New Details Emerge on Littoral Combat Ship Breakdowns

Freedom-variant littoral combat ship, USS Detroit (LCS 7), arrives at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael Lopez)
Freedom-variant littoral combat ship, USS Detroit (LCS 7), arrives at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Michael Lopez)

In a pair of congressional hearings about the Navy's embattled littoral combat ship program this month, service program managers and oversight officials fielded tough questions about unexpected increases from ship unit costs -- from $220 million to $470 million over the course of the program -- and concerns about a planned block buy of upgraded frigates based on the same design.

But the panel also revealed new details about the cause and scope of a series of engineering casualties that have sidelined five of the eight active littoral combat ships in a little more than a year.

In testimony on Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Naval Surface Forces Commander Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden revealed that the most recent casualty, damage to the USS Montgomery when it transited southward through the Panama Canal, was at least in part due to failure on the part of canal engineers not to follow the Navy's instructions on how to guide it through the narrow passage.

The Oct. 29 mishap was the second time an Independence-class LCS, with its wider trimaran design, had been damaged passing through the canal. The USS Coronado had also required repairs after a canal transit in early 2014.

"When we took the first ship through and there was some damage associated with it, we sent a team down to the Panama Canal to talk about how we needed to take these ships through the canal," Rowden said.

"The modifications that needed to be made to put the lines up and pull the ship through the canal," he added. "Unfortunately with the most recent transit, that was not executed. We've gone back to them and we're going to get it squared away in the future, but we know how to get the ships through the canal safely and if we we execute the procedures as we outlined them, we won't have any problems with that in the future."

Prepared testimony by Rowden and Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, revealed that the earlier engineering issues sustained by the Montgomery Sept. 13, days after its commissioning, were related to deficiencies in production as the ship sailed away from the yard. Sea water had seeped into the steering hydraulic system for one of the four waterjets, requiring a drain and flush of the system to restore it to full functionality

"The root cause assessment determined that the cooler had not failed, but rather contamination was introduced into the system most likely in conjunction with the repair of a component external to the hull in the period between delivery and sailaway from the building yard," Stackley and Rowden wrote. "The shipbuilder has since implemented an improved procedure for waterborne waterjet hydraulic work."

Another casualty was related to a failure in design, they said. The USS Milwaukee, which broke down during an Atlantic transit last December and had to be towed 40 miles back to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia, after the crew tried to execute an emergency stop of the gas turbine engines while all four engines were running at full power. The high-speed clutch sustained "excessive wear" in the maneuver, damaging both it and the combining gear.

"I'll call it a mistime in terms of software controlling the system," Stackley said Thursday. "That was not discovered until the USS Milwaukee was en route to her home port and we tripped over this failure, and the clutch burned out."

The shipbuilder for the Milwaukee and the other monohull littoral combat ships in the Freedom class, Lockheed Martin Corp., and the gear manufacturer, RENK, are testing design modifications this month to fix the problem. Stackley said the following ships in the Freedom class would receive the modifications, though the first two were made using a different gear manufacturer and are not affected.

In one other case, an LCS casualty was determined to be the result of a shipbuilding problem, according to testimony. The USS Coronado, an Independence-class ship that broke down at the end of August, experienced a failure of a flexible shaft coupling connecting the right-side main propulsion diesel engine reduction gear and the stern tube during a transit from Hawaii to Singapore, Stackley and Rowden wrote.

Shaft misalignment was found to be a contributing factor, and the Navy made plans to replace the coupling in the Coronado and following ships in the class with a new design validated by Naval Sea Systems Command.

The two remaining casualties, affecting the Freedom-class ships Freedom and Fort Worth, were both found to be the result of crew error. The Fort Worth broke down in Singapore in January in one of the most serious casualties sustained by an LCS to date. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, told the committee Dec. 1 that the damage took 184 days and $5.6 million to fix.

That, Rowden and Stackley said, was caused by improper alignment of the lube oil service system that damaged three of the five bearings in the ship's combining gear.

The other user error casualty affected the USS Freedom in July. "Improper corrective action" to address a failure of the Freedom's main propulsion diesel engine seawater pump mechanical seal resulted in a breach, flooding the engine with sea water and causing corrosion and damage. That repair, McCain told the committee, would cost the Navy $12 million.

These problems caused the Navy to conduct an engineering stand-down of all littoral combat ships in September with a review of current training procedures and retraining for engineers. The Navy Surface Warfare Officer's School is conducting an ongoing review of LCS training to revise and update the curriculum.

Testimony on Thursday before the House by J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of Operational Test and Evaluation, suggested the Navy should have known crew training was insufficient before the casualties occurred, citing surveys given to sailors participating in LCS full-mission testing.

"'The tasking would be easier to complete if the equipment didn't constantly break … As equipment breaks, we are required to fix it without any training,'" Gilmore said. "Those are not my words, those are the words of the sailors who were doing the best they could to try to accomplish the missions we gave them in testing."

"Who's accountable for that? They were not well-trained," McCain demanded in the Dec. 1 hearing.

"One of the things we found, and that I directed, was that we started to import much more of the training that we had been relying on our vendors to provide to our sailors on the ships," Rowden said. "And so given the fact that we have pulled that engineering training in, that we are moving to get the curriculum necessary, I think we're in a much better place going forward."

Congress is now considering the Navy's proposal of a "block buy" of 12 frigates, which would be sturdier and offer more capability than the LCS. Proponents of the deal argue buying in bulk would save the Navy money, while detractors worry that such a buy would lock the service into purchasing ships that many still believe are not effective or reliable.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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