had building LCS. Martinez and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the Navy witnesses whether the service could still do the jobs meant for the LCS it had planned on having by now, even though none are operational.
(The first littoral combat ship, Freedom, is undergoing testing at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.; the second, Independence, has yet to sail for sea trials, although the Navy hopes to commission it this fall. Although Navy officials are studying the notion that Freedom could make an early, short, trial deployment, its formal schedule doesn't call for it to deploy until 2012.)
Yes, the Navy's mine countermeasure ships and frigates can hold on for a few more years, said McCullough and the other witness, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley.
But many of the fleet's minesweepers ships are in bad shape — the commanding officer of the Devastator was fired earlier this year because his ship was in such poor condition. And, after the hearing, McCullough described the long metal bars on the hulls of many frigates at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., which help strengthen metal that has rusted and thinned faster than engineers anticipated.
According to one analysis, under the Navy's original plan it should now have 13 LCS platforms in the fleet and be requesting six in the fiscal 2010 budget request. But beyond Freedom and Independence, it has ordered one of each additional variety, a Freedom-class ship named Forth Worth and an Independence-class ship named Coronado. It is asking for three more ships in its fiscal 2010 request.