The USS Freedom was meant to be the starting point in a revolution in naval warfare in September 2006, when the newly commissioned combat vessel slid into the Menominee River in Marinette, Wisconsin.
It was the first launch of a class of high-tech littoral combat ships (LCS,) designed to be agile, stealthy and plugged-in while fighting in the dangerous shallow draft coastal areas where Pentagon strategists believed the wars of the 21st century will largely be fought.
But the LCS project has been bedeviled with engineering headaches and cost overruns since its very inception, a chronic headache for a beleaguered U.S. Navy that has been fighting budget and performance battles on a growing number of fronts. Now, a newly revealed mechanical problem with the LCS propulsion system could signal a potentially disastrous design flaw throughout the Freedom-class littoral combat ships, leaving Navy officials with a massive repair project on their hands.
“We’ve had significant challenges introducing the ship to the fleet, successfully operating the ship, [and] ensuring it meets the minimum mission capabilities we desire,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, now a senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
For the Navy, a system-wide design flaw for the LCS project would represent another misstep in what’s been a draining period of logistical nightmares, public relations missteps and political controversies. The service also is bracing for a leadership change as the Biden administration comes to power in January, and the high likelihood of flat defense budgets moving forward may mean less tolerance for any kind of cost overruns or mismanagement.
As it addresses the LCS project, the Navy is still struggling to deploy the USS Gerald R. Ford, dubbed the “most expensive warship” in history as the price tag has ballooned to $13 billion amid a series of delays and mechanical problems. Navy leaders also are facing growing pressure from lawmakers and defense analysts to address the service’s aging shipyards, which by all accounts are outdated and ill-equipped to handle the needs of a 21st-century Navy prepping for a struggle for supremacy with China in the Pacific in the coming decades.
Beyond the technical challenges, the Navy also has been shaken by health and personnel crises, such as the firing of USS Theodore Roosevelt Capt. Brett Crozier in April after he penned a letter warning of an out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak aboard his vessel. Then-Navy Secretary Thomas Modly later resigned over his handling of the matter. Just months earlier, former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired amid a public dispute between the Navy and White House over the fate of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL convicted of posing for pictures with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter in 2017 but subsequently pardoned by President Trump.
While it hasn’t generated the same headlines, the LCS project’s faulty propulsion system could end up being one of the most serious problems facing the Navy. Officials found problems with the combining gear on the USS Detroit and USS Little Rock, which connects power from the combined gas turbine and diesel engines.
The Navy says it is conducting a “root cause analysis” of the combining gear defect alongside shipbuilder Lockheed Martin and RENK AG, the original equipment manufacturer.
“While the Navy and Lockheed Martin investigate this issue, measures have been implemented to mitigate risk to all the in-service Freedom variant ships,” Naval Sea Systems Command officials said in a statement. “Once the defect and scope of the issue is identified, the Navy will work with industry to repair these ships and return them to sea as quickly as possible.”
This wasn’t the first engineering problem for a Freedom class LCS. In 2015, the USS Milwaukee also sustained a failure in the fuel combining gear while under sail in the Atlantic. The ship had to be towed more than 40 nautical miles back to port.
The combining gear problem only affects the Freedom class, however. Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, is responsible for supplying the Navy an entirely different model of littoral combat ships — known as the Independence class. They are a trimaran aluminum hull warship with a completely different propulsion system.
An LCS of both the Freedom and Independence class is meant to be at least three ships in one. Each was conceived to carry out a variety of tasks — from anti-submarine operations to surface warfare and minesweeping — through rapidly interchangeable mission modules. But the Navy has yet to figure out how to make the system work.
Rear Adm. Montgomery said the Navy is still at least five to 10 years behind in addressing that issue. Any LCS ship still in the fleet within the next decade will most likely be reduced to concentrating on a single mission, rendering pointless one of the main selling points of the LCS project.
“In reality, we’ll be fortunate if we have functioning ships with an installed module that becomes their permanent assignment,” Rear Adm. Montgomery said. “It makes it a very expensive replacement” for the Navy’s existing minesweepers.
Navy leaders initially projected that each LCS would cost about $220 million to construct. The costs have more than doubled with each ship now costing about $600 million, according to the Project on Government Oversight.
Even with the technical issues and mission headaches, the builders are continuing to produce littoral combat ships for the Navy. On Dec. 9, 2020, Austal USA said it delivered the USS Mobile — its fourth ship of the year and the 13th Independence-class LCS. The company has four LCS ships under various stages of construction at its shipyard in Alabama.
“We’re especially excited for Mobile to join the fleet to pay tribute to a great community which has contributed to our success in so many ways over the years,” said Austal USA President Craig Perciavalle.
In a money-saving move, the Navy is already planning to mothball at least four of the LCS ships in the fleet: the Freedom; the Independence, the Fort Worth and the Coronado, which was commissioned in 2014.
Rather than being the Navy’s version of a Swiss Army knife, the littoral combat ships in the fleet are often focused on patrol missions. The USS Gabrielle Giffords is currently assigned to U.S. Southern Command as part of anti-drug trafficking operations in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific.
On Dec. 5, the ship intercepted a vessel loaded with more than 2,800 kilograms of suspected cocaine, worth about $106 million. Three suspected drug traffickers also were detained.
“Interdiction evolutions, no matter how often you conduct them, are different every time,” said Chief Daniel Pike, assigned to the USS Gabrielle Giffords.
The littoral combat ship was conceived in the post-Cold War era when massive, World War II-style naval battles between the U.S. and a “near-peer” rival such as China or Russia were not considered likely. They were envisioned as small, fast, relatively inexpensive and expendable “street fighter” corvettes, suitable both for humanitarian missions and small-bore coastal operations where they could swarm an adversary with their numbers.
“It was a new version of a frigate. They just needed more” ships, said Brent Sadler, a retired Navy submarine officer and currently a senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.
But that simple concept began to evolve the higher the LCS concept went up the chain. The Navy decided the ships needed to be more survivable, with more firepower.
“Once it hit the Pentagon, bigger requirements started to get layered on,” said Mr. Sadler. “They wanted it to have a lot of speed. That’s what drove the engineering problems through the roof.”
Even its most vocal critics say the LCS could still perform critical functions for the Navy, such as minesweeping.
“These ships were supposed to fill that role. Minesweeping is not sexy and it’s never gotten the attention it needed,” said Mr. Sadler.
It may not be sexy, but clearing the sea lanes of mines is critical for the safe passage of maritime traffic. The Navy is desperate to find a replacement for its aging fleet of underpowered Avenger-class anti-mine ships.
“They could also serve as escort duties for convoys,” Mr. Sadler said.
Whether they use littoral combat ships as replacement minesweepers, training vessels, mother ships for autonomous systems or lightly armed patrol craft, the Navy should be compelled to find some legitimate purpose for them, Mr. Sadler said.
“Giving up is the easiest solution. The Navy should be forced to fix it,” he said. “You’ve got to use what you’ve got and wear it out a little more creatively.”
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.