The littoral combat ship Freedom running off the coast of San Diego on May 2. A Navy inspection last week prounounced the ship "fit and ready for service." (Lt. Jan Shultis / U.S. Navy)
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Some design problems persist, some fixes remain to be made, but overall, the littoral combat ship Freedom is moving ahead to meet its deployment schedule for next spring, the commander of the Navy's surface forces proclaimed.
"My assessment is the ship is sound, the engineering plant is good, combat systems are good," said Vice Adm. Richard Hunt. "The ship rides very well."
That verdict came after a three-day "special trial" conducted May 22-24 at San Diego by the Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey, or INSURV. Nearly 200 people rode the ship normally crewed by 40 sailors to test the Freedom's combat, communications and engineering systems; minutely examine the ship's physical condition; and put the vessel through a series of ship-handling evolutions.
"There were some hiccups in the demonstration in some of the areas," Hunt admitted, "and there are things that ought to be fixed on three, five and seven" follow-on ships built to the Freedom (LCS 1) design. "But the things we identified [as problems] are fixable."
The Freedom has spent much of the past eight months pierside or undergoing repairs in San Diego. A scheduled overhaul last fall was extended to address structural issues, and a new problem, a broken shaft seal that allowed water into the ship, emerged in early February as the ship was underway to test fixes. Another extended repair period followed to determine the cause of the broken seal and fix it. The ship didn't get underway again until early May.
As a result of the repairs, the ship's crew has only been to sea for eight days to prepare for the inspection, Hunt said, and that lack of sea time had an impact on the INSURV inspection.
"As we went through this, there were some issues, many I would attribute to the short amount of time the ship had at sea to prepare for the exam," Hunt said in a May 29 telephone interview.
Hunt rode the ship during the trial along with INSURV president Rear Adm. Robert Wray, who submitted his classified report to Hunt late May 25. Wray, according to Hunt, wrote in the report that "Freedom is fit for service. … By all accounts the ship is on schedule for our spring deployment."
The Freedom is to begin a ten-month cruise to Singapore next year, tentatively set to begin in late March. The cruise will be the first overseas test of the LCS concept, which envisions forward-basing the ships in Singapore, the Arabian Gulf and elsewhere.
The special trial conducted by INSURV, Hunt said, was similar to a final contract trial (FCT), normally held about six months after a new ship's delivery. That point in time passed in 2009, as the Navy readied the Freedom for a demonstration deployment to the Caribbean and participation in the RIMPAC 2010 exercise in the Pacific.
The special trial was held, Hunt said, "to identify any issues requiring correction or modification prior to deployment and additionally, to take the opportunity to gather details on areas for improvement that can be folded into future Freedom-class ships."
The normal five-day FCT routine was compressed to three days, although, Hunt said, 180 of the standard 212 FCT inspections were carried out. Freedom crew members from both the Blue and Gold crews were on board for the trials.
One major area not tested during the trial was the boat handling system to launch and recover waterborne craft via a stern ramp.
"The hydraulic limit switches were not functioning, and the system was shut down," Hunt explained. "Work needed to be done on the switches. That's a safety issue; we'll get it tested some time in the future."
As a result, "we did not test the moving parts of the launch handling system at all. We called that as a down before we went into the inspection."
One problem dealt with during the repairs was a hull crack discovered in February 2011 while the ship was at sea off northern California. The Navy and prime contractor Lockheed Martin determined the crack was caused by a manufacturing flaw in a weld seam done by shipbuilder Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin, and not from a design flaw. Other, smaller cracks have been discovered in the ship's aluminum superstructure.
Asked if any new cracks were found during the inspection, Hunt responded there were none he was made aware of.
"The steel hull cracks were relatively minor," Hunt said. "Probably more was made of that than should [have] been it was about a 4-inch crack.
"I think the ship is sound and solid and ready to go out in heavy seas," he added. "We were running in excess of 40 knots. I thought she felt as solid as anything I've ever been on. The ship rides very well. We were taking green water over the bridge on occasion."
One design problem persists despite remediation efforts. Water is still coming up the Freedom's hawse pipe forward the tube through which the anchor chain passes from the chain locker to the outside. Even before the ship left the Great Lakes in 2008 on her delivery voyage, inflated bladders were stuffed into the pipe to cut down on water coming in, particularly at high speeds. The anchor arrangement was significantly changed on the next ship, the Fort Worth (LCS 3), but Hunt said the problem persists.
"The hawse pipe still gets water intrusion, and needs to be fixed," Hunt said. "That jumps up as one of the biggest issues that stares me in the face."
During the special trials, "we were able to keep up with any water intrusion. That's just something you have to watch," he said.
No speed restrictions were placed on the Freedom because of the hawse pipe issues, Hunt added.
"She'll be able go full power in any direction, but it will require some watching and probably some dewatering in the windlass room. She's designed to have the water go down the anchor chain and dewater from there."
The Freedom will get "some sort" of further modification, "probably temporary," later this summer during the last phase of her post-shakedown availability (PSA), Hunt added.
"It's something that is not a critical issue but needs to be fixed."
The new anchor arrangement on the Fort Worth hasn't quite cured the problem either, he said.
"It looks like it's not a complete thing for LCS 3 there. There's work that needs to be done in that area it needs to be corrected before the final design."
As for the shaft seal, Hunt declared that while the final cause hasn't yet been determined, there have been no further issues.
"We did not identify an issue with that during INSURV. I think we've worked our way through a lot of the historic issues that were out there.
"I'm not sure if it was design or installation, but as we had her in the overhaul before the INSURV we took those [propeller shafts] apart. We found some issues, put them back together and I think we've worked our way through that.
"We're still doing a forensics on the problem. It could have been an installation piece or a manufacturing fault. But we didn't find a problem on INSURV that particular [problem] I think is behind us at this point."
Other issues that came up during the special trial included:
Combat System. In one instance, the combat system's software would not load properly. "I attribute that to the crew," Hunt said. "We did a reload and after that the system tested satisfactory. Now I think we're pretty solid in that regard."
A misfire was also experienced with the ship's single 57mm gun. "We executed misfire procedures, cleared the round safely, and that got a downcheck," Hunt said. "The ship has fired about 840 rounds and has had two misfires, one off Florida and this one. Overall, the gun and the detect-to-engage system were satisfactory."
Propulsion plant. One of the ship's four diesels was inoperative, but "the other three operated satisfactorily and weren't flagged with any major problems," Hunt said. "When I wandered the plant I thought it was pretty tight and clean. There were some minor oil leaks that were handled by the crew. Switchboards ran properly, ran in the different configurations, went as designed, very satisfactory." A problem with a splitter bearing remains to be dealt with, Hunt said. "We ended up with a hot bearing. We'll go back in and probably increase oil flow to that particular bearing."
Stern doors. Water coming through the aft stern doors, which open to allow small boats and vehicles to be run in and out a stern ramp, has been a nagging problem since the Freedom's completion in 2008. Despite a number of changes, the doors are still not watertight when closed, resulting in corroded metal.
"There is still some work to be done there," Hunt said. "It's been improved, but it's not as good as I would like to see before deployment. That would not make her non-deployable, but I'd like to see that fixed."
Overall, Hunt said, "corrosion looks good" on the ship, except for "excessive corrosion around the stern ramp." Several systems tested well.
"It was very pleasing to me to see several areas where we traditionally have problems with pop up pretty solid," he added. "We had very solid scores on communications, information systems, medical, corrosion."
The ship handled very well, he said. "Crash back and steering worked fine," he noted, referring to an evolution where a ship goes from full ahead to full stop to full astern.
"From 35 knots or so, the ship just stopped," Hunt said, describing the crash back. "It was like being in a Prius; you don't feel anything. It just changed, settled down and stopped in the water. I've never seen anything like that. I've been on cruisers, destroyers and frigates, all shaking and things. This ship is just smooth."
The Freedom, Hunt said, "is in pretty good shape. Fit for service. The stuff we've identified is fixable. I think we'll do better as the crew becomes more comfortable and proficient with operating the system. It's one of those things when you have to get out there and run it around, and they have not had that luxury.
"All in all a very good INSURV, achieving what we wanted to making sure we have a good track on things we have to work on on Freedom and on future ships.
With the INSURV behind them, the Freedom's crew now will begin several weeks of local operations to gain familiarity with the ship's equipment, work up the helicopter detachment, perform a quick-reaction assessment of the combat system. Time is tight the ship's final, three-month PSA is set to begin in July, and in the fall preparations will begin in earnest for the Singapore deployment.
Hunt said he had seen a great improvement in the Freedom over the past 18 months or so.
"I'm not sure I was a believer a year and a half ago, but I'm there now," he declared.