The first two Freedom-variant littoral combat ships — Freedom, rear, and Fort Worth — sail off the San Diego coast in February, before Freedom's deployment to Singapore. Freedom has suffered recent mechanical problems, while Fort Worth will become the first LCS to have a traditional post-shakedown availability. (Matthew Short / Lockheed Martin)
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WASHINGTON — Like a child entering adolescence, the Navy’s littoral combat ship program has entered an era in which some elements are trying to emulate fully mature combat systems, some are getting ready to try and others have much further to go.
The well-publicized cost growth of the program is nominally under control. “Ship production is stable, costs are going down, the contracts are a fixed price,” Sean Stackley, the Navy’s top acquisition official, told Congress on May 8. “There’s all goodness there.”
The first in class, the Lockheed Martin-designed Freedom, is three months into a planned 10-month demonstration deployment in the western Pacific. The ship has yet to show its stuff, although it was the star attraction at a recent naval exposition in Singapore. But mechanical problems dogged Freedom in March and April during its trans-Pacific voyage from California, and on May 22, only hours after leaving Singapore to begin exercises, the ship was forced to return to port with an engineering problem.
The second LCS — Independence, built by Austal USA — is finishing a scheduled overhaul in San Diego and nearly set to resume testing in June of the mine warfare package, the lead module in a series of mission packages under development for the ships.
The third ship, Fort Worth, the second ship of the Freedom class, is in drydock at San Diego, undergoing its post-shakedown availability (PSA). Unlike the first two ships, which were forced to split their PSAs in two due to congressional funding instability caused by continuing resolutions, Fort Worth’s PSA will be done all at once, in the normal manner.
Austal USA is several months behind schedule on Coronado, second ship of the Independence class, and the ship suffered two minor fires April 13 while on builder’s sea trials. The ship has been repaired — at Austal’s expense — and was back at sea by May 8, and all major tests have been completed. Navy acceptance trials will be run in mid-summer, with delivery to follow around the end of the season.
Mission module development lags ship construction, but different elements are moving forward. A critical design review was completed in early April, a month ahead of schedule, for the Knifefish, a surface-mine countermeasure unmanned undersea vehicle (SMCM UUV) under development by General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems. The UUV, described by GD as the first heavyweight-class mainstream mine countermeasure underwater vehicle, is needed to find and classify mines lying on the seafloor or buried in high-clutter environments. It is expected to be operational in 2017.
Reliability improvements are also being made to the Remote Minehunting System (RMS), said Rear Adm. Jim Murdoch, program executive officer for LCS at Naval Sea Systems Command.
“Testing is going particularly well with the large RMS vehicle,” Murdoch said during a recent interview. “I’ve been very happy with that. We’re in the second period of a planned three of reliability testing, and we’re nearly through the second period. We’ve gotten over 600 hours of operation on two different vehicles.
“My expectation,” he added, “is we won’t have to do the third phase. We might finish early, finish within our budget.”
Murdoch ticked through a series of items the program is handling, starting with Freedom.
“[The crew] hit every port visit on schedule,” he said. “They did deal with a couple of short-duration events — in numbers of minutes — where they had loss of power in the ship,” an incident that took place while the ship was transiting the Pacific.
“The issue caused both operating diesel generators to trip offline,” Murdoch explained. “The ship recovered very quickly through both automatic systems and manual support from the crew.”
Power interruptions in ships do happen, he said, but “we’re working to improve the reliability of the plant. And we’re doing very well there, I think.”
Freedom underwent a planned maintenance period in April and May at the Changi naval base in Singapore, Murdoch said.
“They did over 540 maintenance checks and accomplished over 90 percent of the checks in less than a two-week period. We’ll continue to get better at that, but I want to get nearly 100 percent done in subsequent availabilities.”
Independence will resume testing shortly with the RMS, which is handled by the ship’s twin-boom extensible crane, a system that projects out the aft end of the trimaran to raise and lower vehicles. The crane has yet to perform satisfactorily, but Murdoch is hopeful a number of modifications will change that.
“We’re improving the [crane] and software,” he said. “The process of recovering aboard the ship ought to be routine for the sailor. Now it’s too complicated and takes too long. So we’re making good improvements to that.”
Independence will continue to be dedicated to mine warfare package testing. Murdoch expects progress, but looming budget reductions from sequestration will, he said, slow the program.
“We’re looking at a dress rehearsal [for the mine package] and technical evaluation next year,” he said. “But ... sequestration challenges — this is impacting my schedule. I’ve lost roughly 8 percent of my budget, at least. That’s causing me to stretch things out.”
The schedule, he said, calls for the completion of operational evaluation by September 2014.
“I do not expect we’ll be able to meet that date because of the budget cuts I’ve taken,” Murdoch said.
“Much depends on what happens in the fall — if there’s another [continuing resolution], no resolution to sequestration, we’re probably looking at a delay of mid-fiscal 2015, third quarter. This is not due to technical or performance problems. The challenge I face is funding.”
Improvements are coming to both classes of LCS, Murdoch said. Responding to repeated pleas from sailors, bridge wings will be fitted this year to Independence to improve navigating in tight places, and the modification likely will be made to the rest of the class.
The small boat cutout all the way aft on Independence’s port side also will be expanded, Murdoch said, to allow 7-meter rigid hull inflatable boats to be used in the quick-response role. The cutout can handle only 5.4-meter boats.
Murdoch is a fan of the crew-developed camouflage paint scheme on Freedom.
“The current scheme that breaks up the ship’s lines and puts black paint around the diesel exhausts is good,” he said. “It has a lot to recommend it.” A decision on whether to apply the scheme, or similar schemes, to the rest of the class will wait until after Freedom completes its deployment.
No decisions on painting Independence class have been made, he added.
New Missile Competition
The Navy also wants to fix one of the LCS program’s glaring deficiencies — the absence of an effective surface-to-surface missile (SSM), brought on by the Army’s 2009 cancellation of the non-line-of-sight (NLOS) missile. The Navy had expected the Army-developed NLOS would give the LCS a weapon to counter enemy fast attack craft.
A year ago, the service had planned to test the Griffin, a small missile developed for Special Operations Command, on Freedom. But the missile is considered too lightweight for the LCS, and it was not installed. Instead, data is being gathered from testing aboard the coastal patrol vessel Monsoon.
“We really want to do a competition and award for an SSM that has a little longer range than the Griffin,” Murdoch said. “Ideally, what I’d like to have is autonomy — an autonomous seeker that you don’t have to designate with a laser to guide the missile on target.
“That’s another area that’s budget-dependent,” Murdoch added. “We have money this year and next to do studies and get ready for [industry solicitations] in 2014.”
Barring funding complications, the Navy is hoping to field an SSM on the LCS in 2019.