The US Navy's first "Littoral Combat Ship" (LCS), the USS Freedom (LCS 1), has entered service in the Caribbean, joining the U.S. Navy drug interdiction patrol. Operating out of a base (Mayport) near Jacksonville, Florida, the Freedom headed south on February 15th, and on the 22nd intercepted its first drug smuggling boat off the Colombian coast, recovering a quarter ton of cocaine. The LCS was built for this kind of coastal operations.
The USS Freedom completed its sea trials and acceptance inspections during August, 2008. The ship did very well, with far fewer (about 90 percent fewer) problems (or "material deficiencies") than is usual with the first warship in a class.
Five 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 was expected was to be over 80 kilometers with a range of 2,700 kilometers. The 378 foot long ship still has the range and top speed it was designed for. Basic endurance is 21 days, but displacement is closer to 3,000 tons.
Built using "smartship" technologies, which greatly reduce personnel requirements, the LCS was expected to require a crew of about 40-50 in basic configuration, but will have billeting for about 75 personnel. The sea trials gave the smartship features a workout. These sea trials were very important, because the LCS is over budget, behind schedule and, worst of all, an untried new concept.
The LCS was designed for a variety of interchangeable modules (e.g., air defense, underwater warfare, special operations, surface attack, etc.), which 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. There is no special module for anti-drug patrol.
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. There were delays, but LCS 2 (USS Independence) was finally commissioned last month.
LCS 2 was laid down by General Dynamics in late 2005. Ultimately, the Navy hoped to have between 50 and 60 LCSs by 2014-18, at a cost of $90 million each. The navy still plans to build 55 LCSs, but wants to get the price down to $460 million (after the first five.)
The USS Freedom ended up costing nearly $600 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.
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).
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.
The USS Freedom was initially based at San Diego, but has since moved to Mayport for its first operations.