Surface Forces: SmartShip Hits The High Seas


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 board.

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 Diego.

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.





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