The skipper is smiling, cautiously.

The first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-1), the USS Freedom, is pushing off from a U.S. Navy pier in San Diego a few minutes before schedule, and Cmdr. Tim Wilke, the ship’s commanding officer, knows that the early departure is a big deal.

“We finished everything on time,” he says. “We got underway on time. Those are the highlights.”

When it left the pier Nov. 26, the Freedom had just finished an extensive repair period, and it is difficult to get any ship back to sea on schedule after such an overhaul. But the first-of-class LCS Freedom has had a history of troublesome restarts in similar situations, so this was an understandably tense time for officers and crew.

Adding even more pressure was the fact that the Freedom and Wilke’s “gold” crew team were steaming out of San Diego harbor for a week of trials and tests to certify the ship, sailors and officers for a planned deployment to Singapore early next year that the Navy’s top brass has made a public priority.

“This is our Super Bowl,” Wilke declared to the crew over the ship’s intercom as the Lockheed Martin-built vessel headed out. “This is where we figure out how to fight [with] this ship in an integrated task force environment.”

This, though, is more than a saga about the race for certification for Wilke and his crew. This is a story about the Navy’s desire to rebrand and restore the reputation of what is arguably its most important surface-vessel program, which has faced mounting doubts and criticism, especially in the halls of Congress. As part of that effort, Aviation Week was granted exclusive interviews with top Navy officials and unique access to the Freedom, its officers and crew during the first days of November’s certification exercises.

LCS officials are now quite upfront about the problems with both the Freedom class and the other LCS seaframes, based on the LCS-2 USS Independence built by Austal USA and General Dynamics, as they work to make the vessels deployable and, more importantly, prevent possible injuries or even fatalities related to fleetwide design issues. Odd-numbered LCS seaframes are being provided by an industry team led by Lockheed, while Austal/GD are building the even-numbered ships.

For the most part, the remaining problems are elemental shipbuilding and combat system development issues that should have been addressed in the earliest phases of the program, acknowledges Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, who leads a council of top admirals charged with shepherding the Freedom to deployment.

“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.

The report had this to say about one of the major proposed LCS operational capabilities—launching and retrieving small boats: “The boat deck configuration and boat size are very unsafe for both classes of LCS and have the strong potential to lead to an LPD-17-type mishap where sailors are injured or killed.”

On Feb. 4, 2009, in the Gulf of Aden, one of the LPD-17 USS San Antonio’s rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB), occupied by three sailors, flipped over in moderate sea conditions. Two were recovered with no injuries, but the body of the third sailor was never found.

Hunt is adamant: “We have to stand on this and fix it,” he says.

The LCS configurations result in “unsafe boat deck operations,” the Navy’s Oct. 23 report states, while also warning of a troubling “warfighting capability impact: size of boat deck limits RHIB size, which limits rescue boat ops to Sea State 2 or less.” The conditions for Sea State 2 include a light breeze, small wavelets with unbreaking crests, wave heights of 5 ft. and a wind speed of 4-6 kt.

The report also states that the “lengthy sea painter”—the line connecting the RHIB to the ship—and the location of the “bitts,” where the line is secured to the vessel, “limit control of an already unstable RHIB.”

“I get white-knuckled every time we use those boats because RHIB operations, whatever the sea state, are dangerous evolutions in general,” Wilke says.

The Navy says it needs to “modify boat deck design (to include a 7-meter RHIB) and camera placement for boat deck visibility,” and “modify design for new construction and backfit existing hulls.”

The No. 1 OAG-noted priority for the LCS program now, though, is to add port and starboard bridge wings to the Independence-class design, either by building them on new vessels or backfitting them on earlier ships. Officers step out on bridge-wing walkways to better control the ship, especially when docking or going through locks or narrow waterways.

“Lack of bridge wings severely limits visibility during maneuvering,” the report states. This also “adds significant risk to shipboard evolutions and tactical situations [such as underway replenishment], pier work, RHIB operations [and] small boat defense,” the OAG reports.

“If a surface warfare officer had designed this, bridge wings would have been part of it from the start,” says Cmdr. Dave Back, commanding officer of the USS Independence. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that the ship has been able to conduct operations for the past couple of years safely.

Another major OAG LCS priority is to redesign and install stern door ramps through newbuild modifications and backfits of previous Freedom-class hulls.

The ramp on Freedom-class ships, the Navy says, is unable to store 11-meter RHIBs because it is “not strong enough” to store the inflatables “for extended periods” without warping.

“The designers thought the sailors would put the boat on the ramp and launch it,” Hunt says. “But the sailors needed to launch the boat fast, so they decided to leave the boat on the aluminum ramp. It wasn’t made for that. We’re making a steel version.”

The effect on warfighting capability, the OAG says, is that, “surprise is lost” when conducting some of the most important missions the ship is built to do.

There also are major concerns about the related ship launch, handling and recovery system (LHRS). “If LHRS fails (it frequently does),” the Navy says, the ship is unable to operate any 11-meter RHIBS.”

Stern door problems have plagued the Freedom for years. The doors are supposed to mate with the deck plate at about water level to form a watertight seal, but as noted in previous Aviation Week reports, there is a significant gap between the doors and deck running across most of the width of the stern. Indeed, water can be seen and heard sloshing in and out of the gap and along the bottom of the floor, especially during high-speed operations.

“I really would like to see that fixed,” Cmdr. Wilke says.

Hunt says problems related to the stern door represent the Navy’s major concern for the Freedom-class ships. The goal is to make the seal watertight.

For the Independence class, the Navy has identified several communications issues associated with the ship’s four AV-2075 antennas used for UHF satellite communications; overall satellite communication limitations; and “limited UHF communications.”

Also, the Navy says it needs to “add an SPS-73 or commercial S-band navigation radar positioned to mitigate existing blind zones” in newbuild ships, as well as to backfit the equipment in already built vessels.

One of the most critical questions the Navy is trying to answer with the Freedom is how many crew will be needed to run the ship. Manning is a touchy subject for LCS. “Manpower is a constraint,” the LCS conops says.

The manning for a frigate—one of the ship types the LCS is supposed to replace—is about 200 sailors; the core LCS crew numbers about 40 to run the ship alone, with dozens more to run mission systems. This comparatively low staffing has been one of the ship’s major selling points, since manpower is one of the biggest cost drivers for the Navy.

More sailors also means more weight, which, according to defense analysts and other sources familiar with LCS ship design and operations, could make it more difficult to reach the vessels’ high burst-speed requirements. Nonetheless, the Navy plans to increase the core crew size to 50, according to Hunt, although he notes that the issue is still being studied and the number and crew composition could change. Indeed, he says, the Navy is mulling adding more automated systems to the ship to cut down on some of the more routine, manpower-intensive activities aboard.

Hunt says the additional weight from the extra sailors and accompanying equipment should not be enough to make a difference to the ship’s ability to meet its speed and other performance parameters.

The Freedom will be carrying more than extra sleeping berths when it makes its way to Singapore in 2013. The ship has new piping, renovated computer and other systems, and innards scrubbed free of the rust that Aviation Week noted on a previous visit earlier this year.

The service is just about ready with Freedom, which recently passed its sea trials following its second dry-dock shakedown repair availability. “We’re pretty close,” Hunt says, adding that the ship still needs some relatively minor “tweaks” and combat system fixes, as well as another paint job, which should be done during a pending short dry-docking period in January.

Freedom—and the Navy—will be ready for the planned Singapore deployment, says Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, commander of Naval Surface Force and the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

And, as he acknowledges, “Seeing is believing.”