By Geoff Fein

The Navy’s first Littoral Combat Ship, USS Freedom (LCS-1), successfully operated with a carrier strike group (CSG) during operations in the eastern Pacific, according to the ship’s commander.

Additionally, teams led by Austal USA and Lockheed Martin [LMT] competing to build LCS for the Navy both submitted their responses to the service’s request for proposals Monday. The Navy is expected to award a contract to develop a single hull form, this summer.

“We are offering the U.S. Navy a low-risk, affordable design that has already proven itself essential to the expanding challenges faced by our sailors,” Bob Stevens, Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO, said yesterday in a statement. “Lockheed Martin is committed to continuing our strong performance to ensure delivery of an affordable class of LCS ships for our nation.”

Freedom, built by the team of Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine, met up with the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) Strike Group and conducted several exercises to determine communications capabilities, Cmdr. Randy Garner, commanding officer of the Gold Team, told reporters during a conference call yesterday.

“We met with them and conducted several basic exercises, which would be indicative of CSG operations,” he said.

Besides the communications exercises, Freedom‘s crew of 40 also conducted refueling at sea and a quick fire event with the USS Bunker Hill (CG-52). The Bunker Hill was escorting the Carl Vinson as the strike group transited to San Diego, Garner noted.

Although Freedom‘s crew has done several refuelings during their first deployment, this was the first between LCS-1 and a carrier, Garner added.

On occasions, the Navy will conduct refueling between surface ships and carriers because the CVNs can provide fuel for a conventionally-powered ship once in a while, he explained.

“That went well. That was a big ship for us to pull alongside and it was a fun event to prove we could do that without any major challenges,” Garner said. “The ship maneuvered well…the crew handled that well.”

Freedom also conducted exercises with the Bunker Hill to test both ships’ medium-caliber weapons, he said. “It not only gave us an opportunity to do tactical maneuvering with Bunker Hill but also use our weapons systems and make sure we still got all the skill we needed to execute defense of the ship [and] make sure the guns work as well.”

Freedom also conducted a mock visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) exercise with the Bunker Hill. The cruiser and her crew played the role of a merchant vessel. The VBSS detachment, using the ship’s 11-meter rigid inflatable boats (RIBs), boarded the Bunker Hill, gained control of the vessel and then brought the VBSS team back, Garner said.

Freedom showed she is capable of operating with carrier, with carrier strike group assets and conducting events that ships are required to do in that kind of environment,” he said. “There wasn’t anything extraordinarily unique about what we did. What was unique about it was that this was the first time it was done with Freedom, and the events went well and the crew did very well.”

But what Freedom can do which is unique is that she has some speed that other ships might not have, Garner added.

And, during one event, Freedom was able to demonstrate some of its unique capabilities, he added.

While Garner acknowledged that Freedom‘s VBSS event was not that different than what an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate or Arleigh Burke-class destroyer can do, the ability to carry and deploy 11-meter RIBs gives Freedom more payload capacity and a little more sea keeping ability.

“Also, with our stern launch system, the ability to launch the boats in a little different [fashion] gives us an advantage in safety of boat operations,” he said.

Freedom also had the opportunity to interact with the USS McInerney (FFG-8) in the eastern Pacific. The McInerney‘s crew was completing a counternarcotics deployment when they joined up with Freedom.

On this deployment, the McInerney was equipped with one SH-60M Sea Hawk and two Fire Scout vertical tactical unmanned air vehicles, Garner said

“We had the opportunity to do a days worth of operations with her as we were passing through the same area she was operating in,” he said.

With the McInerney similar in size to Freedom, and with the frigate equipped with Fire Scout, there was an interest in routine operations between the two ships, Garner said.

“We had a day of routine operations where we coordinated patrols between the two ships and coordinated patrols between our aircraft,” he said.

The two ships communicated using both line of sight communications and over the horizon communications, Garner added.

The two ships also coordinated for night and counternarcotics operations, he said. “It went well. It was a full day and full night of operations.”

Although the McInerney was equipped with Fire Scout, the VTUAV never operated from Freedom, nor did Freedom‘s air detachment ever take control of the aircraft, Garner said.

Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] Fire Scout will eventually be a key component of the various mission packages that will enable LCS to perform mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare.

“We did not do anything with Fire Scout onboard Freedom, but what we did with Fire Scout was that as she patrolled an assigned area, maintaining the maritime picture for McInerney, we also did the same thing in an adjacent area with our helicopter,” Garner said. “We operated jointly with McInerney and their Fire Scout and our helicopter, in order to just surveil the area we were operating in.”