“It’s as though the ship designers didn’t know what the ship operators would use some of this equipment for, or how they would use it at sea,” Hunt said during a Nov. 14 interview with Aviation Week. “It wasn’t ‘sailorized,’ if you will.” Council members will be providing that kind of real-sea experience in LCS designs and changes from here on out, he says.
Most of those priority-list items, Hunt says, appear to be relatively quick and easy fixes.
Thus far, the LCS program has managed to weather a string of storms—dating back to its inception—including busted budgets and dashed deadlines. Through it all the Navy brass has forged ahead with plans for a 55-ship LCS fleet worth an estimated $30 billion that will account for about half of the service’s surface vessels. Envisioned as a major element of U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere, it literally anchors the future of American maritime security. The ship is becoming the Navy’s forward-presence poster ship, to be deployed like an ultra-sophisticated corvette that can switch out mission module packages—allowing it, for example, to perform anti-submarine warfare missions one day and allied training exercises the next.
By all accounts this is not the ship the Navy—nor the nation—initially expected. But the potential the Navy sees in both the ship itself and its modules will likely cause the vessel’s concept of operations (conops) to grow beyond what was thought possible, Hunt says.
There have already been “a couple hundred” changes to the hull between the Freedom and LCS-3 Fort Worth, and another 30 or so from the Fort Worth to LCS-5, Hunt says. The LCS troubleshooter sees the fleet developing along the lines of the F-18, which went from the early model Hornets to advanced later-model Super Hornets, which are essentially completely different aircraft.
In turn, the first two vessels are now termed operational R&D ships, Hunt notes, a unique designation for U.S. naval vessels. “We’ve never done this before,” he says. While the Navy was clear up and down the ranks about its plans to build the first two as operational R&D ships, he asserts, the brass was not effective in communicating this to lawmakers and the public.
Over time, with several LCS iterations, the ship could evolve into a different vessel, bearing as much resemblance to the production-level ship frames as the Super Hornet does to the original F/A-18, he says.
The Navy is now focused on addressing other problems with the initial LCS hulls, many of which have been noted in earlier Aviation Week reports. Those reports prompted proposed congressional legislation calling for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into the LCS program. Hill sources familiar with the situation say GAO’s probe already has started.
A tour of the Freedom provided by Wilke during the certification exercise, and information provided by Hunt and other Navy officers, show that most of the items have been or are being addressed.
There also is a list of LCS “priority” issues the Navy wants handled now, according to an Oct. 23 report obtained by Aviation Week that was prepared by a Navy Operational Advisory Group (OAG), separate from the LCS Council. That document provides fleet input on surface combatant needs.