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Despite troubled waters, Navy will stay the course with LCS

We observed not too long ago that the urgency seemed to have gone from the Navy's littoral combat ship program, but nevertheless, the service's next chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, said Thursday that it's still committed to its vision of 55 ships and their interchangeable mission equipment. Greenert told Senate lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that he's spent the night aboard the first ship, the steel-and-aluminum USS Freedom, as well as some quality time aboard the second, the all-aluminum USS Independence, and he and the brass remain convinced that the Navy has made the right bet with the LCS concept.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is not a fan of LCS. He castigated the Navy for spending so much money and still failing to "have a single ship that is operationally effective or reliable." (Both Freedom and Independence are laid up today, and neither has any of the custom equipment it needs to hunt submarines, mines or fight surface battles.) Hey, we get it, Greenert said, but just you wait and see -- the Navy's bet on LCS is going to pay off. One of its bets already has, Greenert's hearing showed: After going back and forth about whether it would select a single LCS design or build both of them, the Navy decided last year to go with both, pleasing shipbuilding-state lawmakers whose constituent yards will all get to share the work.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessons, for example, had a genial back-and-forth with Greenert about how, c'mon, y'got metal boats, put 'em in salt water, of course you're gonna get rust, right? Right. So the "galvanic corrosion" that has sidelined the Independence is no big deal right? Right. Greenert was glad for the friendly line of inquiry; it's "not a new problem," he said, and officials insist future copies of the ship, built by Sessions' home-state yard Austal, won't have it. Friendly lawmakers meant a lot of stuff didn't come up Thursday, such as this week's report by Sam LaGrone of Jane's Defence that flawed engine intakes aboard the Freedom caused one of its main gas turbines to ingest seawater, meaning it failed and needed to be replaced.

Also unmentioned by anyone  was the reality that it'll still be years before the Navy can use LCS the way it originally intended, in multi-ship "surface action groups" that planners said would be as much like fighter squadrons as traditional naval units. The Navy doesn't want LCS to run with a carrier strike group, for example, in part because it doesn't have the endurance or the firepower of a conventional escort. (The ships just weren't designed that way.) Instead, the Navy wants a group of three or four LCSes to use their high speed to dash ahead of the strike group, clear out the mines, sink the submarines, or shoot up all the bad guys' small speedboats, clearing the way for the carrier, its cruisers and destroyers. Fine, but to do that, first you need three or four LCSes and their specialized mission equipment, assuming it works -- and it'll be years before the fleet can roll all that together.

Lockheed Martin, which builds the Freedom-class LCSes, wants to inject a little sunshine amidst all these dark clouds -- the company issued an announcement Thursday reminding everyone that its second ship, the USS Fort Worth, is doing fine, and will begin its initial sea trails up in the Great Lakes this fall. Here's part of the announcement:

Now more than 93 percent complete, it remains on cost and on schedule. Builder and acceptance trials are scheduled early this fall in advance of delivering the ship to the U.S. Navy in early 2012.

“The team is focused on driving affordability initiatives through the entire process, and we’ll soon begin construction on the nation’s fifth LCS,” said Joe North, vice president of littoral ship systems at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems & Sensors business. “We remain committed to helping the Navy bring new and needed littoral capabilities to its fleet for current and future war fighting needs. On LCS 3, the future USS Fort Worth, the team completed light-off of the ship’s diesel generators this May and light-off of the main engines and rolling the propulsion shafts this month. LCS 3 is being constructed with 30 percent fewer production hours as a result of lessons learned from designing and building USS Freedom.

The addition of the Fort Worth, and of Austal's next ship, the USS Coronado, will give the Navy enough LCSes to begin experimenting with its new operational concepts, if they all can be ready for sea at the same time. The more ships the Navy has, the likelier it'll be for enough of them to be ready to deploy in groups. In the meantime, though, the Navy's existing fleet of cruisers, destroyers and frigates -- many of which date from the Reagan era -- has to bear all the load.

Want to find out more about the Navy's vision for these squadron-based LCS tactics? Take a look:

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