A decommissioning ceremony took place at Naval Station San Diego late last month that was different in that it was not attended by the usual assemblage of guests. The reason cited had to do with public health and safety concerns but it was just as well that the event was kept low key because the reason for the decommissioning was something of an embarrassment. USS Independence (LCS 2) was being decommissioned after only 11 years of service, if, indeed, it can be called service. With all due respect to the fine officers and sailors who have served honorably on board, the ship itself probably required more service than it provided the fleet in its short commissioned life.
Independence will soon be joined in retirement by its sister ship, USS Coronado (LCS 4). They were the first two of the Independence-class, the trimaran variant of the littoral combat ships. USS Freedom (LCS 1), the lead ship of the Freedom-class, the steel monohull variant, is scheduled for decommissioning next month. They are scheduled to be followed by USS Fort Worth (LCS 3), USS Detroit (LCS 7) and USS Little Rock (LCS 9), commissioned in 2012, 2016 and 2017, respectively. Their service life was expected to be at least a quarter of a century.
The Navy has ceased taking delivery of the Freedom-class because of problems with its German-built combining gear which connects the ships’ Diesel engines with their gas turbine engines to achieve speeds in the 40-knot range. The complex fix will likely take years to backfit into the remaining Freedom-class ships, thus limiting their maximum speed.
Congress, as you might expect, is not pleased with these events. We are supposed to be building toward a 355-ship Navy but we seem to going backward. The Navy is decommissioning more warships than it is building. And it is building some lemons. The LCSs of either variant may well be remembered as the Edsel of warships. Recall the Ford Motor Company’s famous lemon, which at least had some appeal as a collectible. I doubt that the decommissioned LCSs will be taking up much space in the Reserve Fleet for long. At least they won’t be taking up pier space at the naval bases anymore.
The LCS program has been something of an embarrassment from the start, beginning with the decision to have two contractors each build a variant to see who could come up with the worst, I mean best, design and then decide to build both. The minimally-manned ships employed the multiple-crew concept with a different commanding officer for each crew, a concept that works on the gold-plated ballistic missile submarines, but not so well on a surface warship where a sense of ownership is essential. Delays were encountered in procuring or developing the warfare modules which were supposed to enhance the ships’ versatility. Survivability of the thin-skinned ships is also an issue. Numerous breakdowns at sea occurred.
The shallow- draft, speedy ships were designed, as the name implies, for inshore warfare but the Navy is now focusing on great power competition as tensions with China escalate. The Navy believes that it would be too expensive to upgrade the earlier LCSs to a modified mission better suited for a more capable small ship like a frigate. Keeping these ships around for the sake of maintaining fleet size in terms of numbers of ships would do little for overall capability. Better to apply the resources saved by decommissioning to put toward the new Constellation-class frigate (FFG 62) program. One hopes that the new frigate will enjoy a longer and more productive life than the LCSs.
The LCSs are not the only ship class with problems. Production of the Zumwalt-class,( DDG 1000), a cruiser-sized, 14,000-ton, stealthy destroyer was limited to a 3-ship buy because of the costs. The smaller buy eliminated benefits of scale afforded by the original larger buy. Among the casualties is ammunition for the ship’s long-range gun batteries which is now too expensive to produce for just three ships. The ships are not flagship-configured and appear to be in search of a mission. The latest generation attack aircraft carrier, USS Ford (CVA 78) keeps reminding us that she’s a Ford, not a Lincoln, with recurring problems with her electric catapult system and ammunition elevators. In commission since 2017, she has yet to make a distant-duty deployment.
Members of Congress and taxpayers may be forgiven for questioning the judgment that went into the design of these warships and whether our scarce ship procurement funds are being well-spent. Meanwhile, China is massively expanding its Navy which seems geared to occupying Taiwan by force if necessary and enforcing sovereignty in the South China Sea. Rather than designing ships with systems that have yet to be proven, perhaps we should stick more to systems that have proved reliable at sea and crew our ships with enough people to maintain them.
The Arleigh Burke-class, (DDG 51) destroyer, has, in its earliest versions, been in service for a quarter century and the newer versions are still in production. It is arguably the best warship design we have come up with in a long time and is evidence that we can build an excellent, durable and capable warship. My vision of the next generation larger surface warship, or cruiser, would be an elongated Arleigh Burke with added electrical power, more missiles and a stern chaser. The current propulsion system should do just fine. As Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said recently, albeit in a somewhat different context, “We must be willing to use something we have now (and not wait until a technology is matured).”