Why is US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Controversial?
May 20, 2022
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Due to the high cost of updating them, multiple older Littoral Combat Ships are now being decommissioned.

"In the end, it's a zero-sum game." Every dollar spent to keep those [LCS] operational is a dollar spent on other, I believe, higher priorities," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Navy has moved to include the Naval Strike Missile in a few warships to increase their punch. It also decided to designate specific ships for certain missions instead of the quick and interchangeable mission modules initially envisioned when the ship was crafted.

The Littoral Combat Ship comes in two variants: the Independence-class, an all-aluminum catamaran design, and the Freedom-class, a more traditional steel hull including an aluminum superstructure.

The Freedom-class was riddled by an engine problem involving the combining gear, a complicated piece of machinery that assures the ship's multiple engines can work together. The Navy and Lockheed Martin are collaborating to address the issue in future ships awaiting commissioning into the fleet and those that have yet to be built.

According to internal Navy records acquired by Navy Times and affirmed by sea service officials, 50 percent of the Navy's littoral combat ships are suffering from structural flaws that have resulted in hull cracks on several vessels, impeding the speed and sea conditions in which some ships can operate.

The Navy has not previously reported the cracks in the Independence-class LCS or the class-wide consequences of the defects, nor has it reported which ships are affected.

However, documents obtained by Navy Times notify that if the ships travel faster than 15 knots in waters with optimum wave heights of about eight feet, cracks will form.

The concerning revelations come as the Navy continues to deal with a class-wide transmission problem in the Freedom-class form of the LCS, and maritime service leaders attempt to decommission all those ships years before the expected end of service lifetimes.

According to Naval Sea Systems Command spokesperson Alan Baribeau, the service first discovered" cracks in higher-stress parts of the structure" on Independence-class vessels in late 2019, when the issue was found on Coronado, the class's second ship, which was commissioned in 2014.

According to Baribeau, such cracks have since been noticed on six LCS variants, accounting for roughly half of the 13-ship Independence category fleet.

According to Baribeau, the problem "does not endanger the safety of Sailors aboard the ships."

"Examination of the bow structure with the consolidated vertical and lateral loads did not recognize any hot spots below the waterline," he explained.

According to Baribeau, the shipbuilder, Austal USA, has integrated a "revised configuration" to hulls under construction or warrantee, whereas the Navy is — or will be —repairing the affected in-service ships.

"Among other things, modification entails replacing deck plate and shell with thicker material," he explained.

Baribeau did not identify the nature of those "other activities" and stated that an overall cost for repairing all the ships is not accessible because "theUnited States Navy's mitigation plans are being established as part of each ship's upkeep and modernization."

Austal USA mentioned this report's questions to the Navy.

According to Bradley Martin, a former surface warfare executive who spent two-thirds of his decades-long career at sea, those plate replacement efforts are essential.

"Taking out deck and shell plates requires a large availability and, at the very least, adds to the ship's load, which will possibly slow it down," said Martin, who is now the director of Rand's National Defense Supply Chain Institute. "This appears to be a massive loss for this ship class," he added.

Baribeau didn't respond to specific questions about the size or location of cracks on the Independence-class ships, instead stating in an email that "crack dimensions and visibility do not impede the potential ofIndependence-class ships to meet operational requirements."

While NAVSEA claims that the crack issue does not affect the capacity of such ships "to get underway and perform missions," documents obtained by Navy Times state that the problem limits how fast ships with affected hulls can go under the sea conditions in which they can operate.

Both LCS categories have serious " striking issues," according to Jan van Tol, a former surface warfare officer and senior comrade at the Centre for Strategic andBudgetary Assessments. They reviewed the documents for Navy Times.

"It's the combining gear problem in LCS-1," he explained. "It seems to be a structural design issue in LCS-2." If this is the issue, then the Navy must decide whether class fixes merit the expense and opportunity cost, assuming the fixes are relatively expensive and apply to the entire classes."