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The US Navy is preparing a major surge of littoral combat ship deployments

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy is preparing a major effort to try and shake off years of false starts and setbacks with the littoral combat ship program, an effort Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said he’d oversee on his watch.

In an exclusive interview with Defense News July 16, Gilday listed LCS as a major priority for him during his tenure as CNO, saying he was going to turn up the heat on efforts to get the ship to become a major contributor to fleet operations.

“There are things in the near term that I have to deliver, that I’m putting heat on now, and one of them is LCS,” Gilday said. “One part is sustainability and reliability. We know enough about that platform and that problems that we have that plague us with regard to reliability and sustainability, and I need them resolved.

“That requires a campaign plan to get after it and have it reviewed by me frequently enough so that I can be sighted on it. Those platforms have been around since 2008, we need to get on with it. We’ve done five deployments since I’ve been on the job, we’re going to ramp that up two-and-a-half time over the next couple of years but we have got to get after it. … LCS for me is something, on my watch, I’ve got to get right.”

Gilday’s renewed focus on LCS comes after years of fits and starts as the Navy struggled with almost every aspect of the complicated program: From manning and maintaining the hulls, to keeping the gear running or even fielding the sensor suites needed to perform the missions for which they were built. The ship has become a perennial whipping boy for a Congress frustrated by the service’s struggle to field new technologies, such as those built into the LCS or the Ford-class carrier, conceived in the early 2000s.

Two of the technologies the Navy has yet to field are the mine hunting mission module, intended to replace the service’s aging minesweepers, and the anti-submarine warfare mission module. Both are years overdue, though they have made significant progress. Getting those fielded is among CNO’s top priorities, he said.

“I have to deliver is both the mine and ASW modules,” Gilday said. “These ships are probably going to go [start going] away in the mid-2030s if the FFG(X) build goes as planned. But I need to wring as much as I can out of those ships as quickly as I can, but, again, we’ve got to get after it.”

The LCS program comprises two hulls: a monohull version built in Marinette, Wisconsin, by Lockheed Martin and Fincantieri, and a trimaran version built by Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama. Congress has funded 35 of the ships and has commissioned 20 of them, but deploying the ship has been a challenge because of reliability problems with the complicated propulsion systems designed to meet the Navy’s 40-knot speed requirement.

In 2016, the Navy fundamentally reorganized the program, jettisoning the signature modularity of the program where a single LCS would have a small, permanent crew and switch out anti-surface, anti-submarine or mine-warfare mission packages on the pier depending on the mission. Each mission package would then come with a group of specialists to operate the equipment.

After a series of accidents, the Navy sought to simplify the concept and semi-permanently assign mission packages to each hull and change a complicated three-crews-for-two-LCS-hulls model to a blue-and-gold crewing model used in ballistic missile submarines as a way of boosting operational tempo.

The reorg was in response to concerns that the rotational crewing model reduced crew ownership of the vessel, potentially contributing to some of the accidents that plagued the program. One of the major accidents wrecked the then-forward deployed Fort Worth’s combining gear (roughly the same as the clutch on a car) when the crew started up the system without lube oil running.

Prior to the Fort Worth accident, the combining gear on board the Milwaukee encountered problems on the ship’s transit from the shipyard to its home base in Florida and had to be towed into Norfolk

Gilday’s goal of fielding the mission modules is well along already, according to two sources familiar with the progress who were not authorized to speak on the record.

The mine warfare mission module is on track for a final test and evaluation by the end of this calendar year, a source with knowledge of the program told Defense News, and the individual components have already passed testing and are in initial low-rate production.

End-to-end testing of the mine mission module is set to begin in FY2021 and is on track have its initial operating capability declared in 2022, another source said.

The status of the ASW mission module, which has been a regular target of Congress-imposed budget cuts, is a little less clear because  

The next major milestones for the ASW mission package will likely slip to next year due to budget cuts, a source with knowledge of the program said.

The mission module has been integrated into the LCS Fort Worth and testing began last Fall. It’s unclear if the testing will be delayed or interrupted if the Navy is able to carry through its plan to decommission the first four littoral combat ships.

For the Independence variant, the trimaran hull, testing for the ASW mission module is slated to be installed on the LCS Kansas City, but there is no fixed date yet, according to a Navy official.

An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle conducts flight operations on June 27 alongside the Freedom-class littoral combat ship Milwaukee in the Atlantic Ocean. (MC2 Anderson Branch/Navy)
An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle conducts flight operations on June 27 alongside the Freedom-class littoral combat ship Milwaukee in the Atlantic Ocean. (MC2 Anderson Branch/Navy)

Aside from the issues with a buggy propulsion train and the delayed mission modules , Gilday said he was happy with where LCS is with regard to manning and said the blue-gold crewing was giving him a lot of availability to play with.

“I do think we have it about right with manning,” Gilday said. “We were honest with ourselves that the original design wasn’t going to do it. I really like the blue-and-gold construct because I get way more [operational availability] than I would with just the single crew.

“So, I can get these ships out there in numbers doing the low-end stuff in, let’s say, 4th Fleet where I wouldn’t need a DDG.”

The Navy deployed the littoral combat ship Detroit to South America – the 4th Fleet area of operations –  last year on a counter-narcotics mission and it returned earlier this month. Those are the kinds of missions the LCS is perfectly suited for, Gilday said.  

“I can deploy these things with a [law enforcement detachment] and a signals intelligence a capability, and I can do that on LCS with carry-on gear,” Gilday said. “It’s the right kind platform for that. Also in 5th Fleet, those maritime security missions that we were heavily sighted on in the late 1990s and early 2000s: they still exist, I’d just prefer to do them with an LCS instead of a DDG if I can.

But without getting more reliability out of the propulsion system, even the low-end missions the Navy wants of the LCS will be a challenge.

The heart of the issue seems to lie with long ocean transits, such as the one from San Diego to Singapore, where the ships are supposed to be forward based. Cutting back on that transit, and the wear it puts on the ship, should be core to the Navy’s strategy to getting more from LCS, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“The propulsion architecture’s unreliability means you are going to have to come up with a different way to deploy the ship that doesn’t require every deployment to be transoceanic,” Clark said. “By the time the ship gets to Singapore it needs a lot of work done to it and your deployment time is cut down by the fact that you have to repair the ship once it arrives. Then it has to return to the U.S. So, both those trips are so fraught that the Navy ends up devoting a lot of time and resources to it.”

The littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords, (Brynn Anderson/AP)
The littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords, (Brynn Anderson/AP)

One alternative would be to forward station the ships for a longer period of time than the 16-24 months the Navy had envisioned, and place them in Sasebo rather than Singapore, Clark said. Sasebo has always been in the cards for LCS as a home for the mine warfare LCS hulls.

When it comes to the delays on the mission modules, the Navy should consider fielding those capabilities in the mine warfare mission module that are already workable, or consider an alternate structure based on the model used by the Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians.

“The other thing they need to do is come up with a way for the mine warfare capabilities to the degree they are available. And come up with the concept of operations for that, meaning the warfare folks in San Diego would need to come up with concepts for the equipment they do have rather than what they want to have.”

As for the ASW mission module, that might be something the Navy will want to revisit, Clark said.

“They need to decide if the ASW mission package is going to be part of LCS,” Clark said. “The ASW module is the module with the most proven capability in it and is the one that would offer the best improvement in LCS contribution to the fleet.

“But it’s also the most expensive and if LCS is not deploying then why spend the money on it? And with the frigate coming along, it’s going to be doing the same missions with the same kind of systems, so why invest in the LCS version?”

What is clear is that leadership from the upper echelons of the Navy should help move things along, Clark said.

“It’s good to hear Gilday is taking it on,” Clark said. “But I think part of that is going to be accepting that we’re never going to get where we wanted to be on LCS, and accepting second best is probably the best way to get the most from LCS.

“You’ll have to say ‘We accept the fact that we’re not going to have a full mine warfare mission module. We accept that we’ll have to deploy them forward and eliminate these long transits and ASW is probably out the window.’ So, it is about making hard choices like that and taking the heat.”

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