Video: Last Freedom-Class LCS Hits Tug During Launch

U.S. Navy confirms that USS Cleveland made contact with an assist tug during her side launch

USS Cleveland
A crewmember aboard the tug runs forward up the port side as USS Cleveland approaches the tug's stern (Lockheed Martin)

Published Apr 19, 2023 6:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Saturday, Fincantieri's Marinette yard launched the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship USS Cleveland, the last of the 16-vessel series and one of the six that the U.S. Navy desires to keep in its long-range fleet plan. Cleveland was also the last vessel that Marinette will put in the water with a dramatic side-launch, as it is installing a ship-lift for gentler lowering away. 

"LCS 31 will be another step closer to joining our fleet, sailing the open seas, continuing to defend our nation, and representing the strong connection our navy has with the city of Cleveland," said Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro in a statement before the launch. 

Video of the launch ceremony captured by bystanders appears to show that USS Cleveland washed the back deck and wheelhouse of an assist tug with the wave created by her entry into the water, bucking the tug's bow upwards and pushing the smaller boat across the channel. Two videos appear to show a tug crewmember running forward, away from the back deck, before the wave washes over the stern.

The U.S. Navy told Cleveland.com that USS Cleveland made contact with the tug during launch, and the LCS sustained minor damage due to the impact. “No personnel injuries occurred, but there was limited damage," the service said in a statement. “The damaged area is well above the waterline and no flooding occurred."

An official video released by lead contractor Lockheed Martin appeared to show that the tug in question was connected to Cleveland's bow by a tow line. Though it omits the moment of contact, the video briefly shows the crewmember running up the port side (at time mark 0:09-0:10).

The Navy has replaced the Freedom-class in future production with the Constellation-class frigate, which is based on the popular Italian-French FREMM design. Unlike LCS, the new frigate will have Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells for full-size SM and Tomahawk missiles, and it is designed for greater survivability in high-end naval warfare. Lockheed is not part of the Constellation-class project.

The Navy decommissioned first-in-class LCS USS Freedom in 2021, 12 years ahead of her planned end of life, and it seeks to decommission the next nine ships in the series as early as this year (contingent on congressional approval). The youngest on the list for potential deactivation, USS St. Louis, has been in service for less than three years. 

In justifying this controversial decision, outgoing Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has cited the series' propulsion issues, maintenance costs, and its utility for its assigned antisubmarine warfare role. The third-party ASW package for the Freedom-class was canceled in 2022 after repeated developmental delays, and according to Gilday, the small warships are "as noisy as an aircraft carrier" - an inbuilt challenge for sensitive ASW sonar systems. Without a role in ASW, Gilday has argued, the Navy does not need 16 Freedom-class ships. The Constellation-class will have an organic ASW capability supplied by a different manufacturer.

At USS Cleveland's launch, Marinette Chief of Shipyard Operations John Krueger told reporters that the Freedom-class was still an important part of the shipyard's history and development. 

“I think the history of the LCS program has been a boost to Marinette and Menominee and brought the shipyard to a Tier 1 shipyard with the Saudis [LCS derivative] and the frigates [Constellation-class],“ Kreuger told the Eagle Herald. "[LCS] was the baby steps to get us there.”