Major leaks in a Naval fleet

The Freedom class Littoral Combat ships, the Navy’s contribution to the war on terror, have been a total disaster. We should all be concerned about that because it may mean higher taxes or even contribute to defeat in a future naval war.

Some may remember the Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship USS Littlerock that was commissioned in Buffalo back in December 2017. A Littoral Combat Ship as defined by the Navy “is a fast, agile, mission-focused platform designed to operate in near-shore environments, winning against 21st-century coastal threats. The LCS is capable of supporting forward presence, maritime security, sea control, and deterrence.” The Navy once believed that discription.

Now the Little Rock and eight other vessels of her class currently on active service will be decommissioned in fiscal year 2023. That means the ships will be taken out of service, mothballed and placed in the Reserve Fleet in some out of the way anchorage to be recommissioned should the need arise or more likely to be scrapped in a few years.

The design and the funding of the Freedom class began shortly after the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan. Designed to be maneuverable and attain speeds of over 40 knots the Navy felt these ships would be able to operate successfully and effectively in the shallow coastal waters where terrorists operate.

The Freedom class was cutting edge. To attain their high speed the vessels each have four engines consisting of two diesels and two gas turbine engines that drive a system of water jet propulsion instead of screw propellers.

From the beginning the Freedom class LCS’s did not live up to expectations. The most serious problem was with the propulsion system’s combining gear, a transmission that combines the ship’s diesel engines with its gas turbines to produce additional power. Failures in this system led to a loss of propulsion in several vessels of the class at sea necessitating their being towed back to port.

This problem led to the decommissioning of Freedom, the lead ship of the class, in September 2021 followed by plans, later delayed, to decommission Forth Worth, Milwaukee, Detroit and Little Rock in fiscal year 2022. Now, based on the difficulty and high cost of repairing the combining gear the decision has been made to decommission the above-mentioned ships along with five other ships of the class including the Sioux City, Wichita, Billings, Indianapolis and the St. Louis in fiscal year 2023. None of these vessels have reached even half of their estimated service life of 25 years.

The class suffered other problems. An important mission of the Freedom class was to have been in the anti-submarine role. However, the key component of this system, developed by Raytheon was a “towed variable depth low-frequency active sonar.” Unfortunately, this system developed stability problems and had towing issues leading the Navy to announce that the system had been terminated.

Further, in announcing the decommissioning of the first nine Freedom class vessels, the Navy stated that the ships “did not bring enough lethality to the fight” and would be out gunned by warships being developed by Russia and China. In other words, the ships were designed without sufficient fire power to survive and it would cost too much to properly arm them.

All this has occurred at a time when the United States is in a race with China to build up the Navy. China is winning that race. Currently the Chinese fleet consists of 355 ships with plans to add 65 more in four years. By 2030 its expected that the Chinese fleet will reach 460 ships.

By comparison, the U.S. Navy now consists of 297 vessels. In 2018 Congress passed a law requiring the Navy to reach a 355-ship fleet “as soon as practicable,” whatever that means. Since the passage of the law the number of ships in the fleet has fallen every year. In fiscal year 2023, nine new ships will be added but 24 will be retired for a net loss of 15 ships. Was the expansion law just a means for Congress to shut critics up?

The multitude of problems with the Freedom Class makes me wonder how competent the designers of our Navy’s ships are. Why were so many untried systems incorporated? Was it the result of an effort to get all the newest bells and whistles included even if unproven?

Finally in a recent appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee Admiral Mike Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations stated that the Navy is “…sized to fight one adversary and keep a second adversary in check, but in terms of two all-out conflicts, we are not sized for that.”

As someone who has studied Naval affairs much of my life that is a shocking statement because for 80 years the Navy has been designed as a “two ocean navy” able to fight two wars at the same time.

To build a navy capable of fighting two wars will require the full attention of Congress to ensure the Navy has what it needs but also to make use of its oversight powers to ensure the Navy is not wasting its assets on ships that have questionable long-term value to its mission and on ships that are so cutting edge that unforeseen problems may crop up which area too costly to adequately correct.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com


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