January 28, 2013
Credit: Photo Credit: U.S. Navy
The sun burns through the morning fog in San Diego as the Navy's first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) USS Freedom gets underway for certification trials under Cmdr. Tim Wilke, the commanding officer.
As Freedom steers toward the harbor, Wilke tells the crew by intercom that the trials are “our Super Bowl.” The ship, which just finished a successful overhaul, speeds to nearly 40 kt. without a hitch.
But neither Wilke nor the Navy brass sees clear sailing for the ship or the LCS program. The USS Freedom, commissioned in 2008 but beset by problems, must still resolve some issues before it can cruise to Singapore this spring for a 10-month deployment and prove its value as a surface combatant. Compressors have been giving engineers fits. The fire-control radar has been causing gun issues. And operation of the stern ramp and door has been creating problems.
Issues loom for the LCS program, as well. While Navy brass has been more transparent by detailing fixes for some of the ship's larger problems, service officials have made other revelations. While the Navy was clear about plans to build the first two LCS vessels as “operational research-and-developmental” ships, the brass did not effectively communicate this outside the Pentagon, says Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, who heads the LCS council of service admirals charged with shepherding USS Freedom to deployment and the program to success.
Furthermore, Hunt acknowledges, such ship development is a new course for the Navy. “We've never done this before,” he says.
The Navy's “operational R&D” branding of the LCS vessels (there are now three) appears to run adrift of earlier congressional testimony. Consider the March 10, 2009, testimony of then-Rear Adm. William Landay, program executive officer of ships, before the seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee: “There was a belief held by some in the Defense Department and the shipbuilding industry that we needed a different approach, one that allowed less conventional designs, greater use of commercial standards and focused on adapting systems available throughout the world instead of along the R&D effort.”
Instead, the Freedom-class vessels were redesigned to resolve engineering and fabrication issues, with more improvements planned.