The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS-1) USS Freedom is plagued by extensive corrosion and manufacturing issues more recent and serious than anything the Pentagon or prime contractor Lockheed Martin has publicly acknowledged thus far.

This is based on a guided tour of the ship in dry dock, as well as sources intimately familiar with Freedom’s design, repairs and operations, U.S. Navy documents and defense analysts.

The vessel is rusting and blistered by corrosion in many areas, marred by crack repairs throughout the deckhouse and hampered by what appear to be flaws in vital piping systems.

Corrosion is particularly evident throughout the ship’s waterborne mission area, located at the Freedom’s stern, because of a large gap between the stern doors and the vessel’s deck floor, which allows water to pour in when the doors are closed. They are supposed to form a watertight seal (see photo.)

As part of its plan to address some of the Freedom’s problems, the Navy is apparently adding more sailors – a move that runs counter to the ship’s basic concept of operations, which are meant, among other things, to reduce weight and costs by deploying a ship with as few crewmembers as possible.

The vessel – the first ship of what is supposed to be the future cornerstone of U.S. surface naval power – left dry dock at the end of April for tests off the California coast. Equipment failures had cut short previous test attempts in January and February. The Freedom had been at sea 15-20 days in the 16 months before leaving pier side for the recent tests and underway 12 hr. since June 27, 2011, when it docked for recent repairs.

The condition of the lead ship and operational problems raise serious questions about the reliability and safety of this type of vessel – which will become half of the LCS fleet – and the Navy’s quality assurance process for ensuring sound design and construction.

Asked to respond to questions and observations from the ship tour and other research, Pat Dolan, a spokeswoman for Naval Sea Systems Command, calls the Aviation Week observations of shipboard and program issues “a collection of speculation, outdated or incorrect information, third-party anecdotes, opinions, and outright irrelevancies.”

Lockheed spokesman Keith Little says questions raised by the Aviation Week ship tour and related research “appear to be based on selective information that is outdated or inaccurate, and has largely been previously reported.”

He notes, “As the lead ship in a totally new class, the USS Freedom is providing important lessons that are being incorporated into future ships, and the Navy and contractors extensively test these lead ships purposely to obtain insight only possible through usage.”

He also says, “USS Freedom has been certified and approved by both the Navy and the American Bureau of Shipping. Solely focusing on isolated incidents related to this first ship misrepresents the nearly decade of experience and knowledge Lockheed Martin now has building and maintaining these ships.”

But some members of Congress see it differently. “Making sure the stern door seals shut is shipbuilding 101,” says U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I’m troubled that the Navy would accept so many deficiencies in a program that seems to be riddled with serious problems,” Speier said after Aviation Week shared with her staff photographs and other material gathered from the ship tour.

Navy officials and program supporters say some of the problems are due to first-of-class growing pains and the learning curve achieved by getting to know the maintenance needs of a ship that until about a decade ago was little more than a concept.

LCS is meant to be maintained differently from other Navy vessels. “Crews do minimal maintenance on board,” Capt. John Neagley, the acting LCS program manager, said during a briefing at the Navy League’s recent annual Sea Air Space conference.

And the ship’s current concept of operations, or conops, reinforces that idea. “The crew has no surplus capacity to absorb additional duties,” reads the conops, last revised in 2009. “There are no spare sailors or officers assigned to LCS.”

To further address some of the corrosion problems on both the Freedom – developed and built by a team lead by Lockheed – and the LCS-2 USS Independence – developed and built by a team lead by General Dynamics and Austal USA – the Navy has put in additional cathodic protection systems, which protect metal surfaces by making them cathodes of an electrochemical cell.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, said in March the Navy had taken care of the cracks identified on the Freedom’s deckhouse and hull. Evidence of those repair efforts is apparent. There is a weld patch visible on the side of the ship’s superstructure the size of a car window. But metallurgical and shipbuilding experts warn there is a difference between fixing the cracks and fixing the cracking. The only way to truly determine whether the Freedom and future ships in its class will be crack-controlled is to do the kind of rigorous computational analysis on the ship performed during aircraft fatigue testing, they say.

Experts Aviation Week talked to declined to discuss the Freedom cracking specifically, but they do note there are metallurgical properties and building or testing processes that hold true, no matter what the program.

“It is usually during fatigue tests that cracks show up where unexpected, or propagate faster than expected,” says A.R. Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University and co-editor of the journal “Engineering Fracture Mechanics.”

But building ships differs from building aircraft.

“The problem is that, unlike aircraft, there are no full-scale ship prototypes to debug problems,” says Larrie Ferreiro, a noted naval architect, author and military historian.

In response to an April report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) about cracking and other issues on LCS-1, Navy officials reportedly have said, “LCS 1 has experienced minor structural issues. The details of the cracks found on LCS 1 were briefed to the (congressional) defense committees ... All repairs were conducted using approved repair procedures and satisfactorily inspected. Design changes were implemented into LCS-1 throughout her post-delivery period … Design changes, as necessary, have been incorporated in future hulls to resolve noted issues. Production processes were modified as needed.”

But only through a computational analysis, metallurgical and shipbuilding experts say, can the Navy and contractors determine whether the cracking is a design issue or manufacturing issue. And Navy officials have acknowledged the only way to prove the cracking is fixed is to put the Freedom back to sea and monitor how later-model vessels fare.

As for maintaining the ship, the service apparently has decided the best approach is to put more crewmembers aboard – a strategy that runs directly counter to the vessel’s conops, which emphasizes: “Manpower is a constraint.”

The manning for a frigate — one of the ship types the LCS is supposed to replace — is about 200 sailors; the core LCS crew number is about 40 to run the ship alone, with dozens more to run the mission systems. This has been one of the ship’s major selling points, since fewer people equates to lower lifecycle costs. Manning is one of the biggest cost-drivers on Navy ships.

The conops are meant to force future Navy leaders away from the convention that more manpower is the best answer, as in previous eras, and to preserve the ship’s speed requirements.

But according to a source intimately familiar with shipboard operations, the Navy has plans to increase the sailor count by 50% to 60 personnel this summer, and is studying the impact of further increasing the crew size to 150, close to the crew size on a a frigate, both to allow for the maintenance now being deferred, and to make sure the vessel can conduct combat operations. Because, as Navy Undersecretary Robert Work stressed during the Navy League conference, LCS is a warship.

However, there are caveats. “It [LCS] is not designed or intended to operate in a high-intensity air defense environment unless these operations are being conducted under the air defense coverage of a carrier strike group or amphibious ready group,” the conops notes. Or, as the Pentagon Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) puts it, “LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment.”

Defense analysts have voiced concerns, too. “The ship currently lacks a torpedo detection capability,” the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) says in a 2010 report.

Noting the LCS is slated for anti-submarine operations, CSBA notes, “The Navy is now taking urgent steps to rectify this worrisome omission as there is every reason to believe that coastal adversaries will make frequent use of torpedo attacks, launching weapons from land-based launch sites, fast attack craft, and conventionally powered submarines that can be hard to detect in littoral waters.”

Navy officials say the ship meets the required and necessary survivability standards the service desires. But some U.S. lawmakers remain concerned.

In a request made late last month that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigate LCS cost growth and related matters, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee’s ranking member, have asked GAO to find out “how likely is the program to demonstrate desired combined combat capability to justify buying 20 more seaframes.”

In addition to boosting costs, adding more people and crew-related resources for combat or any other reason is going to make the ship heavier, which runs counter to another LCS conops cardinal rule: “Do not add weight to LCS. For anything added, something else must be removed.”

Even before the extra crew considerations, Freedom’s weight had grown by more than 15% compared to what the Navy had envisioned as far back as 2008, according to service documents and the sources intimately familiar with the ship’s design and operations. The Navy has added buoyancy tanks to the Freedom’s stern to make the ship more stable, which added even more weight.

With that extra weight, sources say it is doubtful the ship will be able to meet its speed requirements, which drove the ship design in the first place. Navy officials, though, say added hull length in later ships, along with more efficient and powerful water jets, will actually make the vessel operate faster.

For the moment, though, the Navy is focused on getting Freedom shipshape to complete tests this year and deploy to Singapore next year. But that is a task proving difficult because of the design, fabrication and quality assurance issues that continue to haunt the vessel.

To get a clearer and more conclusive grasp of the problems aboard the Freedom, this Aviation Week reporter inspected the ship recently — on a tour not offered to other media — viewing spaces inside the hull that house machinery, engine and other vital vessel systems and equipment.

The most obvious example of a design or fabrication flaw is the gap that spans the middle of the back of the ship, about 25 ft. wide, between the stern doors and the floor plate — a seal that is supposed to be watertight (see photo). When the ship is in dry dock, a shaft of light can be seen shining through the gap, which is big enough to stick a flattened hand through.

Navy officials had noted problems with the stern door seal and have said the area needs to be watertight. But the corrosion can be seen throughout the ship’s waterborne mission area, what the Navy brass calls “the heart of the operations package,” where major electronics packages are accessed. The door tracks and hydraulic ramps are corroded from constantly being wet – rust marks a waterline about 2 ft. deep in the space.

The gap also creates a giant eductor effect, pulling air out of the waterborne mission zone and the waterjet machinery room, when the ship was going faster than 20 kt., says a source intimately familiar with Freedom operations.

The effect created a larger differential in air pressure in different parts of the ship. The negative pressure on the waterjet bearing lube oil drains oil from the sump that is located in a space with a higher atmospheric pressure and pulls oil out into the space through the bearings. When the bearings are spinning, oil is leaking, which can lead to a fire in an unmanned space.

There are other visible problems. LCS-1 was designed and built with a hole – apparently meant for ventilation – in the ship’s superstructure that allows seawater in on engine machinery. In another space, where air for gas turbine engines enters, there is a bank of prefilters that are meant to be welded tight against the bulkhead. But saltwater has entered where a weld joining two corners was apparently missed in construction, causing the failure of a gas turbine engine after it ingested large amounts of seawater during the ship’s early operations. The issue has since been resolved, but that overlooked flaw cost the Navy another $10 million Rolls-Royce MT-30 engine two years later after launch.

Responding to POGO concerns about the engine issue, the Navy reportedly says, “LCS-1 had one of two gas turbine engines fail after over three years of operations (including post-delivery testing, fleet operations and ship early deployment). The root cause analysis of the engine failure revealed that the gas turbine intakes were allowing salt spray to be ingested into the engine intake structure during high seas evolutions, which lead to the eventual failure of a high-pressure turbine blade. The saltwater did not induce corrosion internal to the engine. However, it changed the air flow through the engine, which eventually led to the failure. As a result of the failure, a redesign of the intake structure along with improved mating seals was implemented on LCS-1 on post delivery and is in-line for LCS-3 and subsequent ships.”

The Aviation Week ship tour highlighted other problems. Firemain piping vibrates to the point of breaking brackets. The seawater piping now is loose and breaking apart in some areas. Cathodic aluminum protection systems for the stern of the ship and the waterjet tunnels were only recently installed. Corrosion is clearly visible throughout the space.

Extensive corrosion also can be easily seen in spaces below the flight deck, where the ship’s Automatic Bus Transfer, or ABT, is housed to operate automatic transfer switches, critical components for emergency or standby power systems that transfer essential loads and electrical distribution systems from one power source to another.

The ship’s crew was forced to cover the ABT with a shower curtain to protect equipment from seawater leaks, says the source intimately aware of Freedom’s operations. And there is major corrosion in “Shaft Alley,” a significant part of engine and machinery spaces, due to seawater intrusion through leaks in shafting.

The waterjet bearing drain line is corroded due to welding dissimilar metals together, according to the source intimately familiar with ship operations. Seawater has been leaking through the seals for the past three to five years during operation, rusting and rotting the drain.

“As more fundamental flaws are exposed in this program, it’s clear we need more scrutiny of this ship and the Navy’s decision making on this program,” says Rep. Speier, who also is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

In a statement accompanying the GAO investigation request, Sen. McCain says, “With $8 billion already sunk into this program to date without it having delivered a single fully combat-ready ship to support worldwide maritime operations as intended, I remain skeptical about this program and will continue to subject its overall cost, schedule and performance to the vigorous congressional oversight it warrants.”

Navsea’s Dolan says the Navy will not comment on some of this reporter’s firsthand accounts of the ship’s condition because the tour was done without the Navy’s official authorization. “Though the reporter asserted that he had toured the ship and witnessed each of these issues first-hand, the Navy has no record of the reporter being onboard at any time,” Dolan says. “Because, among other things, the Navy cannot validate the circumstances surrounding the reporter’s access to the vessel, as well as the accuracy or source of the majority of these issues it is inappropriate to provide any specific comment.”

She also says, “Some of the issues presented have been previously addressed publicly and corrected, or are in the process of being corrected during a scheduled repair period.”

The contractor echoes those thoughts. “Any issue that has arisen in the development, testing and usage of this lead ship has been, or will be, addressed to ensure she and future Freedom-class ships meet or exceed the Navy’s needs,” Lockheed’s Little says. Freedom was delivered in 2008, deployed two years ahead of schedule, he notes, and has sailed more than 58,000 nm. “Lockheed Martin’s overall LCS program remains on cost and on schedule,” he says.

Yet, in responding to recent POGO allegations, the Navy acknowledges the ship has experienced about 640 “chargeable equipment failures” throughout its short life, although the service says the failures run the gamut and include multiple failures on a single piece of equipment. The failure list, the Navy says, also shows the vessel’s sophisticated data collection system for monitoring equipment is working.

Some of the equipment failures “placed the crew of the ship in undue danger,” POGO maintains, recounting an incident where the electricity on the ship went out, temporarily leaving it adrift at sea, during its counter-drug-trafficking mission in March 2010.

Few of the equipment failures cited by POGO, the Navy says, were mission critical. While the ship did experience a “brief loss of power,” the Navy says, “many commercial and U.S. Navy vessels have periods of power loss due to plant set-up and operator control.”

Still, the Navy says, “To address concerns documented with electric power generation, the LCS Program executed Electric Plant Reliability Improvement Programs on both ship designs to increase reliability of ship service diesel generators and the performance and management of the shipboard electrical systems. This has resulted in changes that have been implemented through post-delivery availabilities on LCS-1 and LCS-2 as well as captured for LCS-3 and follow ships.”

The question, though, is what will be the impact and cost of those changes. Not only is the Freedom’s price rising (see related story in the defense channel), but many of the structural or operational fixes, according to sources familiar with the design and operations of the ship, will make it difficult — if not impossible — to make key crewing and speed requirements and retain the concept of operations for the ship class.