The U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ship Has Another Problem
A serious design flaw could leave the entire class of Littoral Combat Ships dead in the water.
The Littoral Combat Ships are represented by two classes, the Freedom-class and the Independence-class. Though their designs differ, their intended purpose is quite similar: they are meant to operate in littoral waters, or closer to shore than larger, blue-water navy ships. They are both also designed to be extremely flexible, with an array of mission modules that can be switched out while at sea to better respond to a number of contingencies, including fire support, patrol and convoy escort, or mine sweeping to name a few of their capabilities.
On paper, both LCS ship classes offer a wide array of abilities on one platform. But, both Littoral Combat Ship classes have been plagued with problems.
One Freedom-class ship’s clutch failed to disengage en route to Nova Scotia from San Diego. An additional three Freedom-class ships received engine overhauls after seawater penetrated their engines and caused extensive rust-related damage due to faulty gaskets. One Independence-class ship suffered from damage to its drive shafts. Design flaw and repair costs aside, both classes have also suffered from major cost overruns and have been critiqued as un-survivable in a high intensity combat environment.
And the problems don’t end here—the Navy just uncovered yet another flaw, one that could see the entire Freedom-class stuck in port until further notice.
Dead in the Water
An issue with the Freedom-class propulsion system may necessitate a redesign. In an emailed statement, a U.S. Navy official summarized the issue, stating:
“The Government is investigating a material defect with the combining gear of USS Detroit and USS Little Rock, both Freedom variant Littoral Combat Ships. A joint Navy and Lockheed Martin team with RENK AG, the original equipment manufacturer, are conducting a root cause analysis of this defect. While the Navy and Lockheed Martin investigate this issue, measures have been implemented to mitigate risk to all the in-service Freedom variant ships. Once the defect and scope of the issue is identified, the Navy will work with industry to repair these ships and return them to sea as quickly as possible.”
One of the issues may be the Freedom-class’s stringent design requirements. During the class’ design phase, one of the ship’s requirements was a high, 40 knot plus top speed.
In order to achieve the necessary amount of power output to reach these speeds, the class has to engage two diesel engines, as well as two gas turbine engines that are not used during normal sailing. Consequentially, the transmission connecting the four engines to the ship’s propulsion shafts is said to be complex, and the combining gear bearings inside the ship’s clutch may be faulty and prone to failure.
While the other LCS Independence-class ship is said not to suffer from the same design problem, the entire Freedom-class may need new, redesigned bearing components to mitigate this latest problem—a task that would likely be taken up by Lockheed Martin, the Freedom-class designer.
Out with the Old, in with the New
In the end, the class’ potential propulsion flaw may not matter. Both the Independence- and Freedom-classes of ships will ultimately be replaced by the Navy’s new FFG(X), an Italian-designed frigate that the Navy would like to operate in lower threat situations, similarly to the LCS classes.
Replacement class aside, who exactly pays for repairs—and more importantly, how the repairs will affect the Freedom-class and if the Navy’s other Freedom-class ships will be at port until repairs are implemented—remains to be seen.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.