There’s something special and hopeful about steaming into a tropical port on the bridge of a Navy warship that’s just finished a trek across the Pacific as the year’s drawing to a close.
It’s a time of reflection of the deployment that’s been and hope for the potential that lies ahead. Green island hills hovering above a postcard Honolulu cityscape and a blue sea – all add to the dreamy scene. It’s easy to ignore the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
And as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-1) USS Freedom steamed into Pearl Harbor and docked, it was easy to focus on all of the positives of the ship’s maiden Western Pacific deployment – and forget about the roiling seas still threatening the LCS program.
“We’re all satisfied,” Capt. J.R. Garner, LCS Squadron One commodore, tells Aviation Week. “We certainly got a lot of lessons learned. The challenge was getting the ship out – we certainly did that.”
A former LCS commanding officer, Garner knows what it has taken to get Freedom out to sea for the deployment. He flew out to Hawaii to be on hand when Freedom docked there Dec. 13 and the ship marked a change of command shortly after.
During the command transition ceremony aboard the ship, Garner said, “From the Rim-of-the-Pacific exercise here in Hawaii in 2010 all the way to your arrival in Hawaii, as I inventoried your many accomplishments you were routinely given less time than anyone would want to pull of some big events. Special (certification) trial. Surface warfare mission package testing. Certifying for deployment. And giving us our first glimpse into (the ship crew’s) rotation. I would not entertain to rank your accomplishments, since every one of them was pivotal to bringing USS Freedom to service and ultimately deploying, to testing and furthering the systems in the surface warfare mission package, and then demonstrating how we will execute the LCS concept of operations successfully now and in the future.”
Cmdr. Patrick Thien, Freedom’s commanding officer during the latter part of its deployment and the transit back to Hawaii, says the ship did what it was meant to do overseas. “We worked with our partner navies -- we had exercises with Singapore and India.
Cmdr. Dale Heinken. the former Freedom executive officer who took over as CO, says, “The conops (concept of operations) – we validated them. We had to go and operate forward deployed, operate with foreign navies. Now we’ll be fine-tuning the conops.”
The biggest immediately noticeable conops change will likely will be in the maintenance of the ship. Thien and Garner say the crews can handle much more at-sea maintenance than initially believed.
“The crew has a lot of capacity that isn’t recognized (for maintenance),” Garner says. He notes the average years for an LCS engineer is about a decade – more than twice that of an engineer on another Navy warship.
As he handed over command of the ship to Heinken, Thien told Freedom sailors, “If you are on a sailboat you need to know how to raise and lower the sails, steer, navigate, operate the engine if there is one, essentially know how to do everything on that boat. As LCS sailors you are like the sailor on a sailboat you have to know more than just your rate and be able to do more than just your job. Because of that you are truly sailors in every sense of the word.”
That was the concept from the beginning – that the low-manned LCS would be crewed by hybrid sailors who would be doing many tasks – so many, in fact, they would be unable to perform most maintenance done by other sailors on other ships.
But there is a misconception, Garner says, that LCS sailors are like that of an aircraft crew, which essentially gives a ground crew a repair list upon landing. “They think the ship operates like an aircraft – with a gripe list.”
That’s not true, he says.
But the LCS ship “wholeness” conops from September 2009 says this:
“The LCS crew is similar to aircraft squadrons and small craft detachments as far as makeup of the crews and their workloads. At air squadrons and assault craft units, the bulk of the manpower and maintenance efforts reside at the squadron and assault craft unit (ACU) for their respective platforms. Aircraft Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), and landing craft utility (LCU) deploy with minimal crew along with basic parts/supplies.”
That’s not true, he says. He acknowledges that early Navy descriptions of the LCS conops paint that type of picture, but service officials did that to “manage expectations.”
He says, “Many have a binary view of the world. Either the crew can fix it or they cannot. But it doesn’t have to be just ones or zeroes. There are shades of gray.”
Also, he says, “Ships stay underway. Aircraft just fly for hours. If there’s an emergent need, they (aircraft) land or something else happens.”
Ships can’t do that, he points out. They need to do whatever needs to be done to get and keep the ship moving with the sailors and contractors on board.
Freedom engineers certainly have had their emergent issues to contend with on deployments, from coolers to generators. They have had plenty of practice dealing with such problems since the ship first went to sea.
“We didn’t wait until it was perfect,” Garner says. “Some of it we will lick wounds from. You take a big steel thing and drop in the water 24/7, 365 days - funny things happen. But we didn’t aggressively put it out there that is was unsafe to operate.”
Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Harry Harris tells Aviation Week, “It’s a brand-new ship. The CNO (chief of naval operations) was bold to send the ship forward. We could have played it safe and kept Freedom back until it was completely ready.”
While the Freedom has been battling its challenges at sea, the LCS program has been fighting its own battles in Washington. Over the course of the year, a string of U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports as well as other leaked internal Navy documents have questioned everything from LCS costs to operational ability.
It makes no sense to catalog the issues raised in those reports now – in most cases they’ve all been addressed in one way or another by the Navy. Whether those issues have been handled fully or appropriately will, in the end, be up to Congress to decide.
In a nutshell, Navy officials pretty much acknowledge that the Freedom and the program have had their problems, but they say the later ships will be much better.
There are a couple of caveats worth citing here.
For one, before the Navy made those acknowledgements, service and contractor program officials were denying problems with the ships – denials that were proven to be wrong or exaggerated. Later LCS ships have required hundreds of modifications
Which brings us to a second caveat – with all of those modifications, we have to wait and see how the other ships operate in deployment. We simply do not have a production-line model yet.
Nor do we have a full mission package out at sea on a deployed LCS yet, which means the Navy has yet to prove one of the most important selling points for the ship – a relatively quick and easy switch-out for the different mission module packages. That’s not going to happen until sometime after 2015, Navy officials say.
As the GAO notes, Congress will not have operational ship data it should have before making its next big decision on another LCS block buy.
“We are going to have more test data than a lot of people probably realize,” Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, LCS program executive officer, tells Aviation Week. “First of all, we will be doing a significant amount of operational testing in fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, before any future block buy award. Further, it's important to keep in mind that many of the systems in the mission packages are programs of records in their own right, with years -- in some cases, decades -- of test data accumulated. The performance of these systems is well characterized.”
True – but there’s a huge difference between operational testing data and deployment operations data, especially when it comes to buying large number of warships.
And while mission package equipment may be proved in other venues, integration is never a rubber-stamping process. Any issues there – and there often are – can lead to delays, greater costs and more angst.
Right now, though, Navy officials are basking in the glow of what they feel is a very successful maiden Western Pacific deployment.
Others note that getting the ship to that side of the world, swapping crews and participating in exercises or conducting humanitarian operations is nothing new for a Navy warship.
But it is all a first for an LCS, and, as far as they are concerned, the basic conops are there.
“There’s a misconception that the Navy can’t settle on requirements,” Antonio says. “But it’s not that we’re looking for a mission.”
As Garner says, “The point of the ship was not to build it to a strict set of conops – it has a future beyond initial requirements.” The ship and program, he says, are making small rudder adjustments.
At the change of command ceremony, Garner said, “LCS is built to thrive in a knife fight.”
And the program has been in a fight for its existence since the very beginning. There’s no indication that that’s going to end any time soon.
But in the fight ahead, knives may not be enough.