Navy orders big changes for littoral combat ships after engineering problems

Heather Crawford anchors. 9/6/2016

The littoral combat ship Coronado returned to port Sunday after a high-profile engineering snafu that came only days after another LCS breakdown. The failures have put new urgency behind big changes that will alter the training pipeline, as well as the way ships are crewed and employed in the fleet.

While engineers lift the hood on the trimaran to discover the extent of the damage it sustained on its maiden cruise, Navy leadership faces an even more daunting challenge: Fixing the ships that will in coming years become a substantial swath of the fleet.

The Navy's top surface warfare officer announced Monday that he ordered a review of safety procedures for the ships, which was completed Aug. 31. 

"Due to the ongoing challenges with littoral combat ships, I ordered an engineering stand down for LCS Squadrons and the crews that fall under their command," Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden said in a release. "These stands down allowed for time to review, evaluate, and renew our commitment to ensuring our crews are fully prepared to operate these ships safely."

After the first-in-class LCS Freedom broke down in late August, officials tell Navy Times that crews reviewed engineering operating procedures; Navy Times' sister publication Defense News reported that the LCS is believed to need an engine replacement due to sailor error. It was the second time this year that a sailor’s mistake led to extensive damage to an LCS. 

On top of that, Rowden ordered that every LCS crewmember who works in engineering — officer and enlisted — must be retrained and re-certified. 

"I have asked the Surface Warfare Office School commander to review the wholeness of our LCS engineering education and training to include the testing and retraining of all LCS engineers," Rowden said in the release.

"This training will occur over the next 30 days and will allow the SWOS leadership to review our training program and determine if other changes need to be made to the training pipeline." 

The review of the training pipeline for LCS engineers will likely result in some changes to the way snipes are trained for duty on the ships, the release said. Rowden also ordered a group of maintenance experts to take "a holistic look at the engineering program on board" Coronado to find and fix any shortfalls before the ship heads back out on deployment.

The announcement comes amid a tide of bad news. Since December, four of the six ships currently in service have broken down — including all three of the Freedom-class variants. The Coronado breakdown was the second serious LCS casualty in a week.

The recent spate of engineering problems comes amid continued criticism that the aluminum-hulled ships lack combat power and are not built to withstand battle damage.

Fixing the embattled ship class is among the Navy's foremost priorities. The ships are coming into the fleet fast and could number as many as 52 ships or more, between the trimaran and the mono-hull versions being built.

The Navy commissioned four of the ships between 2008 and 2014. By the end of 2016, the fleet will have doubled. The Jackson and Milwaukee were commissioned in 2015, and the Navy is getting ready to commission the Detroit and the Montgomery by the end of this year. The Navy expected to commission another three or four next year.

To the Navy’s brass, experts and observers, one thing is clear: LCS needs to get on track — and fast.

“They have to figure out how to make this work, because they already have so much invested,” said Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and author of the Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. “It’s not easy but the truth is that we are not in the early stages where we can say, ‘You know what? Bad idea.’ We’re too far along.”

Changes ordered

Leaders are pointing to the program-wide review conducted by Rowden as a significant step towards getting LCS on track — a plan that spells big changes for sailors.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson commissioned the review earlier this year and in June, Navy Times reported that LCS was shifting from three crews that rotate between two ships to two crews for each hull, similar to the gold and blue crews that man Ohio-class submarines.

Additionally, the review is poised to upend the signature modularity of the program, where sensors and weapons can be quickly swapped out to support emerging missions. Instead, the review is likely to recommend going to a “one ship, one mission” model, where each ship will be semi-permanently assigned a mission like anti-surface warfare, mine warfare or anti-submarine warfare. That also means that the module crew will be permanently assigned to each ship, a step that would improve crew cohesion.

Additional steps are likely to include converting the Freedom, Independence, Fort Worth and Coronado — the first four LCS ships — into test and training ships based in the U.S., according to two officials familiar with the review. The Navy will ultimately have either 52 or 40 hulls. In December, Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the Navy to trim the total buy from 52 to 40 and choose between the Independence and Freedom variants; it’s unclear if that will survive congressional opposition.

Rowden’s program-wide review of engineering procedures should go a long way towards reducing some of the sailor errors that have bedeviled the ships this year, said Bryan Clark, a former senior Navy aide who's now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.   

“What we are seeing is a combination of first-in-class problems, and not just due to it being an immature design,” Clark said. “This is more about the need to build up the competence of the people who work on it.

“Some of the problems we are having is the operators aren’t familiar with how to maintain and operate the ship.”

Clark argues that the operating procedures that come from the manufacturer are often written for technicians, not a sailor who has a bunch of other responsibilities. And on LCS, every major evolution from underway refueling to sea and anchor detail requires almost every warm body on the ship.

“On more mature classes you’ll see that the procedures are really clear and well written because they have been refined over years and years — a lot of times these things are written in blood,” Clark said. “What happens with brand new ships is it takes a while to get these things ironed out.”

Challenges ahead

Fixing the training and the procedures isn’t an easy task. Both types of LCS ships run on a plant unlike any other in the fleet: a combination of engines that coax every bit of power to the ships’ massive water jets.

That complexity is only compounded by the fact that there are two completely different hulls in the fleet, and that makes training and standardization a nightmare, said a retired senior Navy official who asked for anonymity to protect professional ties.

In 2012, the Navy decided to keep both hulls instead of choosing between Freedom and Independence classes. That decision meant that the Surface Navy was also committed to a bifurcated pipeline for training its sailors, the official said.

“That decision complicated everything because from then on out, you had two logistics systems, two training systems," the retired official said. "Those ships have very, very different combat and [hull, mechanical and electrical] systems.”

That decision to create two versions also diluted the talent pool for sailors in the program by half because you can’t take sailors from one LCS class and immediately cross-deck them to the other type. 

“If you take a sailor off an LCS 1 and put him or her on an LCS 2, it's square one, tabula rasa; you have to completely retrain them,” the official said.

For some experts, whether the Navy can right the ship on LCS is an open question. The Navy’s track record with ships that were built primarily with speed in mind is not good, said Norman Friedman, one of the foremost experts on the history of naval technology.

"Historically speaking, any time you put a lot of power in a small hull, you have problems,” he said.

Friedman points to the Navy’s 1970s-era Pegasus-class of fast attack patrol boats as an example.

"Last time we tried for really high speed was the hydrofoils,” he said. “They made their speed but they cost a fortune and were taken out of service at half their intended service lives. There was an idea that they could get sold to foreign navies, but none of them were.”

For Wertheim, there are still plenty of worries that given the string of issues that have plagued LCS, the engineering troubles may not be over. 

“The LCS doesn’t have a lot of victories that leaders can point to,” he said. “There is a real sense of, ‘OK, what’s next?’” 


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