The surface Navy is planning to add roughly 420 sailors to littoral combat ships to reboot the troubled program after a string of high-profile engineering failures.
The Navy is scrapping its original manning plan of three crews for two LCS hulls, with one crew always in training. The new plan is to permanently assign blue and gold crews to most ships, which will boost the number of sailors and create a better sense of ownership with the ship's complicated engineering plant, according to the Navy's top surface warfare officer.
"When all is said and done, we are going to expand the number of crews to operate 28 ships from 40 to 46," Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, the head of Naval Surface Forces, said Thursday after a rough few weeks for the besieged LCS. Rowden has also ordered all engineering crew members to requalify in the wake of the engineering accidents, some of which were caused by crew mistakes.
The plan also kills the idea of a separate mission module crew, upending the program's signature modularity concept where sensors and payloads could be switched out quickly to meet emerging missions.
Instead, Rowden’s plan calls for a "one ship, one mission" model, where each ship will be semi-permanently assigned a mission like anti-surface warfare, mine warfare or antisubmarine warfare. The move boosts the crew size from 50 sailors to 70, since the mission module crew will be permanently assigned.
That also means that the module crew will be permanently assigned to each ship, a step that would improve crew cohesion and make each crew experts in their assigned warfare area, Rowden said.
"When I send out USS Gabrielle Giffords to do antisubmarine warfare, I want 70 sailors doing antisubmarine warfare, 93 with the air detachment," Rowden said in a roundtable interview with reporters at the Pentagon. "There’s none of this, ‘Hey we are a jack of all trades business.' No, we are signed up on this mission and this is the mission we are going to go execute. Simplify the mission in the minds of the individuals and make them experts in the execution of it."
The blue and gold crews will rotate off the ship every four to five months when forward, he said.
Rowden is also planning to reorganize the LCS structure, moving all the aluminum-hulled trimaran of the Independence-class to San Diego and all the mono-hull Freedom variants to Mayport, Florida. When the fleet gets up to 28 ships in 2023, Rowden’s plan calls for dividing up into six divisions of four ships each. Each division -- three per coast -- will be dedicated to a specific warfare area and will be led by a commodore.
Three of the ships will be deployers with blue and gold crews, and one ship will remain stateside and will be manned with an experienced LCS crew certified to train the other six crews before they deploy. Rowden said it will be essential to keep seasoned LCS sailors in the program to train and certify crews, but thought this could be done without close-looping personnel, where qualified sailors are stuck serving only on LCS.
"The reality is that there are six crews that make up the deployers from which to source that that one single training ship," he said. "So we are offering them the opportunity to continue to serve on the littoral combat ship in the same geographic location. That’s a pretty positive thing for the vast majority of folks in the Navy, especially with kids in school: stability for the family."
The first four ships -- two from each class -- are slated to be converted to test ships for new LCS concepts, sensors and modules. The plan once the fleet is at 28 ships is to have four test ships, six training ships and 18 rotational deployment ships.
Of those, seven will be in Bahrain, four will be in Singapore and three will be stationed elsewhere in Asia, likely in Japan. The goal will be to have each ship spend about 24 months deployed in theater before returning to be refit, Rowden said, though he acknowledges that may be a stretch at first. Right now, he’s comfortable that each ship can go about 16 months deployed and expand from there.
Rowden said that while he expects the moves to increase ownership of the platform and boost sailors’ pride in their hull, this plan isn’t the final word on how LCS will be organized.
"If anyone thinks we are carving this in granite and saying, ‘Hey, this is the answer, we’ve slayed this dragon. Let’s go somewhere else and find another dragon to slay’ -- the thing we’ve learned in this program is it takes continual assessment," he said. "You have to have continual feedback from the crews, the ships, the fleet commanders to determine what works and what doesn’t work."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.