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Weeks may be needed to repair LCS Milwaukee after breakdown

December 18, 2015 (Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff)

A week after the brand new littoral combat ship Milwaukee broke down at sea, engineers and experts are still trying to determine why metal debris fouled the ship's  propulsion system.

Engineers are pulling apart a system called the combining gear, which allows the ship to use power from its diesel and gas turbine engines for propulsion, to determine where the flakes of metal came from, according to Navy officials familiar with the repairs.

The repairs to Milwaukee are likely to take weeks, officials said, because identifying these kinds of problems require flushing out the systems and taking them apart.

The crew took the right actions when the debris was discovered by shutting down the propulsion system to limit damages and calling for a tow, the Surface Navy's top officer said.

"We've got to take care of our people and we've got to take care of our ships," said Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, head of Naval Surface Force Pacific, said in a Dec. 17 phone interview.

In the days following the breakdown off the Virginia coast, speculation arose that a shipyard mishap was to blame for the debris, after the engines were run without lube oil. But engineers believe that's likely not the cause, according to two sources. 

The ship was commissioned Nov. 21 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after being built in Marinette. The mono-hull version of the LCS is a Lockheed Martin design. Lockheed declined to comment on the breakdown or what their engineers think caused it, directing questions to the Navy.

Milwaukee broke down Dec. 11 and had to be towed more than 40 nautical miles to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia.

The ship suffered the engineering breakdown while transiting from Halifax, Canada, to Mayport, Florida, and ultimately its home port of San Diego.

In Mayport, Florida, the ship was scheduled for a yards period and was going to be temporarily used as a training ship for the new Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 2 based there.

Problems with the propulsion plant began almost as soon as Milwaukee got underway from Halifax. The ship's computer system triggered an alarm and the ship called away an engineering casualty.

Engineers cleaned out the metal filings from the lube oil filter and locked the port shaft as a precaution. In the early hours of Dec. 11, the ship was conducting steering tests and lost lube oil pressure in the starboard combining gear due to metal filings in that filter.

The metal filings in the lube oil have not been a class-wide issue, according to the Navy.

The ship then dropped anchor while the engineers troubleshot the system. By mid-morning, the salvage ship Grapple rendezvoused with Milwaukee and towed it into Little Creek for its unceremonious arrival there.

Crew 104 manned the ship for the transit to Norfolk, where Crew 108 took over. 

News of the breakdown concerned the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who called for transparency.

"Reporting of a complete loss of propulsion on USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) is deeply alarming, particularly given this ship was commissioned just 20 days ago," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in a statement. "U.S. Navy ships are built with redundant systems to enable continued operation in the event of an engineering casualty, which makes this incident very concerning."

Milwaukee's breakdown kicked off a terrible week for the LCS program. Less than a week after the breakdown, news emerged that the Pentagon is ordering the Navy to cut the total buy of LCS to 40 from 52, and to pick between the mono-hull version and the trimaran version built by Austal USA in Alabama.

Instead of the ships, the Pentagon directed the Navy to invest in more F-35Cs, Virginia Payload Modules and missiles.

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