November 30, 2012
Credit: U.S. Navy
The skipper is smiling, cautiously.
The first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-1), the USS Freedom, is pushing off from a U.S. Navy pier in San Diego a few minutes before schedule, and Cmdr. Tim Wilke, the ship’s commanding officer, knows that the early departure is a big deal.
“We finished everything on time,” he says. “We got underway on time. Those are the highlights.”
When it left the pier Nov. 26, the Freedom had just finished an extensive repair period, and it is difficult to get any ship back to sea on schedule after such an overhaul. But the first-of-class LCS Freedom has had a history of troublesome restarts in similar situations, so this was an understandably tense time for officers and crew.
Adding even more pressure was the fact that the Freedom and Wilke’s “gold” crew team were steaming out of San Diego harbor for a week of trials and tests to certify the ship, sailors and officers for a planned deployment to Singapore early next year that the Navy’s top brass has made a public priority.
“This is our Super Bowl,” Wilke declared to the crew over the ship’s intercom as the Lockheed Martin-built vessel headed out. “This is where we figure out how to fight [with] this ship in an integrated task force environment.”
This, though, is more than a saga about the race for certification for Wilke and his crew. This is a story about the Navy’s desire to rebrand and restore the reputation of what is arguably its most important surface-vessel program, which has faced mounting doubts and criticism, especially in the halls of Congress. As part of that effort, Aviation Week was granted exclusive interviews with top Navy officials and unique access to the Freedom, its officers and crew during the first days of November’s certification exercises.
LCS officials are now quite upfront about the problems with both the Freedom class and the other LCS seaframes, based on the LCS-2 USS Independence built by Austal USA and General Dynamics, as they work to make the vessels deployable and, more importantly, prevent possible injuries or even fatalities related to fleetwide design issues. Odd-numbered LCS seaframes are being provided by an industry team led by Lockheed, while Austal/GD are building the even-numbered ships.
For the most part, the remaining problems are elemental shipbuilding and combat system development issues that should have been addressed in the earliest phases of the program, acknowledges Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, who leads a council of top admirals charged with shepherding the Freedom to deployment.