December 17, 2008: The US Navy's first
"Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS), the USS Freedom (LCS 1), has completed
its sea trials, and made its way from Lake Michigan, via a network of narrow
locks, to the Atlantic ocean. The ship is now headed for its home port, San Diego.
Along the way, it will make a few stops, including one at the Naval Academy in
Maryland, to give midshipmen (cadets) a glimpse of where many of them will be working in the
next 5-10 years.
Because the trip through the narrow
locks was so labor intensive, an additional ten sailors were added to the
normal crew of forty. These ten sailors are actually members of the other crew
for the Freedom. Getting through the locks resulted in a few thousand dollars
in damage from scrapes and bumps. Each LCS has two crews, who replace each
other at six month intervals, especially when the ship is overseas.
A crew of forty 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. Still, the captain of the Freedom
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, and 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 The trip, via the Panama Canal, to
San Diego, is giving the Freedom an opportunity to see how well an LCS operates
on a long voyage.
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
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. The 378 foot long ship still has
the range and top speed it was designed for. Basic endurance is 21 days. Thus
the Freedom will have to refuel and resupply several times on its way to San
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 sea trials gave the smartship features a
workout, which, so far appears to be successful. These sea trials are very
important, because the LCS is 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.
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 were 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 between 50 and 60 LCSs by
2014-18, at a cost of $90 million each.
As it turned out, there were a lot of
problems. The USS Freedom ended up costing $500 million, about twice what the
first ship in the class was supposed to have cost. Only one of each type of LCS
will be built now, and the one that performs the best will become the model for
the entire class. LCS 1 ended up displacing 2,900 tons, and most observers in
2005 believed that it would end up closer to 3,000 tons, than 2,500.