ABOARD THE USS FREEDOM, SINGAPORE
“Such is the prestige, the privilege, and the burden of command ... Such is the loneliness of command.”
- –“Typhoon,” by Joseph Conrad
Few authors are more associated with Pacific sea yarns than Joseph Conrad. His short story “Typhoon” – in which he cites the privilege, burden and loneliness of command – was based on the supposedly true account of a steamship’s harrowing journey from Singapore through the tempest-tortured South Seas.
Conrad’s story seems to foretell the torturous journey of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-1) USS Freedom to Singapore for the ship’s first Asian deployment.
The Freedom never had to endure a hurricane on the way to Singapore, but the ship certainly has gone through a tempestuous set of trials and tribulations. During transit, the ship suffered a series of power outages, and once in Singapore the Freedom was sidelined by a coolant leak that also apparently cut short the ship’s initial extended underway.
Even before the Freedom left San Diego several weeks ago for Asian waters, the ship and the LCS program were being buffeted in in a storm of controversy. First-hand reports revealed a host of ship-board problems on Freedom, while the very LCS concept came under attack from inside and outside the Navy. Indeed, LCS is now the target of more than one federal government probe.
Despite all this, the top Navy brass remains committed to the Freedom and the LCS program. For better or worse, the LCS is the linchpin of the “Pacific Pivot” for the Navy, which relies on a “small-footprint” strategy of deploying relatively small vessels like the LCS or Joint High Speed Vessel in the region instead of more destroyers, cruisers or aircraft carriers.
The idea is to develop more U.S. presence without flexing too much military might. A bigger show of power could infringe on the sovereign sensibilities of partner countries – not to mention put China on edge.
This puts Freedom center stage and its commanding officer -- Cmdr. Tim Wilke (pictured below) – right in the spotlight. Few U.S. officers seem better suited for the job. During a shipboard tour of the Freedom earlier this month in Singapore, Wilke acknowledged he was feeling some of the heat, and he wasn’t just referring to the climbing mercury near the equator.
But, Wilke noted, the ship – at least up until that moment – had met every operational milestone it was meant to for its Asian deployment.
Wilke is a ship commander, not a salesman. But his knowledge of the ship’s operations and confidence in its abilities is a navy marketing asset for Freedom and the LCS program. One moment he’s playing the role of diplomat, outfitted in Navy dress whites, explaining the role of the ship in the region and U.S. strategy in the nerve-center control room of the vessel.
The next he’s in his working fatigues, climbing down into the deepest bowels of the Freedom’s noisy, hot engine room to provide Aviation Week with an extensive explanation of how the machinery is supposed to work, how it hasn’t quite worked as planned and what’s being done to fix it.
Captaining any Navy warship carries with it a nearly mythical sense of overwhelming authority. But commanding the Freedom can also be a humbling experience. After all, thanks to the sparse-manning core concept, even the LCS captain prepares his own food and washes his own dishes.
Equally humbling has been the Freedom’s history of testing and operational issues. Yet, Wilke remains pragmatic about that as well. When his ship and crew went on certification trials during the fall to prove they were ready for the Singapore deployment, I went along for the ride.
Wilke acknowledged that there was a chance something could go wrong during those trials. “I’m 90-95 percent sure nothing will happen,” he said. “But of course, there’s always that possibility – and what could be worse than something happening with a reporter on board?”
But Wilke remained confident in his ship and his crew, and seemed content to let fate have its way. The trials went off without a hitch.
In his story, Conrad says of the ship’s captain: “Omens were as nothing to him, and he was unable to discover the message of a prophecy till the fulfillment had brought it home to his very door.”
Wilke could see the power outages, coolant leaks and other operational issues as omens, but that seems doubtful. He doesn’t seem the type.