NAVAL STATION MAYPORT, Fla. — This year, the troubled Freedom-variant littoral combat ship will look to catch up with its Independence-class counterparts, which were fielded faster and expanded their operations more broadly in the last several years.
It was just two years ago that the U.S. Navy’s first Freedom LCS deployed from Florida, with Detroit’s maiden deployment kicking off routine operations out of the East Coast’s LCS hub in Jacksonville, Florida.
Since that November 2019 deployment, the LCS footprint has grown to eight ships of the planned 14. But it’s remained stagnant in conducting only surface warfare missions and deploying to Central and South America, even as its Independence counterparts have expanded into the vast Indo-Pacific region and started incorporating mine countermeasures operations into their work.
There were a range of factors that limited the Freedom class. The ships have long been behind in deliveries, with the Great Lakes freezing each winter and locking ships into the Fincantieri Marinette Marine construction yard in Wisconsin for months.
A Freedom-specific combining gear design flaw came to a head in 2020, and in 2021 the Navy stopped accepting new ships, further delaying the delivery dates of at least three or four hulls and pausing the expansion of the LCS squadron in Florida. Programmatic delays in developing and certifying the mine countermeasures mission package have led to a slow rollout of those systems, and those that have delivered have gone to the Independence ships due to the troubles the Freedom hulls faced.
Indeed, these challenges have threatened the future of the class. The fiscal 2022 budget from the Navy proposed decommissioning two of the LCSs at Naval Station Mayport, and there have since been talks of decommissioning the whole class in future budget proposals to free up funds for ships better tailored to a future fight.
Even so, LCS Squadron 2, which oversees the LCSs in Mayport, is planning for a critical year, when it will accept its first mine countermeasures mission packages and prepare for the eventual anti-submarine warfare mission package. Additionally, LCSRON 2 will expand its training and certification capability as the number of LCS sailors and ship hulls at the Mayport basin grows — progress, even as some have given up on the ship class.
The delivery of ships to Mayport was paused last year, when the Navy stopped accepting new hulls from Lockheed Martin because of the combining gear issue. With the fix now approved and undergoing installation on new-construction ships, at least two new ships — Minneapolis-St. Paul and Cooperstown — should head to Mayport this year, where they’ll enter a testing and repair period before joining the fleet for training and deployments.
Despite the pause, the workload for LCSs in the basin didn’t slow: Billings and Sioux City both deployed twice, and Wichita deployed once. Looking ahead, Billings and Milwaukee will continue their current deployments; Indianapolis will prepare for its first deployment; and St. Louis will come out of its post-delivery maintenance period to begin training.
“There’s a lot of potential energy,” said Cmdr. Daniel Reiher, who in 2018 reported to Mayport as the executive officer of Sioux City and now commands Wichita.
Mine warfare and Bahrain
The LCS program originally promised three mission packages, each interchangeable with any of the ship hulls and able to be swapped on demand. The Navy changed its operational model in 2016, assigning each ship to a division within the LCS squadrons based on a single warfare area, allowing the ship crews’ composition and training to be tailored to that warfare mission.
LCSRON 2 set up a mine countermeasures division in October 2020; the division and its ships will finally get their mission package early this year.
On the West Coast, Independence LCSs have deployed with the aviation portion of the mission package. Tulsa and Charleston took three air systems on their summer deployments with U.S. 7th Fleet: the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System and the Airborne Mine Neutralization System that deploy via the MH-60 helicopter, and the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis system that deploys from the MQ-8 Fire Scout drone.
The in-water pieces have yet to be fielded: the Unmanned Influence Sweep System, a mine countermeasures unmanned surface vessel (MCM USV) that tows a minesweeper; an MCM USV that tows an AN/AQS-20C sonar to hunt mines; and the Knifefish unmanned underwater vehicle that finds buried mines.
The aviation components will soon be delivered to LCSRON 2′s Division 22, which focuses on mine countermeasures and includes Wichita as its training ship in support of Billings, Indianapolis and eventually St. Louis.
Capt. David Miller, the commodore of LCSRON 2, told Defense News in a Dec. 2 interview that, across the entire service, only a small number of these aviation systems have been delivered; until now, they were prioritized to the West Coast.
Miller said some of his minemen participated in testing events with these systems, and last summer Wichita conducted launch and recovery testing that gave sailors an early look at their future capabilities. As the training ship with a larger and more experienced crew, Wichita will get the systems first so its sailors can learn them and then assist the others crews in the division when more hardware arrives.
This whole series of events will support the much-anticipated first deployment of the LCS to U.S. 5th Fleet in the Middle East. Miller said it’s always been the plan to send LCSs into the region, in part to replace the Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships stationed in Bahrain.
But fleet commanders want a range of capabilities, he added. The MCM mission package is required in the region by law, but the ships will also bring along a surface warfare capability.
Wichita and Billings both deployed in 2021 with the surface warfare mission package, despite being assigned to the mine countermeasures division. In these cases, Miller said it wasn’t a big leap to get the crews trained, but he needed to be diligent about ensuring there were sailors qualified to operate and maintain the surface-specific gear, including 11-meter-long rigid-hull inflatable boats and 30mm guns. If those additional sailors, including engineers and coxswains who operate the boats, were already in the Middle East — along with a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment — an LCS from the mine countermeasures division could easily take those personnel onboard and conduct traditional surface warfare missions, he said.
“We’re getting into a little bit of cross-training” in support of that model, Miller added.
Reiher, the Wichita commanding officer who led the ship’s surface warfare deployment last year, said in a separate Dec. 2 interview the ship was highly successful despite surface warfare not being its assigned mission set. The crew and its embarked Coast Guard detachment seized $160 million in cocaine and detained 24 suspected traffickers. He added that U.S. 4th Fleet needed more presence, so Wichita was sent without hesitation.
“It actually speaks to the versatility of LCS that we did a surface deployment with all my sailors. We embarked a little bit of extra gear that’s not normally on the mine ships, primarily the 30mm guns, and then we did that mission. Now that we’re back, we’ve offloaded the SUW mission package and we’re actually on track to, early [in 2022], begin installing the first mine mission package onboard LCS,” the commander said.
Though the ships won’t be swapping out mission packages often, Reiher said he’s positive they could make it work with just a few extra sailors on temporary duty from another LCS crew. “If we needed to make other equipment changes for future tasking, the biggest question would come down to who is trained to use it and do we have those skill sets in-house.”
As for the timing of that first deployment to 5th Fleet with the MCM package, Miller said the Navy is considering all options and he hopes to send one forward as soon as it’s ready.
“We were on step to do our initial 5th and 6th Fleet deployments [in 2020], up until we had the combining gear casualties, which caused us to take a pause and relook at that and make sure we were ready. And during that time, we were doing all the things that you would expect — so a lot of the maintenance locations, the [remote operating stations], we were sending people forward to look at these sites, see what it would take to put the contracts in place and put the capability in place to provide the maintenance support as we move forward,” Miller said.
“Bahrain has been built up to support LCS, so they’re just waiting for us to get out there. [In 2020], when we took a pause on moving outside the 4th Fleet [area of responsibility], we had really done a lot of the homework already to do those initial deployments,” he added. “Now, as we’re kind of working past that, dusting off the homework and refreshing it and taking a look at it — it’s not a great leap for us to go from where we are today to push forward into those other theaters.”
Anti-sub warfare and a new division
Though the anti-submarine warfare mission package is further from fielding, the organizational structure of LCSRON 2 dictates that the next two ships to report to the squadron — Minneapolis-St. Paul and Cooperstown — will be ASW ships.
Minneapolis-St. Paul was accepted by the Navy and will head to Mayport as soon as the Great Lakes thaw in the spring. The vessel will be tapped as the training ship within the ASW division, Miller said. He added that the Navy was in talks about it taking over mission package testing so the crew could quickly get practice on the new systems and prepare to start training the rest of the division.
Thus far, aside from a small number of Mayport-based sonar technicians going to San Diego to support mission package testing, the Freedom LCS community has little experience with the systems that will come with the mission package.
Though the community in Mayport may be unable to help the Minneapolis-St. Paul crew prepare for the ASW mission, Reiher said they could help Minneapolis-St. Paul learn the proper role of a training ship.
He noted there aren’t a lot of lessons learned on how to be a training ship, since Wichita spent much of 2021 on deployment and now Milwaukee has left for a deployment of its own. But later this year, he said, both ships will be home to focus on the training mission. At that point, the service can think more critically about that role — and pass along lessons to Minneapolis-St. Paul as it establishes itself as the ASW training ship.
Reiher said most of his sailors gained the bulk of their experiences on other surface ship classes. LCSRON 2 has a few executive officers and commanding officers who have done division officer tours on an LCS, but he said the real learning will start when LCSs have senior enlisted sailors with multiple LCS tours under their belts.
The LCS Training Facility, located near the LCSRON 2 headquarters at Naval Station Mayport, trains 100 to 130 sailors a day, during daily 20-hour operations, in support of the eight ships and more than 1,000 crew members already assigned to the squadron. That end state will grow to 14 ships and about 1,825 crew members later this decade.
Cmdr. Carl Brobst, the officer in charge of LTF Mayport, told Defense News in a Dec. 3 visit that his facility is expanding to handle the forthcoming boom in sailors.
Sailors go through several types of training there: Individuals can train to qualify over a five-week course; small teams of two or three can work on specific tasks in a scaled-down simulator; and full teams can train to certify in a three- to five-week course ahead of deployment.
The centerpiece of the training is the Integrated Tactical Trainer, which simulates full LCS bridge operations. To supplement the capacity of the first ITT, the second has been going through final integration and setup and will begin training students in January. ITT 3 will open in 2024, Brobst said, noting the facility is growing to keep up with the LCS community’s expansion in Florida.
Brobst added that changes to the training itself are coming in 2022. First, he said, the facility will open additional part-task trainers as a way to more efficiently give sailors “reps and sets” on specific tasks. This serves as a middle ground between individual training and full-team certifications, allowing a small group — just an officer of the deck and a junior office of the deck working on ship-handling and navigation, or just a tactical action officer and a defensive systems operator rehearsing a combat scenario — to practice specific actions without involving an entire watch team.
Brobst said the LTF will also introduce a part-task trainer for the combat system.
Additionally, he said, the LTF will host more formal courses for individuals and small teams on combat systems and engineering as part of the Navy’s Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment effort, which adds a formal curriculum to sailors’ time in virtual trainers.
Lastly, he noted, the Navy will prepare the LTF building for its eventual connection to the Navy Continuous Training Environment network. The NCTE network allows trainers ashore to tap into larger events like pre-deployment training or live-fire exercises that mix and match live forces at sea, virtual forces in trainers and synthetic forces layered into the scenario.
Once this connection is up and running, Brobst said, sailors at LTF Mayport could join peers around the globe in a future iteration of the Large Scale Exercise, which the Navy and Marine Corps hosted in August, for example. Brobst didn’t have an exact timeline for that capability coming online, but said the LTF has already invested in the required hardware and software.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.