After four years in commission, the Independence, left, has yet to take part in any fleet exercise. The Coronado, right, was commissioned April 5 and will virtually take part in the RIMPAC exercises but won't travel to Hawaii. (MCC Keith DeVinney / Navy)
WASHINGTON — It’s the biggest naval exercise in the world, and it happens only every other year. This summer, nearly 50 ships from at least 16 navies will gather at Pearl Harbor for the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, hosted by the U.S. Navy.
Ships from as far away as India, France and even Norway will participate, and the highlight is expected to be the first-ever participation of a Chinese naval squadron.
Nearly every kind of U.S. warship will take part. But notably absent — again — will be the newest type of US warship, the littoral combat ship.
In fact, although this will be the third RIMPAC since the type entered service in late 2008, an LCS has appeared only once in the exercises, even though all littoral combat ships are based in not-too-far-away San Diego.
Bryan Clark, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington and a former member of the Navy staff, noted the Navy is “missing a huge opportunity by not deploying LCS and not using it in RIMPAC.”
In 2010, the Freedom, first of the type, broke away from scheduled tests to carry out a demonstration deployment, cruising in the 4th Fleet’s Central American operating area and spending about six weeks operating from Hawaii for that year’s RIMPAC.
The appearance of the Freedom during the exercises was widely publicized and continues to be one of the most oft-cited cases in point when Navy leaders discuss the type’s accomplishments. Rear Adm. Tom Rowden, now director of surface warfare at the Pentagon and soon to become commander of Naval Surface Forces, was a carrier strike group commander during RIMPAC 2010, and frequently references the time he operated at sea with LCS.
“Properly introducing LCS to the fleet is one of my top priorities, and it was foremost in my mind when I had tactical control of the Freedom during RIMPAC 2010,” he wrote in the January 2013 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine — one of many occasions when he and other leaders cited their brief at-sea RIMPAC experience with the LCS.
But since 2010, no LCS has ventured to take part in RIMPAC, and Freedom remains the only one of four ships in commission to take part in any at-sea exercises.
Although the second ship, Independence, was commissioned in January 2010, it has spent the past four years either in refit or conducting systems tests, with the mine countermeasures mission package.
Fort Worth, the third ship, was commissioned in September 2012, and is preparing to deploy to the Western Pacific this fall.
The fourth LCS, Coronado, was commissioned only a month ago, and is to take part in RIMPAC — but only at a distance. The ship will remain in Southern California, the Navy said, dialed in to some exercises but not physically present.
While the program is steadily recovering from the cost overruns and delays that plagued its early years, its reputation as a problem child continues to fester.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has lost confidence in the type — in January he reduced buys of the current designs from 52 to 32 ships and ordered the Navy to conduct a review of its small surface combatant needs and make changes with the next budget cycle.
Longtime LCS critic Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., while citing largely old information, continues to bash the program, and did so again from the Senate floor on April 9.
“The LCS program faces a daunting combination of capability failures and strategic confusion,” he said during a harangue about the type’s perceived shortcomings. “The program is still clearly riddled with uncertainty about what the ships will be used for and what they will be capable of.”
An unexpected blow came April 29, when the House Seapower subcommittee, a bastion of support for defense programs, rejected the Navy’s 2015 budget request for three littoral combat ships to provide only two.
“The committee is concerned about the survivability, lethality and endurance of the LCS,” the subcommittee said in its markup. One source familiar with the body’s deliberations said the internal debate had been whether to approve the request for three ships, or zero it out altogether.
In this atmosphere, where the LCS is as controversial as ever, the Navy is again passing up an opportunity to get the ship to sea in a fashion where it can be seen and demonstrate some of its abilities.
The responsibility for assigning an LCS to RIMPAC crosses numerous command jurisdictions, including Pacific Fleet, 3rd Fleet, Fleet Forces Command, Naval Surface Forces and Naval Sea Systems Command. Cmdr. Steve Curry, a spokesman for the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, spoke for all.
“All four LCS ships are conducting testing, trials and mission package certifications, which preclude their participation in the Hawaii portion of RIMPAC 2014,” he said May 2 in response to questions. “The aforementioned activities can be delayed, but that would delay testing, trials and mission package certifications, which remain the Navy’s priority.”
“Integrating LCSs into the fleet is the first priority, and there are more LCSs of both variants being built, commissioned and sent to new homeports at an increasing rate,” Curry said.
“There is a comprehensive program to ensure each platform successfully completes the long list of requirements. Delays in any phase of that program complicates the process for follow-on ships.”
Asked if the Navy planned for any LCS to take part in an upcoming exercise, Curry cited the Coronado’s long-distance RIMPAC participation, and noted that the Fort Worth is to take part in a multinational task group exercise in the fall.
Not going, Clark said, “continues to foster this perception among the defense establishment that this ship doesn’t have a utility and is too fragile to be used operationally. Testing is important, but let’s keep in mind this ship actually transitions into full operational use, and part of that is actually using it.
“Not deploying it to RIMPAC, especially in the middle of these controversies in Washington, is very bad messaging by the Navy,” he said.