The United States Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program has had its share of notable mishaps, including issues with its combining gears, the hardware used to transfer power to the ship’s water propulsion system. As a result, multiple Freedom-class variants suffered significant and serious breakdowns, which required the warships to be towed back to port, while others have limped back and even cut deployments short.
It is clearly not ideal for the U.S. Navy. In addition to the readiness issues, it has been a public relations fiasco.
This week, the Navy suggested things are getting back in gear and that the issues are being resolved. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters on Wednesday that the service has completed and tested the first fix for the complicated gearing system. This was the mark of final approval for the eventual class-wide upgrades.
It was in January that the Navy announced it would delay the commissioning of the USS Minneapolis-St. Paul (LCS-21) until the problem was resolved. The warship had completed her acceptance trails in 2020, but the Navy refused to take delivery until the service was able to assess the class-wide defect in the RENK AG-built combing gear that connects the ship’s gas turbines and diesel engines. Without the gears that combine the power of the ships’ Rolls Royce MT-30 turbines and diesel engines, the LCS can’t achieve their top speed in excess of 45 knots, USNI News reported.
USS Minneapolis-St. Paul was finally delivered to the Navy this week.
“We held industry’s feet to the fire … We stopped delivery of these ships until we got this right. Reliability of LCS is our number one priority with respect to that ship class,” explained Gilday. “We really forced industry to go back to the drawing board with respect to the fidelity of the engineering work to do significant and rigorous shore side testing before we approve that final design that actually just got installed in the first ship.”
In August, Navy officials had announced that LCS-21 had completed the initial repair of the combining gear in Escanaba, Mich., not too far from the Fincantieri Marinette Marine facilities in Wisconsin, where the ship had been built.
“It’s a very complex fix to replace the bearings on the combining gear. It’s a very tight space. There’s a lot of interferences that have to be removed,” Howard Berkof, LCS deputy program manager said back in August.
Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor of the Freedom-class, and RENK AG will continue to repair the ships under construction at Marinette Marine – Cooperstown (LCS-23), Marinette (LCS-25), Nantucket (LCS-27) and Beloit (LCS-29).
“Lockheed Martin is proud of its longstanding partnership with the U.S. Navy and continues to support the improved warfighting capabilities of the fleet,” the defense contractor announced via a statement. “In partnership with the Navy and Renk Group, Lockheed Martin has successfully tested combining gear modifications on USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul (LCS 21). This at-sea verification testing validated combining gear design and reliability on Freedom-variant Littoral Combat Ships. The design modification can now be implemented on remaining, applicable ships in the class.”
The gears have been just one issue for the program, which has had more than its share of controversy. In addition to the breakdowns and defects, the LCS has been seen as a vessel without a mission. The LCS concept was meant to emphasize speed, flexible mission modules and even to operate in waters where larger warships couldn’t. Yet, its opponents have argued that the small and fast ships aren’t really up to the task in the changing geopolitical situation.
It has been suggested that a new class of frigates, as well as unmanned ships and aircraft, could do the jobs the Navy envisioned for the LCS and do it more cost-effectively. Issues with the ships have even earned the vessels the unflattering nickname “Little Crappy Ships” by some who have served on them.
Due to other issues with the ships, the Navy decommissioned the first LCS built in Marinette, the USS Freedom (LCS-1), in August – along with USS Independence (LCS-2), the lead vessel of the Independence-class variants. IN the Navy’s current FY22 budget submission, the service asked to cut four additional LCS including USS Coronado (LCS-4), USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) USS Detroit (LCS-7) and USS Little Rock (LCS-9).
And yet, the Navy continues to commission new warships, even as opponents of the program suggest the best course of action would to gear up with a new class of warships better suited to do the job – and do it reliably.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.