As a first-in-class vessel, the USS Freedom or Littoral Combat Ship 1 is a research and development ship engineered to pave the way forward for what the Navy plans will be many high-speed, shallow water multi-mission vessels that will eventually comprise a large percentage of the Navy’s fleet.
The ship just completed its first deployment from San Diego to Guam, Singapore, the South China Sea and the Philippines – where it assisted with disaster relief missions.
During its deployment in the South China Sea, the USS Freedom conducted a handful of operational patrols for the Navy’s Commander of the 7th fleet, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, told reporters Jan. 6.
The missions included surface surveillance with radar and shipboard sensors and sending helicopters up to help create a maritime picture within the area, he added. The rationale for these missions was to help provide commanders with a common operational picture of the area, Copeman explained.
The Navy hopes to build as many as 52 LCS ships, multi-mission littoral vessels configured with various “mission-package” technologies for countermine warfare, anti-submarine mission and surface warfare. LCS 1 is configured with the surface warfare mission package, a configuration of integrated technologies such as sensors, weapons and defensive systems designed to detect and destroy surface threats.
“The shallow draft of the ship allowed it to get into areas that other ships can’t get into, such as areas of the South China Sea, ports that were not available for a cruiser or a DDG (destroyer) which draws 32-feet of water. These ships are drawing less than half of that,” Copeman added.
While operational assignments are typical of ships on deployment, it is unique or unusual for a first-in-class research and development ship like LCS 1 to be given operational assignments, Navy officials said. Navy leaders said LCS 1’s deployment helped the Navy demonstrate the operational flexibility sought after for the LCS ship class, a group of ships that have been criticized by analysts and lawmakers for, among other things, being unable to complete its intended mission.
“It was envisioned many years ago and I think the Navy has made the right call to build these high-speed, low-cost, shallow-draft multi-mission ships,” Copeman said.
LCS 1 also experienced a handful of reliability and maintenance challenges during its deployment which led the Navy to implement a series of fixes and maintenance repairs.
In particular, the USS Freedom experienced problems with its ship service diesel generators, or SSDGs, which resulted in a temporary power outage during a trip to Guam, this past summer. The Freedom also experienced problems with a corroded cable and faulty air compressor.
During its deployment, the USS Freedom experienced a corroding, or failing, of a cable on the ship, affecting the steerable jets. The cable was fixed in Singapore within the last several months, a source said.
Unlike other ships, the LCS has a unique propulsion system, designed with four high-tech water jets able to control the angle, speed and direction of the ship, Navy officials said. There are no propellers or rudders on the LCS—just steerable water jets, giving the platform an ability to reach speeds greater than 40 knots.
Navy engineers and program managers are optimistic that a series of adjustments or “fixes” will benefit the overall LCS fleet by improving reliability and sustainability. For example, Navy engineers modified the configuration of the diesel generators planned for LCS 5 and follow-on ships, so as to decrease the likelihood of generator problems persisting on future models.
“Between LCS 1, which is a research and development ship, and LCS 5 there has been a redesign of the ship’s service diesel generators and there’s been a redesign of the main reduction gear core,” Copeman said.
Also, LCS 3 and follow-on ship have new air compressors, Copeman added.
The LCS fleet also relies on a technique known as condition-based maintenance, a method of using sensors to monitor and compile data about the health and functionality of the systems on the ship. The advantages to this method are numerous, as it allows engineers to identify potential problems early in the process.
The earlier problems are discovered, the easier it is to maintain a high degree of functionality onboard and keep repair costs low, Navy officials said. Condition-based maintenance approaches are designed to recognize key trends for engineers and sustainment experts to analyze.
The Navy also works at prepositioning parts and specific maintenance kits for key systems and equipment onboard the ship called preventive maintenance systems. This method is designed to maintain small and large equipment on the ship and ensure that they keep functioning properly.
The LCS platform has been the subject of criticism and controversy from lawmakers, officials and analysts, due to questions about these types of maintenance problems, survivability questions and mission effectiveness. Nevertheless, senior leaders, program managers, engineers and sailors have expressed enthusiasm for the ship’s performance in deployments and tests and the new kinds of multi-mission capabilities it will provide.
Overall, Navy leaders say the experiences of the LCS’ maiden deployment will pave the way for the ship’s future.
“It showed to the U.S. states Navy and to our allies that this ship is very capable, viable platform. It has a pretty bright future,” Copeman said.