Stakeholders in the Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ship community have ample reason to be thankful this holiday season. On November 15, the U.S. Navy, after going 21 months without accepting a single new Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ship, lifted the programmatic pause and began accepting new Freedom Class vessels into service, starting with the future USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul (LCS 21).
In January 2021, a string of ship failures led the U.S. Navy to publicly announce a halt of all future Freedom Class deliveries to trouble-shoot, test and repair a long-suspected class-wide defect deep within the ship’s complex propulsion system. The repair first had to pass land-based tests, followed by a battery of on-the-water tests aboard the nearly-complete Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Given that the defect compromised the entire 16-ship Freedom Class, the moment Freedom Class stakeholders declared the problem—an issue with high-speed clutch bearings—solved, the Navy’s relief was palpable.
Though the clutch bearing repair has yet to face the rigors of normal, day-to-day naval service, the Navy moved quickly to project programmatic confidence. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, joined a swarm of other naval dignitaries to announce that the fix was in, cheering their collective efforts to hold Lockheed Martin, the Freedom Class prime contractor, accountable. Then, five days after the Navy accepted Minneapolis-Saint Paul (LCS 21), the Navy extended the public relations push, breaking champagne over the bow of the future USS Marinette (LCS 25)—even though the ship had been launched months earlier.
With the next Pentagon budget already under construction—and the Freedom Class’ survival on the line—the winter will be full of well-publicized Freedom Class “milestones.” Near the Marinette Marine Shipyard, nearly-completed Freedom Class ships are stacked up at a pier, awaiting repairs and delivery. Soon, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul will be commissioned into the Navy. Then, if timelines hold, the future USS Cooperstown (LCS 23) will be delivered in January, while the future USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul, likely carrying a brace of journalists, will race encroaching Great Lakes ice to get to the Freedom Class superbase in Mayport, Florida by early 2022.
But soon, after all the ceremonial fun, the Freedom Class will finally face an operational test. After more than 13 years of service, it is high time for at least one of the 16-ship Freedom Class fleet to perform in a priority theatre. Given that top Navy leaders publicly claim the Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ship is truly fixed and ready for action, then the Navy needs to go use it—or risk losing it.
The Persian Gulf Awaits LCS 21
The Persian Gulf has always been an appropriate place for the Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ship. Distances are short, fuel is plentiful, and high-quality maintenance yards are nearby. The current Gulf threat is primarily a surface one. Outside of mines that Iran is currently not using, there is little in the way of undersea hazards, and friendly air cover blankets the region. It is a perfect “real-life” proving ground. With the establishment of Task Force 59, the Gulf is now a testing “hotbed” for high-tech un-crewed systems—a primary Littoral Combat Ship enabler. And, finally, given that Saudi Arabia is purchasing four Freedom Class variants, the faster a Freedom Class platform starts working in the region, the better.
Some stick-in-the-mud desk skippers may protest that the Minneapolis Saint-Paul isn’t ready. But Navy leadership says it is. In a statement, the Navy declared that the future USS Minneapolis Saint-Paul has “100 percent of propulsion power available for unrestricted use” and is ready for “unrestricted operations.” Acting Navy Chief Acquisition Executive Jay Stefany said last week, “the data show that ship is ready to go.” Even Admiral Gilday trumpeted that “we stopped delivery of these ships until we get this right.”
The Minneapolis Saint-Paul had better be ready. While stuck in the Great Lakes, the crew has spent more than a year on shore duty, hopefully in training, and, by September 2022, after a $25 million dollar post shakedown availability refit is completed at BAE Systems Jacksonville Ship Repair LLC, there is absolutely no reason why the future USS Minneapolis Saint-Paul should forgo a capstone post-refit deployment to the Middle East.
A snap deployment of a new ship to the Persian Gulf is not a stretch. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard has already paved the way. In April 2021, America’s maritime law enforcement agency sent two 350-ton Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutters to the Persian Gulf. The two ships had only been commissioned for a few months before getting sent out to their new permanent duty station in Bahrain.
The 3,500 ton Freedom Class might be bigger and more complex than the Coast Guard’s Fast Response Cutters, but the Minneapolis Saint-Paul crew has been aboard the ship for months now, learning the ship. The fleet has a dedicated base in Mayport, Florida, and the Fifth Fleet has plenty of support resources available in the Gulf. Unless the Navy has been lazy, pre-planning for a Freedom Class deployment should already be well underway.
Freedom Class ships have been commissioned components of the U.S. Navy’s for over thirteen years, so a deployment of what will be the 11th commissioned Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ship is overdue. At this point, with all the high-level attention, it should be a simple thing for the Navy to pull off. If not, then the U.S. Navy has bigger problems.
Trust But Verify
The Navy has a lot riding on the fidelity of the Freedom Class “fix.” After losing a big-deck amphibious vessel and a submarine to avoidable incidents, Navy leaders needed a quick win before the Pentagon finalizes the Navy’s next budget.
There are personnel reasons as well. Aside from helping Admiral Gilday keep his job, the fix helps other high-profile naval stakeholders. Rear Admiral Casey Moton, after almost three thankless years of leading the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants, is anticipating his next job, so getting the Freedom Class “combining gear fix” right, right now, gives the Admiral far more options in either the Admiralty or the private sector.
But the repairs are more than just a timely career boost for key people. The process pioneered a developmental approach Congress wants the U.S. Navy to apply during the development of future un-crewed vessels. A successful demonstration of robust land-based testing, followed by on-vessel demonstrations is exactly what the Department of Defense wants as it presses Congress for more unmanned craft in the next budget cycle.
Hopefully the Navy has found a viable solution. But, in years past, when high-stakes technical problems emerged on critical platforms, the Navy has declared victory too soon. Far too often the “fix” is a mere test of a loose engineering hypothesis, holding together just long enough for the public to lose interest and all involved in the program to move upwards and onwards. That is why the Navy must send the USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul forward in a hurry, demonstrating that the fix is real and not just re-distributing risk to some other unfortunate and soon-to-break component of the over-engineered Freedom Class propulsion plant.
While U.S. Navy leadership is outwardly confident, there are still reasons to worry. The Navy took more than two weeks to respond to this reporter’s initial inquiry into the status of the repair, suggesting things aren’t quite as cut-and-dried as the current PR push indicates. And then, the Navy, blaming ongoing negotiations with the Lockheed Martin team, refuses to reveal the cost of the fix. The reticence suggests the fix isn’t cheap and may compromise what little remains of the Freedom Class business case.
So, instead, let’s hope for the best. It is time for the first repaired Freedom Class ship face a true test of a Middle East deployment—and expect the Secretary of Defense to claim more than a few scalps if the fixed ship actually isn’t.