May 20, 2009: The U.S. Navy's first 3,000 ton Littoral (coastal) Combat Ship (LCS) is in service, and discovering what life is really like for the most radical new ship design in decades. Completed last year at a Lake Michigan shipyard, the USS Freedom is now at its home port, San Diego, and going to sea regularly. And that's when things got interesting.
There were several unanswered questions for the LCS, that could only be cleared up by actually taking one to sea. One issue was refueling at sea. Now the U.S. Navy has been doing this for over a century, and has the drill down pretty good. The oiler (fuel ship) and receiving ship move in parallel (30-60 meters apart), at a slow speed (about 25 kilometers an hour) and the oiler shoots over cables that hold a fuel line. The two ships maintain their position and speed by synchronizing the revolutions of their propellers. The LCS has two problems with this drill. First, the LCS doesn't use a propeller (but water jets). No problem, it turns out, as the LCS has a lot more control over speed. After some practice using a computer simulator, the "keeping station" with the oiler problem was solved. Another problem was the flat bottom of the LCS (which makes it capable of entering very shallow littoral waters), makes the vessel roll in rough seas. This proved to be a minor problem. Crews will get lots of practice with at-sea refueling, because the LCS has to do so every 3-4 days when travelling with a task force on the high seas.
Another minor problem is that the LCS is not equipped to take pallets of other supplies from an oiler (which is actually a combined cargo/tanker ship these days). So pallets will have to be delivered by helicopter. The USS Freedom has not yet received its SH-60 helicopter, but having pallets delivered this way is not expected to be a problem.
Another potential problem is the high speed of the LCS, which is the fastest seagoing ship to ever serve with the U.S. fleet. The USS Freedom has gone as fast as 85 kilometers an hour, and it's believed that the power plant can be tweaked to get that a little higher. At such high speeds, it's easier to run into whales. This occasionally happens, especially at night. For larger ships, the result is usually a dead, or badly injured whale, and little damage to the ship. But the smaller LCS, hitting a large whale, while travelling at high speed, could leave the ship damaged (the whale would definitely be dead.) So far, the sailors on the bridge are to keep a sharp lookout for whales when the ship is travelling at high speed.
The LCS has a crew of 40, which is pretty small for a ship this size (which, in the past, would have about four times as many sailors). But the LCS is highly automated. On the Freedom, the captain decided that officers, including himself, would pitch in with maintenance and housekeeping chores. More so than in larger ships, sailors learn to do other jobs on an LCS, and, as a result, work is lot more interesting and less boring. But it can get intense at times, and there are still questions about whether the smaller crew, and all the "smartship" tech can really handle the kind of damage control emergencies that crop up on military ships
Normally, an LCS would have another 35 crew manning its "mission package". The LCS is designed for a variety of interchangeable modules (e.g., air defense, underwater warfare, special operations, surface attack, etc.), which will allow the ships to be quickly reconfigured for various specialized missions. Crews will also be modularized, so that specialized teams can be swapped in to operate specific modules. Thus about 40 percent of the ship is empty, with a large cargo hold into which the mission package gear is inserted (and then removed, along with the package crew, when it is no longer assigned to that ship.) Thus the LCS has two crews when underway, the "ship" crew and the mission package crew. The captain of the ship crew is in charge, and the officer commanding the mission package is simply the officer in charge of the largest equipment system on board. In addition, the core crew of 40 is actually two crews ("blue" and "gold") who take turns running the ship. This makes it possible to keep an LCS at a distant posting for years, by simply flying in a relief crew every six months.
Three years ago, when construction began on LCS 1, it was to displace 2,500 tons, with a full load draft of under ten feet (permitting access to very shallow "green" and even "brown" coastal and riverine waters, where most naval operations have taken place in the past generation. Top speed is expected was to be over 80 kilometers with a range of 6,300 kilometers (at much slower cruising speed). The 378 foot long ship still has the range and top speed it was designed for. Basic endurance is 21 days. Thus the Freedom has to refuel and resupply more frequently than larger ships. When using its max speed a lot, much more fuel is burned, and that 21 day endurance can be reduced to 3-4 days.
Built using "smartship" technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the basic LCS was expected to require a crew of 40 in basic configuration, but will have billeting for about 75 personnel. The recent sea trials gave the smartship features a workout, which, so far appears to be successful. The successful sea trials were very important, because the LCS project was over budget, behind schedule and, worst of all, an untried new concept.
There are actually two different LCS designs, a semi-planning monohull from Lockheed-Martin and a trimaran from General Dynamics. LCS 1 was laid down by Lockheed Martin in Marinette, Wisconsin, in June of 2005 and was expected to be commissioned in 2007, after months of sea tests in late 2006. That schedule slipped, with the ship not completed until late 2008, and sea trials not starting until January, 2009.
LCS 2 was laid down by General Dynamics in late 2005. These, and LCS 3 and LCS 4, were to be built by Lockheed and General Dynamics, respectively. These are essentially prototypes, and serial procurement was expected to begin this year, after initial design flaws had been worked out. Ultimately, the Navy hoped to have 55 LCSs by 2014-18, at a cost of $90 million each. Congress has capped the price of LCS ships at $460 million, after years of increases, and threats to cancel the project.
There were a lot of problems with the LCS design. The USS Freedom ended up costing $500 million, about twice what the first ship in the class was supposed to have cost. LCS 2 will not be delivered until later this year, with sea trials completed by the end of the year. Next year, the navy will choose which of the designs will serve as the model for all future LCS class vessels. At that point, the winner will build two more ships of their design, and the loser one. All five of these LCS ships will be used heavily to determine what changes in the basic design are required. Then, mass production will commence, to build another 50 ships. The US Navy has ordered a second LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) from Lockheed Martin.
The LCS is armed with a 57mm gun, four 12.7mm machine-guns, and an eleven cell SeaRam system for air and missile defense. The RAM (RIM-116 "Rolling Air Frame") missiles replace Phalanx autocannon. SeaRAM has a longer range (7.5 kilometers) than the Phalanx (two kilometers).