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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The sun burns through the morning fog in San Diego as the Navy's first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) USS Freedom gets underway for certification trials under Cmdr. Tim Wilke, the commanding officer.
As Freedom steers toward the harbor, Wilke tells the crew by intercom that the trials are "our Super Bowl." The ship, which just finished a successful overhaul, speeds to nearly 40 kt. without a hitch.
But neither Wilke nor the Navy brass sees clear sailing for the ship or the LCS program. The USS Freedom, commissioned in 2008 but beset by problems, must still resolve some issues before it can cruise to Singapore this spring for a 10-month deployment and prove its value as a surface combatant. Compressors have been giving engineers fits. The fire-control radar has been causing gun issues. And operation of the stern ramp and door has been creating problems.
Issues loom for the LCS program, as well. While Navy brass has been more transparent by detailing fixes for some of the ship's larger problems, service officials have made other revelations. While the Navy was clear about plans to build the first two LCS vessels as "operational research-and-developmental" ships, the brass did not effectively communicate this outside the Pentagon, says Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, who heads the LCS council of service admirals charged with shepherding USS Freedom to deployment and the program to success.
Furthermore, Hunt acknowledges, such ship development is a new course for the Navy. "We've never done this before," he says.
The Navy's "operational R&D" branding of the LCS vessels (there are now three) appears to run adrift of earlier congressional testimony. Consider the March 10, 2009, testimony of then-Rear Adm. William Landay, program executive officer of ships, before the seapower and expeditionary forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee: "There was a belief held by some in the Defense Department and the shipbuilding industry that we needed a different approach, one that allowed less conventional designs, greater use of commercial standards and focused on adapting systems available throughout the world instead of along the R&D effort."
Instead, the Freedom-class vessels were redesigned to resolve engineering and fabrication issues, with more improvements planned.
Hunt says most of the work needed for Freedom, built by a team led by Lockheed Martin, and for LCS-2, the USS Independence, built by a team led by General Dynamics and Austal USA, was mostly elemental shipbuilding and combat system development—items that should have been addressed early on. "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 says. "It wasn't 'sailorized,' if you will."
In a recent article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Rear Adm. Tom Rowden put it another way: "In the interest of quick delivery to the fleet, ship design began before requirements were finalized, and building started before designs were stable."
One recent Navy acknowledgment is that while LCS vessels are only rated for Combat 1+ levels—lower than a tanker—they will, not surprisingly, face greater dangers due to their coastal mission. Congress may wonder if the Navy will have to rewrite its doctrine for all Level 1 combat ships or just tailor certain procedures for LCS.
Many defense analysts say if the Navy had been upfront about LCS developmental problems earlier, the service would not have faced the intense scrutiny by Congress and the media that has buffeted the program.
Now, though, analysts say the Navy's efforts to come clean on LCS problems is helping the service regain credibility and prove it has the program on course.
Navy officials say the LCS will eventually be useful in ways yet to be envisioned. Congress, however, may well put future LCS dual-block buys—or even later contracts under the current one—under a sharper lens after evaluating how the operational models fare.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, will be waiting to see if the USS Freedom deploys as scheduled to Singapore, and how well it performs there.
For a look at the background to the controversy over LCS-1's build quality and how the LCS designs measure up to small combatants worldwide, check out the digital AW&ST Defense Technology Edition on leading tablets and smartphones, or go to AviationWeek.com/lcs.