Despite five broken ships within 12 months, a recent program overhaul, and a wide-ranging and ongoing engineering review, the Navy's top officer voiced confidence in the littoral combat ship program, saying other ship classes experienced similar early struggles.
Speaking outside the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, Rhode Island, on Wednesday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson praised the vessel as an ideal platform for international engagement by the Navy.
"I think that overall, this program is on track," he said. "As with any program of this complexity, we have some very bright people who are making these decisions, designing this program, getting it to sea. But it's really complicated. So while we have maybe a 90-percent solution, we're going to learn. And that's where we are."
Richardson's remarks came just a week after the Independence-class USS Montgomery (LCS-8) suffered two engineering casualties three days after its commissioning, forcing the crew to postpone a transit to the ship's San Diego homeport and set course for Mayport, Florida, for repairs.
Since last December, the Freedom-class littoral combat ships Milwaukee, Fort Worth and Freedom have all sustained engineering casualties requiring repairs. Another Independence-class ship, the Coronado, was sidelined at the end of August with a seawater leak.
Only two active littoral combat ships -- the Independence and Jackson -- have not sustained engineering casualties since commissioning.
The destroyer experienced problems with some of its shipboard systems during sea testing in the early 1990s, prompting Navy brass to call for late modifications and another round of testing. The aluminum-hulled frigates sustained a rash of structural cracks before the design problem was addressed.
"We're learning lessons as it starts up -- in engineering -- as we get this class of ship to sea," Richardson said. "In both hull forms, we're finding things we need to address from an engineering standpoint. We're seeing areas where crew training, preparedness of the crew to operate the ship -- we're learning lessons there as well."
At least one of the LCS engineering casualties has been traced to sailor error: The Freedom-class Fort Worth recently departed for its San Diego homeport after eight months in Singapore after experiencing a casualty resulting from a failure to apply lubrication oil to engine gears.
Naval Surface Forces Commander Vice Adm. Tom Rowden announced Sept. 5 the Navy had completed an engineering stand-down of all LCS squadrons, and would undergo an extensive engineering review that includes retraining for all crews and possible follow-on actions.
Days later, Rowden announced that the first four ships -- two from the monohull Freedom class made by Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine, and two from the Austal-built Independence class -- would become test ships as the Navy overhauls the crewing and deployment concepts.
"The four test ships will not only allow us to get through an aggressive testing program, as we get this class out to sea; it will allow us to learn lessons faster than we would in a deployed context," Richardson said. "And then we'll have the best balance of training and operations and forward deployment, forward presence. That's what I hope we'll find in sort of the adjustments we're making, managing the LCS class."
The ongoing review is being overseen by the Navy's Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport and is expected to be complete by the end of October. The school is also developing a knowledge test and additional specialized training for LCS engineers, to be delivered to them by Oct. 5.
Meanwhile, the Navy has continued its rollout of the 26 planned littoral combat ships. An eighth LCS, the Detroit, is set to be commissioned Oct. 22.
"These ships are going to last for decades, in the ideal, and we're going to be pushing forward into the future," Richardson said. "There's always going to be a risk; we're going to do the best we can."