The embarked crew of the littoral combat ship Coronado, forward deployed to Singapore, was supposed to be home for Thanksgiving after a four- or five-month tour. But now the crew has been on board and overseas for eight months and there is no end in sight.
About 70 sailors compose Crew 204, which deployed in June for the Rim of the Pacific exercise and to replace the LCS Fort Worth at Changi Naval Base. But once the Coronado and her crew arrived in Singapore, the Navy's top Surface Warfare Officer announced a sweeping overhaul to the LCS program's training standards that was spurred by a string of accidents, some of which were caused by crew errors.
The shakeup has delayed getting the Coronado's replacement crew qualified and could extend the ship's deployment length to as long as a year, according to two family members who spoke to Navy Times. That would be one of the longest Navy deployments in decades. The fact that nobody knows exactly when it will end has eroded crew morale and put an enormous strain on families.
"I've done six-month deployments in the past many times," one family member said. "But I've never seen anything like this, this LCS [squadron]. What makes it so bad is that there is no light at the end of the tunnel."
Both family members, who spoke to Navy Times on condition of anonymity to avoid consequences for their loved ones, said the uncertainty had tanked the morale of the crew.
"It’s bad," a second family member agreed, when asked about morale on board. For the loved ones back home, the deployment has been especially hard because of the limited information coming to them from the crew.
At least one family member reported that the command had not been diligent about keeping families informed about the status of the crew and the projected homecoming.
Officials with Naval Surface Force Pacific acknowledged that Crew 204's deployment is difficult and thanked them for their work and said that the prolonged deployment was necessary while the program gets on its feet again.
We fully appreciate the sacrifices that all our sailors and their families endure as part of their service to our country." said Lt. Rebecca Haggard in a statement from the command.
"The Navy recognizes the hardship put on families when their sailors are deployed, especially for unscheduled or extended amount of times. ... The work being done by this group of deployed sailors is to be commended and is imperative to long-term improvement and stability for the program and the sailors serving aboard the LCS. We are reviewing all courses of action to ensure we facilitate the earliest possible reunion with their families."
Haggard also said the contact information for the command ombudsman and senior members of the command's leadership was made available to any family members who had questions or concerns.
A main factor driving Crew 204's open-ended deployment is the delay in getting a new crew qualified to replace them after a change in training standards. Qualifying under the new training standards requires some underway time. And to get underway, the crew, which will be Crew 203, needs a ship and for now all the trimaran LCS-2 variant ships are either in overhaul or undergoing repairs.
Officials told Navy Times that the replacement crew should be training on the LCS Independence, but that ship is in need of engine repairs and is not immediately available.
Navy officials say Crew 204’s open-ended deployment is an unintended consequence of the complete reorganization of the LCS program's manning program that was triggered last year by a spate of LCS engineering problems, including breakdowns on the Freedom and the Fort Worth caused by crew errors.
"The recent LCS study prompted several changes to the LCS training and certification process to make sure deploying crew are provided both off-hull simulator and on-hull underway opportunities to fully certify prior to deployment," Haggard said. "Crew 204 will be relieved by Crew 203 upon full certification of the oncoming crew, which is expected to be in late spring 2017."
Under the original crewing plan for the LCS fleet, three crews of about 50 sailors each rotated between two ships, which meant sailors would spend four-to-six months deployed on the ship, about six in pre-deployment workups and six months off hull used for training and leave. Much of the training and certification was supposed to be done in a simulator to free up ships for tasking. All this was meant to keep the LCS fleet forward-deployed and underway for as much time as possible.
But the high-profile crew failures on Freedom and Fort Worth shook the confidence of senior Navy leaders in the original training pipeline and organization of the program. Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, who heads SURFPAC, ordered changes to both the structure of the program and the training pipeline for qualifying deploying LCS crews. Crew 204’s relief won’t be dispatched until it’s trained up to new standards, which include underway training periods.
In a December statement, SURFPAC spokesman Cmdr. John Perkins told Navy Times that the crew would be rotated home once its replacement is fully trained, but the word on the Coronado’s deckplates is that their replacements aren’t that close.
"They were being told April, now they are being told mid-to-late May," one of the family members said. "Truth seems to be that the replacement crew has made little-to-no progress.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.