“Don’t give up the ship!” was the last command uttered by Captain James Lawrence onboard the frigate USS Chesapeake on June 4, 1813, as he lay dying below deck during a fierce fire fight with HMS Shannon. This forgotten sea battle, the Battle of Boston, took place during the War of 1812 off the Massachusetts coast. It ended badly for the Americans, with USS Chesapeake being boarded and taken by the British, and her captain and 48 sailors killed, 99 more wounded, and the entire crew—232 —captured. Although USS Chesapeake and the U.S. Navy were defeated that day, Captain Lawrence’s last words became a battle cry and inspiration to many U.S. ships and Sailors forever more.
More than two hundred years later many U.S. Navy ships continue to use Captain Lawrence’s last words, “Don’t give up the ship!” as their motto and battle cry. But it seems our senior Navy leaders are purposefully ignoring Captain Lawrence’s final command when it comes to the Freedom-class littoral combat ship (LCS-1 class). USS Freedom (LCS 1), the lead ship of the class, was commissioned in 2008 and decommissioned in 2021, serving just 13 years as a U.S. Navy surface combatant. The U.S. Navy’s 2023 budget proposal calls for the decommission of USS Fort Worth (LCS 3), USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), USS Detroit (LCS 7), USS Little Rock (LCS 9), USS Sioux City (LCS-11), USS Witchita (LCS 13), USS Billings (LCS 15), USS Indianapolis (LCS 17), and USS St. Louis (LCS 19), putting these new ships and crews in limbo. Senior Navy leaders say they plan to keep the last 6 Freedom class ships—USS Minneapolis St. Paul (LCS 21), USS Cooperstown (LCS 23), USS Marinette (LCS 25), USS Nantucket (LCS 27), USS Beloit (LCS 29), and USS Cleveland (LCS 31) for now, but the Navy’s senior admirals don’t seem too enthusiastic about this plan either. As of July 2022, LCS-23, 25, 27, 29, and 31 are not yet in commissioned service.
Why would senior U.S. Navy leaders decide to admit defeat on brand-new ships now just as the Freedom class is starting to deploy routinely? Are we really going to divest of billions of dollars of ships and fifteen years of effort for the hope of a more lethal fleet ten to twenty years in the future? Shouldn’t there be a formal investigation or publicized Congressional hearings on this expensive decision? Who is to be held accountable? There are many unanswered issues surrounding the Navy’s course of action regarding the Freedom class LCS ships. Active duty and retired sailors are confused about this plan and what it means for their ships and crews today and in the next five years.
U.S. Navy sailors are at the tip of the geopolitical spear and have a bird’s eye perspective on the Kremlin’s aggressive resurgence in Ukraine; the rapidly expanding Chinese Navy; and the increasing reliance on foreign trade to rebalance the global economy. At the deck plate level there seems to be a disparity between what is happening in the real world and the decisions happening inside the Pentagon. How does giving up on the Freedom class help the United States better protect freedom? The answer we are told is the Navy must divest to invest.
Divest to Invest
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Michael Gilday believes that divesting in the Freedom class littoral combat ships, along with several other older but still capable warships (i.e.. Aegis cruisers, flight I Arleigh Burke destroyers, and various amphibious platforms), will free up money to actualize the Navy’s future ship building plans. According to Gilday, the divest to invest strategy will allow the Navy to build a more capable and lethal fleet albeit a smaller one in the future. CNO Gilday and other senior Navy leaders have already briefed this plan to Congress and are steaming full speed ahead with the divest to invest strategy. In their minds the risk is worth the reward.
But is this the best course of action given the limited deployable ships the U.S. Navy has today? And if the Freedom class has been plagued from the start with reliability and maintenance problems then why would the U.S. Navy choose the same builder, Fincantieri Marine Group, to build the next generation Constellation class frigate at the same shipyard? Shouldn’t someone figure out what went wrong first with the Freedom class before we sink billions into another new class of ship for the U.S. Navy built by the same folks? What happens in the interim, as the U.S. Navy shrinks and does not have enough surface combatants to cover down on current mission requirements?
There really has not been a lot of public debate about the U.S. Navy’s divest to invest long term shipbuilding plan. The media and Congress are just too busy, distracted, and reacting to more urgent matters, such as the January 6th commission, landmark Supreme Court decisions, five dollar a gallon gas, mass shootings, the war in Ukraine, etc. etc. Urban crime, inflation, and China’s PLA Navy are all on the rise, while U.S. Navy Sailors continue to work hard and do more with less. At the deck plate level, sailors and their sea going leaders simply shrug their shoulders and just keep on working. Divest to invest does not make a lot of sense to them, especially Sailors stationed aboard the Freedom class LCS warships slated for the scrap yard yet still scheduled to deploy.
Morale amongst LCS-1 Freedom class sailors is holding but starting to slip. Keeping your head in the game and nose to the grindstone is always difficult for sailors who serve in ships slated for decommissioning, but it is even worse for those who serve in LCS. Senior Navy leaders and many in Congress have spoken: LCS is bad and must go. Yet LCS-1 ships continue to deploy, and their undermanned crews are told to suck it up and accomplish the mission. The divest to invest vision of today’s senior Navy leaders is not going over well with many sailors at the deck plate level, especially in LCS-1 Freedom class ships.
What does the Navy’s divest to invest long term strategy mean for the U.S. Navy today and over the next five to ten years? Will the U.S. Navy have enough ships to continue protecting the global sea lanes of communication and meet all our current mission, training, and exercise requirements in the Caribbean, Eastern Pacific, Mediterranean, Black Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Gulf, and all the other world’s hot spots in the short term? What happens if Congress decides not to deliver the funds to build tomorrow’s more lethal but expensive ships? Would it not be prudent to not decommission any ship that has not yet passed its planned service date until we understand what went wrong with the LCS-1 Freedom class and other new acquisition programs that have not met planned expectations such as the Zumwalt-class destroyer and the Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier?
According to the recent shipbuilding plan submitted to Congress, the U.S. Navy wants to build a fleet somewhere between 321 to 372 warships, bracketing the long-standing goal of 355 total ships and submarines. As of July 2022, the U.S. Navy had 296 battle force ships available for deployment. This includes 11 aircraft carriers, 69 submarines, 65 logistic-mine warfare-support vessels, and 151 surface combatants. The U.S. Navy has about as many deployable ships as it did just prior to World War I. Today the U.S. Navy is responsible for maintaining the global order, which includes vital sea lines of communication and free maritime trade for close to 8 billion people and 195 countries world-wide. Additionally, the U.S. Navy is committed by formal treaties and tasking to defend much of the world’s infrastructure and population centers including all NATO countries, Japan, South Korea, the Arabian Gulf states, Israel, Taiwan, and the entire Western Hemisphere. That is a lot of work for a shrinking Navy of under 300 ships.
CNO Gilday and other senior Navy leaders have explained that some of our older warships and the Freedom class LCSs need to be retired early because they have antiquated radar and weapons systems and other reliability issues. Admiral Gilday is betting that by freeing up future funds that would otherwise go to upgrades and repairs for our existing warships, including the Freedom class LCS, this would allow the Navy to purchase additional vessels, including the new Virginia submarines, Constellation-class frigate, and the latest Arleigh Burke-class Flight III destroyer down the road. In seven card-stud—Poker– they call this betting on the river, meaning you are willing to gamble your current chips (or ships in this case) in the hopes that future cards will bring you a winning hand. Today’s U.S. Navy leaders are going all in and hoping for a few flop cards to fall their way. But what if the cards don’t fall our way? What happens to the size and capability of the future fleet? Is the U.S. Navy giving away capability and platforms today for the promise of a better Navy tomorrow? The gamble here is will the Navy and the U.S. taxpayer be stuck holding a pair of deuces in the future instead of salvaging 15 capable, agile littoral combat warships now? This is quite literally a multi- billion-dollar gamble that should be debated in Congress, in the press, and by our maritime experts before we throw away hard earned, deployable assets.
On June 22, 2022, the House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment that would authorize $1.2 billion for the U.S. Navy to purchase another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The amendment also authorizes $318 million in funding to save five of the nine Freedom class littoral combat ships that the Navy planned to decommission as part of it 2023 budget. Some lawmakers, however, opposed this proposal. Representative Jackie Speier (D-Calif) was fiercely opposed to saving the LCS class of ships. She claimed that LCS stood for “Leaking Cracked Ships,” and compared them to automobiles. She stated, “we all know what lemon cars are. We have a fleet of lemon LCS ships. We have spent billions of dollars on this fleet when they have no capability to help us deal with our largest threat, which is that of China and Russia. The only winners have been the contractors on which the Navy relies for sustaining these ships.”
The Freedom class littoral combat ship, LCS-1 is not a lemon. It is a warfighting platform designed around the military specification to go fast—more than 40 knots. It does this by combining two-sequentially turbo charged, 16-cylinder Colt-Pielstick diesel engines with two Rolls Royce MT30 marine gas turbines for a combined total of over 100,000 shaft horsepower. The U.S. Navy has no faster surface combatant today than the Freedom class LCS. It is agile and highly maneuverable and can enter and fight in much shallower waters than deeper draft DDGs, CGs, and other legacy warships. Its weapon systems and combat suite are capable for its designed role of operating in the littorals. If it were a car, as Congress woman Speier imagined, it would be a cross between a heavily armed Chevy Corvette and a Dodge Ram pickup, with a large gun rack for Hellfire Longbow missiles, twin 30 mm guns, the Sea Ram self-defense system, and a Bofors 57 mm automatic canon. It can carry two 11-meter RHIBs and launch them from a wet well deck and has a larger flight deck than a DDG with hangar space for two SH-60 helicopters and or multiple Firescout UAVs. The Freedom class LCS ships are highly capable of performing a multitude of necessary missions right now, from anti-piracy operations and counter-narcotics trafficking to Special Forces insertion/extractions and high value escort operations. LCS does not stand for “little crappy ships” or “leaking, cracked ships” any more than it does “Let Congress Spend” or “Lost opportunity Cause your Stupid.” LCS is a viable and serviceable platform that the U.S. Navy needs and can use right now.
“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” – John Paul Jones
The LCS-1 Freedom class was built around the ability to go very fast. Its engineering plant is the heart and soul of the ship class. It is unlike any other engineering plant in today’s surface fleet. LCS-1 was the U.S. Navy’s first attempt at mating marine gas turbines and diesel engines into one set of reduction gear, known as combining gear. Additionally, instead of propellors, the LCS-1 class ships use large water jets and steerable buckets—think giant jet ski—to drive the ship through the seas. This makes LCS-1 fast, agile, and highly maneuverable but also requires highly trained and skilled engineers to keep its advanced, computerized engineering plant running smoothly.
From the beginning of the LCS-1 program, the Freedom class has been short on manpower, specifically Sailors in engineering ratings. Initially, it was believed that LCS-1 ships could operate with 10-15 personnel attached to the engineering department with the lion’s share of their maintenance outsourced to private contractors. This proved to be too expensive and prevented the ship’s crew from maintaining and fixing the plant themselves while at sea. Today LCS-1 Freedom class ships still only have about 15 or so sailors full time in engineering but continue to operate in accordance with the same rules, regulations, and protocols as the legacy fleet, making LCS-1 engineers the most overworked and underappreciated sailors on the waterfront.
Yes, LCS-1 did have some design issues with the engineering plant, specifically the combining gears but those problems have been identified and are correctable. Using multiple foreign subcontractors to outfit and maintain this new, experimental engineering plant while constantly rotating crews might have delayed the initial identification of the class problem regarding the high-speed clutch roller bearing failure. This is probably an especially important lesson learned that should not be duplicated with the Constellation class FFG also to be built by Fincantieri at the Marinette facility.
LCS-1 manning was also found to be suboptimal, and the blue and gold crew swapping concept has not aided sailors in gaining pride of ownership, systems level of knowledge, and finding and fixing problems at sea. The U.S. Navy experimented a lot with the design, acquisition, manning, training, and maintenance of the LCS-1 ship class all at once. An objective and careful analysis of the LCS-1 program is needed to figure out what went wrong but also verify what went right. These lessons learned should be captured before the Constellation class and other new classes of U.S. surface combatants go into full scale production.
The LCS-1 program has had some successes such as the train to qualify/train to certify system of training coupled with outstanding integrated virtual trainers. The surface warfare module consisting of the Bofors 57 mm canon, twin 30 mm guns, Hellfire Longbow VLS system, and twin 11-meter RHIBs have proven to be highly successful and capable when deployed. LCS-1 ships are now performing many vital missions such as anti-piracy, counter-narcotics operations, and high value unit escort duties much cheaper than Aegis cruisers or destroyers. Clearly there are some wins with the LCS-1 program that should be captured and claimed.
Historic quotes, emotion, and anecdotal stories aside, holding on to all the LCS-1 class hulls for at least the next 5 to 10 years makes good strategic, economic, and common sense. The U.S. Navy and taxpayer already paid billions of dollars for these ships so decommissioning them now makes no economic sense. The operating and maintenance costs of all LCS-1 can be lowered if desired. Future funding needed for repairs or upgrades could be gained by holding the companies, subcontractors, and government agencies responsible for the oversight of the LCS-1 class accountable. Additionally, by single crewing all the hulls, many manpower dollars could be saved while at the same time increasing the crew compliment and their subsequent level of knowledge. Here is a short list of things that could be done on a budget to use LCS-1 to fulfill many existing and future mission requirements.:
- Single crew all LCS-1 ships. The crew size should be expanded to around 100 sailors permanently assigned. Forty of those sailors should be skilled engineers. This would make LCS-1 more capable, sustainable, and reduce manning throughout the program.
- Collapse the LCS-1 shore bureaucracy into one operational squadron with one chain of command vice four (i.e., LCSRON-2, Surface, Mine, and ASW divisions). Recoup the manpower savings and use it to fund repairs, logistics, and support single LCS-1 crews.
- Fix the combining gear design problem by holding the appropriate corporations and bureaucracies accountable. In the interim, the current LCS-1 engineering class advisory regarding the high-speed clutches is adequate to support the execution of certain missions. If the clutches fail and the combining gear are damaged, then repairs can be planned or said ship could be deactivated and used for spare parts, training, and other functions to support the existing hulls as needed.
- Use LCS-1 for future mission and requirement experimentation. Innovate with new joint missions and uses for LCS-1 ships, such as embarking Marines, SEAL insertion/extractions, UAV mothership, attaching LCS-1 to an amphibious readiness group, and or partnering and deploying with foreign navies. There are dozens of missions which LCS-1 class ships could do in the littorals for much cheaper than destroyers or cruisers.
- LCS-1’s built in modularity lends itself well to future weapons system testing. Lasers, swarm UAVs, UUVs, electronic/cyber warfare systems, etc. could all be tested and tried from existing LCS-1 platforms. LCS-1 ships could serve as pre-paid, future weapons innovations labs and ocean-going testing platforms.
LCS-1 ships are in the inventory now. They are high-speed, capable vessels and their utility is only limited by the imagination. The U.S. Navy does need to admit to its errors with the LCS-1 program and hold the appropriate companies, agencies, and bureaus accountable, but we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. The Navy and Congress should not give up these ships now, at least until there is another platform in the future that can replace them. These ships and their crews are more than just numbers on a spreadsheet to the hard-working sailors and civilians who train, maintain, and ready them for battle. Send them on deployment and see what they can do. At this point It would be difficult for the LCS-1 to fall short of our senior leadership’s expectations so what do we have to lose?
When Captain Lawrence and the USS CHESAPEAKE were defeated by the HMS SHANNON in 1813, the loss was not attributed to the CHESAPEAKE’s procurement process, design issues, or logistics failures. USS CHESAPEAKE was defeated because the crew of HMS SHANNON was better prepared, better trained, and more accurate with their gunfire. Captain Lawrence and the crew of USS CHESAPEAKE believed they were better than they really were prior to the Battle of Boston and were soundly defeated despite their Captain’s passionate last words, “Don’t give up the ship!”
Today LCS-1 is believed to be a lemon by our senior Navy leaders and some in Congress. The CNO, Congresswoman Speier, and others are looking at LCS-1 through the lens of unfulfilled and unrealistic expectations for a post-Cold War, post 9/11 class of ship that was oversold, micromanaged, and mishandled not by our sailors but by the Navy’s procurement bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex. Too much radical experimentation all at once from spiral development procurement, multiple-rotating crews, undeveloped mission modules, and experimental engineering designs has created the perception that the Freedom class warships are of inferior quality and incapable of supporting the nation and Navy’s needs.
LCS-1’s procurement story is not unlike that of the U.S. Army’s Bradley fighting vehicle or the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor stealth tactical fighter. Cost overruns, changing requirements, and the desire for this new ship to do everything has led us to where we are today. So where do we go from here? Do we just throw in the towel and get rid of the Freedom class LCS-1 ships or can we salvage some use out of these very expensive, very fast water jet driven vessels?
Like Captain Lawrence in 1813, our senior Navy leaders and Congress are sailing into the fight believing something that is not completely true. LCS-1 crews are well trained and some of our best ship handlers and at sea war fighters. Their high end, virtual shore-training integrates the bridge and combat (aka MCC) watch standers into a synchronized and well-practiced fighting team before they even walk up the brow. LCS-1 engineers are overworked and undermanned but still getting the job done. LCS-1 ships are currently deployed in the Caribbean Sea and Arabian Gulf and performing well. Rather than betting on the river we should heed Captain Lawrence’s call to action, “Don’t give up the ship!”
This piece was authored by CAPT Tony Parisi, U.S. Navy (Ret.). The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense. It first appeared in RealClearDefense.