ABOARD THE FUTURE USS FORT WORTH–The crew on the LCS-3 had been underway for more than two weeks on the latest Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS) maiden voyage, learning about the ship’s systems, tackling equipment failures and preparing the vessel for commissioning next month.
The crew has had to cope with a host of challenges and problems with the new warship built by Marinette Marine under prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT] since its Aug. 7 departure from the Great Lakes, working long and hard shifts to resolve the problems to keep the ship on schedule.
Many of the problems on the future USS Fort Worth appear to be fairly minor, others a little more significant, but some of the more experienced crew say the issues are common for a brand new ship that still requires thorough testing at sea to identify and fix problems. When it gets to its homeport in San Diego later this year, the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Randy Blankenship, hopes to have identified the things that need to be resolved in post-shakedown availability.
“We’re going to identify some things that don’t work,” Blankenship said. “And what the post-shakedown availability is really about, is being able to take those things and get them working the way they’re supposed to. It’s not all perfect.”
Some of the problems have included a broken saltwater cooling pump for one of four engines, forcing the shutdown of a diesel engine since shortly before its arrival in Halifax, Canada, and for the duration of the trip from there to Norfolk, Va., where a new pump was planned for installation before heading back out to sea, the ship’s chief engineer, Lt. Phillip Dennis, said.
The crew also experienced a failure with another engine pump for extracting oil. That problem was prompted by a loss of offshore power while docked in Halifax, resulting in more than 200 gallons of spilled oil fuel that required 15 hours of clean up time. That issue was resolved and won’t require further attention, Dennis said.
The LCS is unlike any other type of vessel the Navy has operated. It is designed to fight in coastal areas and deploy swappable modules that are still under development for three different missions: anti-submarine warfare, anti -surface warfare and mine-clearing.
Among the challenges faced by the engineering crew, Dennis said, is making the transition from the Navy’s legacy ships to the LCS, which he characterized as a new concept and “totally different way of doing things.” But he’s confident the men and women stationed on Fort Worth are on the right path.
“Bringing a ship to life for the Navy, coming from (pre-commissioning) to turnover to the crew, getting the ship underway and becoming a fleet asset and becoming operationally ready, there are numerous steps involved with the process,” Dennis said. “And right now, one of our bigger challenges is, how do we do it here? And it looks like it’s coming together.”
Blankenship said operating LCS-3’s combat system, COMBATSS-21, has gone well so far, with fewer glitches than he would have anticipated. “I expected to see quite a few problems with the software load and I haven’t seen those. That has been a very pleasant surprise.”
After arriving in Virginia from Halifax, the Fort Worth headed back out to sea and conducted helicopter takeoff and landing operations, successfully completing certification Thursday night before returning to port, said Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA).
Once leaving Norfolk this week, the ship will pull into Naval Station Mayport, Fla., for a 10-day scheduled maintenance and repair availability, Blankenship said. The crew will use that time to address a small leak along a dried out seal on the bottom of the stern door that was causing the ship to take on small amounts of sea water.
The problems are expected to be fixed in time for the ship’s commissioning Sept. 22 in Galveston, Texas, before it journeys through the Panama Canal en route to San Diego.
Meanwhile, the ship’s engineering crew, which oversees everything from running the engines to sanitation and water supplies, was working long hours to keep the Fort Worth on track. Dennis said his crew is on station 18 hours for every 24-hour period.
The Navy originally designed the LCS to operate with a base crew of 40, but now acknowledges it will have to increase that number. The service plans to complete a review on manning in September, hoping to come up with the right number and skill sets required to operate the ship. Blankenship would not weigh in on numbers, but said he believes it was critical to look at areas where there was less redundancy.
“I think where you have to look, when you look at anything, is where are my single points of failure?” he said. “And you want to have a little redundancy there.”
Blankenship noted that the Fort Worth has experienced far fewer problems than its preceding variant and first ship in the class, the USS Freedom (LCS-1), encountered.
The Navy implemented redesigns on LCS-3 to prevent the hull cracking that took place on Freedom. Blankenship said there were so far no signs of any fractures on Fort Worth, and that everything was running well with the ship’s cathodic protection system to prevent corrosion.
Some of the other major changes the Navy made to LCS-3 were relocating the anchor system to the surface of the fore deck to prevent water from getting in as was the case on the Freedom. Fort Worth was lengthened by 12 feet to put greater separation between the four water jets, which has shown improved stability, Blankenship said.
In all, the Navy reported there were fewer than 10 deficiencies on the Fort Worth uncovered during acceptance trials in May, compared to the more than 50 on Freedom. And the service expects that number to continue going down as it makes corrections as more of the ships are built.
Some of the early problems on the Freedom, which the Navy says are now repaired, have dogged the shipbuilding program and produced criticism on Capitol Hill for cost overruns and delays, as well as over the decision to build two variants of the same class. The second is based on Austal USA’s USS Independence (LCS-2). But the Navy says both variants are coming in on schedule and cost.
For whatever negative publicity and political fighting over the LCS program, Blankenship insists there are “a lot of successes” and that not enough attention is paid to the hardworking crews learning to master and operate the ships.
“The thing I am really trying to communicate to everybody, is, one, look at what the crew’s done, at how well they’ve performed. I think that is something their families and friends need to see. And the second part of it is that we are right on track with what we’re supposed to be doing.”