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The Navy's concessions

Turns out, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp does need a new combat system.

Not only that, the Navy isn't even going to wait for "lessons learned" from the littoral combat ship USS Freedom's deployment next year -- it has already decided to grow the ship's core crew.

These two pieces of information come to us by way of Defense News' naval correspondent, Christopher P. Cavas, who dropped an extraordinary set of stories over the past week with updates on two of the most important narratives about American seapower: Its readiness today and its prospects for the future.

First, the Wasp: As Cavas wrote last month, it hasn't done a standard deployment with a Marine Expeditionary Unit since 2004, a fact the Navy initially explained by saying it had been assigned the test ship for the F-35B Lightning II. Well before that, however, commanders concluded the Wasp's problems meant they couldn't sent it into a war zone.

Per Cavas:

The acknowledgement of a deficiency with the ship is at odds with previous official statements. Navy officials in June said Wasp had not conducted a major deployment over the past eight years because the ship had been designated a test platform for the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

At issue is the Advanced Combat Direction System (ACDS), an automated command-and-control system that in the mid-1980s was envisioned as a centralized means for aircraft carriers and “big deck” assault ships to collect and sort combat information. In 1996, the Wasp was one of the first ships to get the Block 1 upgrade. But by 1998, the ACDS Block 1 version of the system — installed on the Wasp and other ships — failed its operational evaluation and, according to U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., further acquisition efforts were frozen. Soon it became obsolete due to interoperability limitations and no training and system support ...

With its combat system considered unreliable, the 41,000-ton ship made its last major operational deployment with embarked Marines in 2004. The ship’s ACDS failed its platform certification decision in 2009, and with no plan to address the combat system issues, Fleet Forces Command said, the commander of Norfolk-based 2nd Fleet removed Wasp from the deployment rotation.

It isn't clear whether commanders ever planned to fix the Wasp before they got the excuse opportunity to set it aside as a test ship, but Cavas writes that the Navy says now it'll eventually return to service. After it receives a $170 million upgrade, the Wasp could go back into the fleet rotation by 2014, he reports. That would mark a full decade without a combat deployment, although Navy officials say the ship has been contributing in the places it could with shorter-term, local deployments and serving as the B's test partner.

As for LCS, earlier this year we heard Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work mock critics who worried about the ships' small crews. “We’re not stupid — we’ll make that damn change if we need to,” he said. Work and other naval leaders have invoked the early years of the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, when the Navy had to add sailors to those ships after discovering their initial crews were too small.

But unlike the figs, LCS hasn't even done a real deployment yet. Still, as Cavas reports, the Navy Staff's head of surface warfare says the fleet will add about 20 more sailors to the Freedom's core crew, pushing it to about 60, though the details aren't settled yet.

Per Cavas:

Twenty additional berths will be permanently installed onboard Freedom — two for officers, two for chief petty officers and 16 for other enlisted — but the final manning plan has yet to be decided, Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, the director of surface warfare, said during a June 26 interview at the Pentagon. The ship right now has a core crew of 40, but because there is no manning plan, it’s still unclear how many sailors will be added to the crews.

The added billets “will run the gamut, from support to engineering to operations to boatswain’s mates,” Rowden said. “We’ve got to get the right skill set and the right seniority.”

Among the known manning deficiencies is the need for more junior sailors, Rowden said. LCS crews tend to be more senior, reflecting the need for sailors with multiple qualifications in a small ship.

Rather than a warship program, LCS is a free-form, never-ending jam session that often seems to surprise its performers as much as it does the audience. Anything can happen! We don't know where this crazy groove is going to take us, maaan!

The only thing that's clear is the crunchy jams are taking LCS away from its original vision, in which ultra squared-away super sailors did five jobs apiece, but had plenty of help from automation and were rewarded with the fleet's most luxurious accommodations. The Navy has never been able to make that work, starting with the "berthing modules" the Freedom and its cousin USS Independence both have to take to sea to handle all the extra sailors and passengers. While some sailors get their own double-sized racks, private heads and other perks, the unlucky riders must sleep in converted cargo containers lashed to the deck, with their personal gear piled in mounds all over the place.

It is what it is -- nobody joins the Navy for the luxury. But adding more racks and cramming in more sailors is the latest example of LCS being unable to deliver on a key promise, and it's especially telling that the Navy has decided to make that concession even before its first ship makes its first major voyage.

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