As the Navy prepares to field its Littoral Combat Ship in numbers as well as transition the acquisition system from block buys of LCSs into the new frigate program, both the fleet and two shipbuilders are working to plot a path forward.
The Navy has so far only deployed one LCS at a time – USS Freedom (LCS-1) and USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) have both operated out of Singapore – but the first ships from the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2010 block buy are now delivering at regular intervals and will soon begin operating in the fleet.
As the Navy nears a turning point in LCS operations, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson created a LCS Review Team to look at lessons learned in manning, maintenance and operations so far. Richardson said March 3 that it was the perfect time to see what we’ve learned now and not being committed to the original model – if we cement that in place, we basically embargo all of the lessons that we learned and we don’t incorporate them.”
He added that he wanted to find ways to make the LCS program more effective in terms of manning, ship maintenance – which is primarily performed by contractors ashore – and the use of distinct mission modules.
Cmdr. Michael Brasseur, commanding officer of LCS Crew 111, told USNI News last month aboard Freedom that having a core crew of 53 “is a definite challenge” in terms of each crew member having to be cross-trained and qualified for multiple jobs, but ‘there’s some huge advantages to having a small crew, it’s more like a family.”
With the limited manning, sailors pitch in with cooking – which Brasseur said has allowed the crew to share family recipes and traditional meals from their hometowns and home countries. The sailors also share in chores like washing dishes, a departure from larger ships. He said the LCS crews have promoted a strong culture of health and fitness – physically and mentally – to deal with the stresses of juggling multiple roles on the ship.
Each of the 53 billets on the ship has a primary role designated, along with recommended secondary and tertiary roles. LCS Crew 111 Operations Officer Lt. Cmdr. Michael Welgan told USNI News that about 10 people stand watch while underway, with three shifts a day, which takes up 30 crew members. The rest are engineers, flight deck officers or other primary roles – but everyone has three or four jobs they’re trained to to support flight operations, small boat operations and emergency situations.
Though the mission package and aviation detachment crews can help in some cases, “we don’t train to that, we always train to the worst-case scenario,” Welgan said. “So right now we’re going through our training cycle, and we can’t use those people because there’s no guarantee they’ll be available every single time. So we’ve got to learn how to self-sustain.”
“I have never seen 53 do so much as I have on this ship. It’s the most rewarding experience I’ve had in 19 years in the Navy,” Brasseur said.
That manning and training construct may change for future LCS operations based on lessons learned, and it is certain to change when the frigate joins the fleet, since the surface warfare and anti-submarine mission packages will be permanently affixed to the multimission frigate.
Lockheed Martin, which builds the odd-numbered Freedom-variant hulls, said recently that its vendor base is working efficiently thanks to a predictable multi-year block buy. Though the acquisition strategy for the frigate is still being developed, Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing that the Navy would likely buy all the frigates in a block buy contract to ensure competitive pricing for the remainder of the program, if Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s plan to curtail the program to 40 ships instead of 52 and downselect to a single builder comes to fruition.
For Lockheed Martin, having a block buy has allowed the company to lower the cost per ship to an average of $360 million, Neil King, director of business development for the company’s Littoral Ship Systems, said March 15 at a company media day.
“This is the type of acquisition approach that we would like to see as far as future procurements – it will allow us to be able to maintain our workforce, it will allow us to be able to maximize our vendor base buying power and to be able to ensure the affordability of this program as it goes forward,” he said.
King said affordability is the key to the frigate program and that Lockheed Martin is stressing commonality with the LCS and the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers (DDG-51) as a means of achieving an affordable design. Nearly all the major systems added to the LCS hull to create the frigate either come from the LCS mission packages or from the destroyers. The Navy already decided the frigate will use the Freedom-variant’s COMBATSS-21 combat system, and the surface warfare mission package’s Longbow Hellfire missile and 30mm gun will become permanent features on the frigate hull, according to Lockheed Martin’s current designs. The Lockheed Martin frigate would also have the TRS-4D radar, which is an upgrade from the current TRS-3D radar and will be inserted into the LCS ship class beginning with LCS-17. Lockheed Martin would also include a Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) “light” package and Nulka decoys, both of which come from the DDG-51 program.
“We’ve demonstrated SEWIP on LCS-1, it’ll be cut into the program,” business development manager Tim Fouts said at the event.
“Nulka’s probably the only one that won’t have been demonstrated in the next year or so; all the rest of that is part of the current program of record. We’re not reinventing the wheel, the only thing we’re doing in our 118-meter hull is rearranging some of the deck chairs for the additional crew to support multimission capability.”
Dale Bennett, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, told USNI News at the media day that Lockheed Martin is comfortable with its plan to take the LCS and add lethality and survivability while maintaining affordability.
“Right now we’re focused on the capability for the fast frigate and focused on delivering the capability,” he said. “The 40 versus 52? We’ll let the Navy and [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] work through that. I think the requirement to get to the force structure of getting 308 ships, I think LCS plays an important part in the mix.”
Austal USA, who builds the even-numbered Independence-variant LCSs, will be conducting studies to reduce acquisition and lifecycle costs of its ships. The company was awarded a $14-million contract modification last week to “provide engineering and design services to reduce acquisition and lifecycle costs for the Independence-variant LCS.”
Austal USA told USNI News that a similar contract modification for $6.5 million was awarded about a year ago and that this work will build off of what was started last year.
“Our workforce is strong, the production line is hot, and our LCS program has a great deal of momentum right now,” said Austal USA President Craig Perciavalle. “Our partnership with the Navy remains strong as we continue to deliver the LCS and prepare for the advanced high-speed future frigate.”