Sure there’s a lot more to the U.S. Navy than its surface fleet, Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program and the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.
But those three are inextricably interlinked and they form the tripod of one of the major foundations upon which the Navy will stand and grow or fall and wither.
Led by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. chief of naval operations (CNO), the Navy leadership has not only been highlighting surface fleet needs, but also the vital importance of the rebalance and the major role LCS ships would play in the Pacific, as well as surface-fleet development as a whole.
All of this will undoubtedly be the subject of PowerPoint presentations and other discussions this coming week during the annual Surface Navy Association Symposium in Arlington, Va., and it's as good a time as any to provide updates on these topics, based on a series of interviews in the U.S. and abroad throughout the previous year.
Aviation Week boarded LCS-1 USS Freedom in both Singapore and Honolulu and also went aboard the guided missile cruiser CG-70 Lake Erie at Pearl Harbor, interviewing Navy officials, defense analysts and other military or regional experts in Hawaii, Florida, Singapore and Malaysia.
In some ways, the Freedom’s trials and tribulations of the past year or so mirror those of the overall surface fleet recently. And also in some ways the future of the LCS program could also serve as a barometer for the rest of the fleet.
As has been well reported and documented, the surface fleet as of late has been a maintenance mess. Years of deferred repairs combined with the extra workload of two major overseas military conflicts have inflicted a heavy toll. While the Navy has made some headway in getting its surface vessels shipshape, budgetary constraints and related problems have made for some slow going.
But the Navy continues to deploy the ships in the best shape it can.
In much the same way, the Freedom needed a bit of an overhaul through 2012 to get into shape for its Spring 2013 deployment to the Western Pacific.
And – also well reported and well documented – the Freedom suffered through a series of operational mishaps that required more overhaul work to get the ship in good enough shape to go on missions and make the return transit to U.S. waters.
Unlike other surface ships, the Freedom’s deployment was such a priority that funding was not nearly the issue it has been for the rest of the fleet or even the LCS program writ large.
Now, Navy leaders say they will use the lessons learned from the Freedom deployment as fodder not only for the rest of the program, but for other surface vessels as well, although for many analysts the deployment has raised more questions than it has provided answers about the future of LCS.
Some of the LCS general concepts, though, can and should be incorporated into the fleet, Navy officials say. Take maintenance, for example.
Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, commander of the Naval Surface Force and U.S. Pacific Naval Surface Force says the Navy must implement condition-based maintenance.
“We must build it into our ships from the keel up,” he says in his “Vision for the 2026 Surface Fleet” report, which was released earlier this month.
“We are doing this with LCS, and we will continue to refine our processes and systems with those ships and apply the knowledge we gain to all of our future ships. This requires an investment in off-ship data services, data analysis, and cost-avoiding maintenance recommendations.”
The anticipated ability to morph LCS almost on the fly is another fleet-wide desire.
“Our goal in the next 10 years is to be building ships that can be modernized ‘without a cutting torch,’” Copeman says. “Modularity, common standards and interfaces will be the core of our efforts. Again, the lessons we learn bringing LCS into the force will make our modernization strategies and implementing practices more effective in the coming decades.”
Of course there is still the small matter of proving out that capability first with the LCS. The Navy has yet to put a fully-planned mission module package on an operational vessel yet, let alone switch out one mission module for another – a deployment feature that’s still about another year or so away. The Navy so far has deployed most of the surface warfare module package, but is still testing the antisubmarine and countermine warfare ones.
“Success of LCS is dependent upon the success of the mission packages we field,” Copeman says. “We can get all of the new manning, maintenance, logistics and training concepts right, but we will not be successful if the ships do not meet your standard of credible capability for deterrence, sea control and power projection.”
Noted naval author, analyst and expert Norman Polmar says the modules should have been developed and integrated by now. “If the modules were something exotic, like nuclear lasers, I’d understand,” he says. “We’ve been doing some of these things since 1917 – close-in defense since 1941.”
The Navy and contractors are much further along with module development than some analysts’ reports and government studies would indicate. But those packages still have to be integrated – and that will likely be no easy task.
After all, this is a ship class that has had to boost its core manning to meet its first Western Deployment missions.
“With LCS, we recognize that the initial size of the core crew was too small to be sustainable, and we are increasing that crew from 40 sailors to 50,” Copeman says.
The Navy will have to acclimate to smaller ship crews across the fleet where possible, although the service plans to be much smarter in the way it does that. “Going forward,” Copeman says, “We will fundamentally shift the way we approach reducing manpower by implementing the technological improvement or process change first, then reducing manpower, rather than removing sailors and hoping that innovation will happen. Over time, we may need to adapt the way we train and retain our sailors to develop a more technologically and tactically skilled and experienced force.”
Then there is the LCS training mindset.
“The direction we are heading in LCS with virtual reality training, where sailors can train in a broad range of realistic scenarios in an accurately simulated environment, is where I intend to direct the Force,” Copeman says.
While the Navy is profiling the LCS as the template for future surface-ship programs, questions remain about the middle part of its name – that is: just how much of a combat ship is the Littoral Combat Ship?
Some defense analysts say the LCS – now the fastest warship in the Navy’s fleet – sacrificed too much in its need for speed.
“We gave up combat ability,” Polmar says, adding that ability is a warship’s defining characteristic.
And combat ability is very much on Copeman’s mind.
“As we look critically at how we do business, we cannot escape the fact that deploying ships that can successfully execute (routine) operations and those fully prepared for combat operations are two different things,” Copeman says. “In recent decades, warfighting has not always had the focus it requires for us to meet our obligation to be prepared for prompt and sustained combat operations. It has my complete attention.”
As for the LCS, he says, "As we work through the challenges of deploying and supporting these ships, we will turn ever more attention to the combat credibility of these ships.”
Certainly there was no combat in mind for the Freedom when it went to the Asia-Pacific and docked in Singapore. Navy officials point out that the ship proved out its basic concept of operations (conops) and performed its planned missions while LCS dissenters note that those conops continue to change.
Also, program doubters say, the missions performed by LCS during its deployment are nothing that other Navy ships have not been doing for years, even if Navy officials say the LCS can do job more cheaply.
What really matters, CNO Greenert says, is that the LCS, which is smaller than other Navy warships, can get closer to the coast than its bigger cousins and also participate with the smaller naval ships of partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific, providing the kind of small-footprint presence in the region the U.S. has lacked until now. It is key, he says, to the rebalancing.
Regional analysts, though, worry the LCS may pack just a little too small of a punch to make that rebalancing seem real, especially with the specter of a more militarily modern and expanding China on the horizon. While the Freedom’s size certainly matched that of other ships at the Singapore Changi naval base, the ship still lacked some of the organic basic firepower of the other foreign naval surface vessels or submarines.
The U.S. Pacific pivot is coming just as China is reasserting itself regionally and globally and the Chinese are getting edgy.
“They will do anything they can to enhance and increase comprehensive national power,” says William Choong, the Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia (IISS) in Singapore.
If LCS presence proves too little, the U.S. appears quite prepared to show some power, too.
“The poster ship for the rebalance is the (CVN-73 USS) George Washington Strike Group and whatever carrier follows it,” Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Harry Harris tells Aviation Week.
If not a carrier, there’s always a cruiser.
“When we’re off the coastline — there’s capability there,” says Capt. John Banigan, commanding officer of the Pearl Harbor-based CG-70 USS Lake Erie, the dedicated Aegis ballistic missile defense test ship until this year. “When this thing comes around, it’s a capital ship. It sends a message. We could blow away a small country.”
That is not the role of the LCS.
“LCS is built to thrive in a knife fight,” cays Capt. Randy Garner, LCS Squadron One commodore.
He made the remarks on the Freedom during a December change of command ceremony on the ship in Pearl Harbor, when and where he also told the officers and crew, “We set out to deploy USS Freedom to the Western Pacific as a proof of concept deployment, to review ship capabilities against the demands in an operating theater, to execute our concept of operations, and to find out how you, the crew of USS Freedom, can perform given the tools available to you.”
The crew certainly has some issues to contend with.
As Copeman says in a recent blog about the deployment, “We had some well-publicized engineering reliability challenges that impacted some of the planned operations for this maiden deployment, but they were not wholly unexpected.”
Indeed, as an Aviation Week review of Freedom emails going back nearly four years shows, the ship has had chronic generator and other problems that have caused some of those aboard to question the design and equipment on Freedom.
Also, Copeman says in his blog, “Operating in the littorals places unique demand on a propulsion plant.”
To amplify further, the Navy says, “To achieve speeds desired for this ship class, we needed a different propulsion system. You highlight additional benefits, but the primary reason for water jets and the absence of screws was the speed range desired... +40 knots. In addition, shallow water usually involves susceptibility to ‘squat,’ debris and silt, and other problems.”
That shallow-water junk would clog filters, etc., and prevent the equipment from being properly cooled – especially in the warm climes of the Asia-Pacific and other areas LCS is meant to operate.
One might think that a ship’s design for a “littoral” combat ship might take that in better account.
The LCS design has been – and continues to be – a point of contention and debate.
The ship-classification and certification organization American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) says the Navy decided to take some design oversight decisions that proved costly.
“According to ABS officials, the classification process involved a level of discipline that the Navy found difficult to integrate into the design and construction of surface combatants, and in some instances the Navy chose to accept design drawings or approve completed production work prior to ABS completing its own review and approval process,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported earlier this year. “For example, the Naval Vessel Rules require that during the design engineering phase of the shipbuilding project computer analyses determining the structural integrity of the ship are to be reviewed and approved by ABS. However, the Navy allowed the shipbuilder to commence construction and deliver the lead ship (LCS-1) and begin construction on the second ship (LCS-3) before the ship designers were able to submit a structural analysis that met the ABS requirements. The analysis identified several areas on the ship’s superstructure that were under high stress and could be prone to failure.”
Program officials indicated they operated the ship with knowledge of the high-stress areas as a means to field test the strength of the ship, GAO says.
“During the initial operating period of LCS-1, cracks emerged in a number of the predicted locations, requiring repair and additional strengthening of LCS-1 and structural modifications during construction of LCS-3.”
Polmar and defense analyst John Gresham told Aviation Week more than a year ago the cracks would require redesign work on the ships.
Navy officials say the issues are not uncommon for first-of-class ships like LCS-1, especially considering the vessels were built with research-and-development funding.
“It is not a first-of-class problem,” Polmar says. “Certain programs – not first-of-class ships – have the problems.”
Look at some submarine programs, he says. “The Sea Wolf had major problems – but Virginia didn’t.”
The big issue for LCS, he says, is that it has technical and programmatic issues that in the end may prove unsurmountable.
But LCS program officials say the follow-on ships are already much better.
“Both shipbuilders right now are showing great progress,” Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, LCS program executive officer, tells Aviation Week. “And we’ve delivered sea frames that meet the high-level requirements and knock down challenges.”
And even though LCS has proven conops for most of only one mission module – surface warfare – during its Western Pacific deployment, program officials are talking to the Marine Corps and others about possible other missions.
Making LCS work as advertised – or better – is paramount. The ship will count for about a quarter of the shrinking surface fleet.
“The surface force of 2026 will not enjoy the overwhelming capability and capacity advantages of today’s force and so must be proficient and creative in operating weapons and systems,” Copeman warns in his vision briefing.
The Navy has got to take better care of the ships it has and the ones it hopes to get.
“Our ships and their component pieces will all break at some point. As we cannot buy ships and systems that deliver 1.0 operational availability to meet our requirement of prompt and sustained combat operations, we must manage the downtime of those ships and systems, as well as control the costs of maintenance,” he says.
And the Navy, he says, has to take greater care with the ships it is building now and plans to build in the future.
He says, “Cheaply built ships are expensive.”