The follow-on LCS hulls remain in the standard post-delivery test cycle. This period, which every new ship entering the fleet must go through, lasts approximately 15 months and includes final contractor trials, maintenance availabilities, and combat systems ship qualification trials (CSSQT). The milestones met during this necessary stage of a ship’s life are designed to ensure fleet commanders receive new assets that have been maximized for warfighting capacity and capability. This represents just the beginning of the growing number of LCS within the fleet.
The current nine hulls being put to the test are just a fraction of the presence LCS will eventually assume. In fact, with five more ships scheduled to deliver in 2017, and four more ships joining the fleet annually for the next three years thereafter, LCS will soon comprise one of the largest ship classes in the fleet, second only to the Arleigh Burke class destroyers. By 2030, LCS and frigates are projected to represent half of our deployed surface combatants.
Toward this maturation, 2018 will see five ships ready for operational tasking, helping the LCS program achieve important new milestones. Specifically, USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) and USS Jackson (LCS 6) will enter fleet service in the spring as the first East and West Coast training ships designated by the LCS Review; the East Coast will see its first LCS deployment; and for the first time from the West Coast, two LCS will be simultaneously deployed to the Southeast Asia operational theater. This year our fleet will see a significant change to the composition and capability of the surface fleet with a more integrated LCS platform.
Already, the independent Western Pacific deployments of USS Freedom (LCS 1) in 2013 and USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) in 2016 have proven what these new ships can do. As part of the class’s debut to global maritime operations, Freedom conducted joint and multi-national amphibious exercise assaults close to shore, and performed maritime security exercises with partner navies from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.
Building on this success, Fort Worth conducted multiple maritime patrols in the South China Sea, opened visits to more ports, and exercised with regional navies throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, including Naval Engagement Activity Vietnam and Foal Eagle off the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, naval officers from Sri Lanka and the Maldives embarked the ship on a transit through the Straits of Malacca starting from Changi, Singapore, and ending in Phuket, Thailand. In addition to building rapport with partner navies in South Asia, these ships helped promote a common understanding of safe and professional behavior at sea based on strict adherence to the established international rule sets.
Of particular note, the ship’s participation in the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise with the Bangladesh Navy was the first exercise in three years that included ship-to-ship maneuvers, helicopter deck landings at night, and vertical replenishments at sea. Fort Worth also joined multi-lateral search efforts in the Java Sea for Air Asia Flight 8501, and conducted unmanned aerial vehicle training with a Singaporean Scan Eagle UAV, further demonstrating the flexibility of the ship. Both deployments featured the landings of foreign helicopters on the deck.
USS Coronado (LCS 4) continues its forward-deployed operations in the Asia Pacific region. The ship's success in operations in the Sulu Sea and South China Sea included a passing exercise; visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) training with the Royal Brunei navy patrol vessel Daruttaqwa; participation in Maritime Training Activity Sama Sama with the Philippines, operating alongside the PHL Navy's PF-15 frigate; as well as two emergent Maritime Interdiction Operations, and two emergent Counter Piracy Operations. Additionally, the ship has done independent patrols in the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca promoting maritime security along strategic sea lanes.
This continued trend of success highlights why these ships are tailor-made for the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations, where they offer the right mix of littoral patrol and hull-to-hull interaction with partner navies that will make all the difference as we move forward. As demonstrated by Coronado's prominent presence at the International Maritime Defence Exhibition & Conference 2017 (IMDEX) Asia 2017, in front of 26 Chief of Navies, the ship's capabilities have already drawn international interest. Planning for an engaged future, sustained operations in the area, by the Independence variant, passed a significant milestone when Coronado completed the first expeditionary preventive maintenance availability in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.
Another new marker for future operations was accomplished prior to the ship's deployment when it successfully executed the first live-fire over-the-horizon (OTH) missile test using a Harpoon missile while participating in the world's largest international maritime exercise, Rim of the Pacific 2016. The OTH demonstration supports the Surface Force's aim to strengthen naval power, at and from the sea, by increasing the offensive capability of each surface combatant.
Over the next year, readying LCS for full fleet integration will continue with mission package testing, starting with a CONUS-based mine countermeasures (MCM) deployment for USS Independence (LCS 2) that will test new technologies and inform procurement decisions for the systems ultimately intended to locate, identify, and neutralize sea mines. While both the airborne laser mine detection system and the airborne mine neutralization system have already achieved initial operational capability (IOC), the shipborne systems are still maturing. Independence will also seek to refine the concept of operations for this warfare area by validating existing technologies, evaluating developing systems, and building proficiency through afloat exercises.
The Surface Warfare (SUW) mission package also continues to progress steadily. Achieving IOC in 2015, eight individual gun mission modules and seven maritime security modules have been delivered to the fleet, and more are on the way. The next mission package increment is the surface-to-surface mission module (SSMM). USS Detroit (LCS 7) successfully conducted a structural test firing of the SSMM in February 2017 when it launched a Hellfire missile from the ship, and follow-on phased testing for the SSMM will occur over the next year during various ships’ CSSQTs. The SUW mission package will begin developmental testing aboard USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) later this year and will culminate in operational testing and IOC in 2018.
Ashore, the LCS program is showing incredible forward progress. Modeled after the other ship class type desks, the newly stood up LCS/MCM type desk (or N48 directorate) at Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CNSP) and commanded by former LSC Squadron One (LCSRON 1) commodore, Capt. Warren Buller, provides day-to-day readiness focused type commander (TYCOM) support for operational and material readiness of LCS and MCM and offers added capacity to address class issues.
Shortly after establishment, N48 hosted the first LCS Design Summit, a three-day conference comprised of Sailors, maintainers, engineers, program sponsors, and other technical warrant holders. By reviewing casualty reports, departures from specification, local operating procedures, temporary standing orders, and – most importantly – Sailor feedback, the summit identified 99 class issues for adjudication. The summit spurred a quarterly Top 10 Technical Issues forum that will provide a steady drumbeat to identify and fix similar problems, making these ships more reliable to operate in the near and long-term.
On another front, San Diego opened the doors on a new LCS Training Facility this past September. The 148,000 square-foot building, located on Naval Base San Diego, houses Bridge Part Task Trainers, Launch Handling and Recovery trainers, Virtual Reality Labs, and will eventually add full-scale Mission Bay Trainers. Along with the integrated bridge and combat simulators, the LCS Fleet will use these modern training systems to provide Sailors with the most realistic off-hull training possible that supports the Train-to-Qualify/Train-to-Certify constructs of the LCS program. Naval Station Mayport currently possesses a baseline training capacity, with more facilities scheduled to be phased in over the next several years.
Command and control of LCS ship crews will also evolve for the better over the next year. Last year’s LCS Review not only adjusted the crewing concepts, but also created a new command structure. It consists of three different four-ship divisions on both coasts. Each division, commanded by a Navy captain in a major command billet similar in stature to officers commanding guided missile cruisers, amphibious transportation docks ships, destroyer squadrons, or amphibious assault ships, will focus on a single mission (anti-submarine, anti-surface, or mine countermeasures). The LCSRON will remain intact, albeit with a smaller footprint, to provide executive oversight and functions for the three divisions on their respective coasts. Work is underway to fine tune the missions, functions, and tasks for this new command and control structure, with the first East and West Coast divisions (both SUW) projected to stand up in the spring of 2018.
But perhaps the most notable and important LCS program change can already be seen on the waterfront in how we crew these ships. Following the guiding tenets of last year’s LCS review to increasing stability, simplicity, and ownership, Sailors will be wearing ball caps with their ship’s name – not a crew number. Fusing core personnel and mission detachments together into a single ship assignment achieves all three objectives in a single salvo. Many are already there…and they have the ball caps to prove it!
When reflecting upon the LCS class, Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson noted, “These ships bring needed capability and presence to our combatant and theater commanders.” In 2018, this needed capability and presence will be demonstrated across the fleet and around the globe. It will no longer be a question of
when we will see LCS in the fleet, but where.