Navy Limits $1.6 Billion Worth of Ships to "Testing"

The USS Freedom conducts the first overseas LCS crew swap, Singapore, 2013 (USN image)

Published Sep 12, 2016 7:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy announced Friday that it will be changing a low-cost crewing strategy for its two classes of littoral combat ships, which have suffered from mechanical failures over the past year, and will also restrict the first four of the vessels to non-deployed use as "testing ships."

In promoting the LCS, the Navy has long touted cost-saving measures, such as hull designs based on commercial class rules, multi-role mission packages allowing the ships to take on a variety of tasks and a new manning arrangement with three rotating crews for every two vessels (instead of a single crew assigned to one ship on a long-term basis). This "Sea Swap" manning was part of the budgetary appeal – reduced opex due to longer deployments with fewer transits back to home port.

As opposed to the current three-to-two rotation, the new two-to-one arrangement will increase manning by about 400 sailors by 2023, when the Navy expects to have 28 of the ships. 

In addition to the manning changes, the first two $400 million vessels in each of the two LCS classes will not be deployed and will be used "to satisfy near and long term testing requirements for the entire LCS class." This change, covering over $1.6 billion worth of ships already in service, will take effect next year.

The flexible mission packages will also be deemphasized, with the vessels organized into new four-ship divisions, each focused on a single warfare area – "surface warfare, mine warfare or anti-submarine warfare," the Navy said in a statement. Three of the ships in each division will deploy; one of the ships will be a designated "training ship," which "will remain available locally to certify crews." 

Taken together, the “testing ship” and “training ship” designations would take 14 of the DoD’s 40 planned LCS class vessels out of overseas deployment. If the Navy eventually orders 52 vessels, as it desires, the non-deployed number would rise.

The Navy denied that the changes were related to any one of the four propulsion casualties suffered by Independence- and Freedom-class LCS vessels over the past year.

The service is investigating these casualties to determine to what extent crew errors and/or mechanical design are responsible.

Navy spokesperson Lt. Kara Yingling told CNN that "the review was a comprehensive look at maintenance, training, and manning across the class – not limited to one ship or one incident. As with any new ship class, the Navy constantly looks for ways to improve employment and deployment of its ships," she said.

In a separate statement, the Navy mentioned maintenance problems and vessel familiarization in its rationale for the manning adjustments, noting that "the [two-crew] model will . . . simplify ownership of maintenance responsibilities and enhance continuity as the same two crews rotate on a single ship."