The past two months have been anything but smooth sailing for the U.S. Navy’s newest class of warship, the littoral combat ship.
Troubles for the ships, which cost around $360 million apiece, began in December, when the USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), broke down off the East Coast and had to be towed 40 miles to a naval base in Virginia. The 388-foot-long, 3,400-ton Milwaukee was on its way to its home port of San Diego after commissioning in November.
The Milwaukee became disabled in the Atlantic when metallic debris was found in filter systems in the ship, causing a loss of pressure in lubricant to gears that transfer power from the ship’s diesel and gas turbine engines to its water jet propulsion system.
The cause of the issue has yet to be identified, and an investigation continues, said Lt. Rebecca Haggard, a Navy spokeswoman.
Just a month after the Milwaukee mishap, its sister ship, the USS Fort Worth (LCS 3), is tied up at a dock in Singapore with what the U.S. Pacific Fleet calls “a casualty to the ship’s combining gears.”
“Based on initial indications, the casualty occurred due to an apparent failure to follow procedures during an operational test of the port and starboard main propulsion diesel engines,” said a statement from the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Issues involving standard operating procedures are very rare, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, a Navy spokesman, who said that before this incident, the Fort Worth had been a “model of reliability” while deployed in the U.S. 7th fleet over the past year.
The Navy is also looking into what brought on the January 12 incident on the Fort Worth so corrective actions can be taken. It has not determined how long the investigation will take.
“It is too early to speculate on costs or repair timelines,” Knight said. “We have the right resources in place to conduct the necessary inspections, determine the extent of the damage and required repairs, and return Fort Worth back to operational status.”
But even without all the facts, Navy officials said that evidence does not suggest a link between the two incidents that would reflect a systemic issue in the LCS program.
“Both investigations into the equipment casualties for USS Fort Worth and USS Milwaukee are ongoing, but it is unlikely the causes are related,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a Navy spokesman.
Unlike the Milwaukee, which broke down just days after it was commissioned, the Fort Worth is a fairly tested ship that has participated in nine exercises with navies around the world and conducted operations in the South China Sea without issue, he said.
This successful track record lowers the chances of a common thread between the problems it experienced this month and those of the brand-new USS Milwaukee.
Defense secretary has ordered cuts
The Navy’s littoral combat ships come in two variants: the monohull and the trimaran. With a draft of between 14 and 15 feet and a speed of 40 knots, the ships are designed to operate in littoral environments, or shallower coastal areas.
The Fort Worth and the Milwaukee are monohull ships, as is the USS Freedom (LCS 1). Trimarans on active duty are the USS Independence (LCS 2) and USS Coronado (LCS 4).
While the ships are having their on-board problems, they are also facing a lack of support at the Pentagon, specifically from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
In December, Carter ordered the Navy to cut its projected fleet of the ships from 52 to 40, saying resources that would have been devoted to the 12 proposed LCSs would be better expended on Navy ships with better firepower, as well as submarines and aircraft.
“This plan reduces, somewhat, the number of LCS available for presence operations, but that need will be met by higher-end ships, and it will ensure that the warfighting forces in our submarine, surface and aviation fleets have the necessary capabilities and posture to defeat even our most advanced potential adversaries,” read a December 14 letter from Carter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
Carter’s plan isn’t being heartily embraced by the Navy’s top uniformed officers, who are offering some defense for the LCS.
“It’s got survivability and lethality … and it has a terrific role to play across that entire spectrum of operations,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, is quoted as saying by Breaking Defense.
“LCS fits right in the middle of the modern warfight, great powers or not,” Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, the Navy’s director of surface warfare, is quoted as saying in the same article.
Role of the LCS overseas
And less than a year ago, the Navy was touting the role the LCS would play in regions like the South China Sea, where China is building facilities on reclaimed land sites in the Spratly Islands, and where the ship now idled in Singapore, the Fort Worth, made an important show-the-flag patrol last May.
“Routine operations like the one Fort Worth just completed in the South China Sea will be the new normal as we welcome four LCSs to the region in the coming years. Deployment of multiple LCSs to Southeast Asia underscores the importance of this ‘region on the rise’ and the value persistent presence brings,” Capt. Fred Kacher, commodore of the Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 7, said in a news release at the time.
Despite experiencing two incidents in as many months, Hawkins said, the Navy’s long-term strategic plan for using littoral combat ships has not changed.
“The Navy still plans to rotationally deploy four littoral combat ships to Singapore by 2018 as part of a broader effort to base the most advanced and capable naval forces in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region over the next four years,” he said.