The Navy’s troubled littoral combat ship program has a new problem: hull cracks.
The cracks in the aluminum hulls are created if the ship travels less than half its maximum speed, or in turbulent seas.
Structural problems are just the latest in a long litany of problems affecting the small, frigate-sized ships.
The Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) program faces even more bad news, even as half of the ships in the program are facing disposal. Half of the ships set to remain in the Navy are developing structural defects, cracks that limit their ability to less than half of their advertised speeds. Although the Navy has a plan to correct it, it’s just the latest problem plaguing the failed class of warships.
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The problem was first reported by Navy Times, which received internal Navy documents whose contents were confirmed by service officials. The documents reveal that the Independence-class littoral combat ships—a unique, aluminum-hulled trimaran design built by Austal USA—are developing cracks in their hulls if the ships travel faster than 15 knots, or in seas with waves of eight feet or more.
The cracks in the Independence-class ships, according to a Navy official quoted by Navy Times, “does not pose a risk to the safety of Sailors on board the ships.” Austal has a fix in mind, but it is not clear how much it costs, who is paying for it, or when the fix can be implemented. In the meantime, USS Omaha, one ship afflicted with the cracks, is restricted from sailing faster than 15 knots and is prohibited from sailing in seas with waves 8.2 feet or higher.
The Navy says all Independence-class ships are able to meet “operational requirements,” but would not disclose whether or not those with cracks are facing the same speed limitations as Omaha. One major selling point for LCS has been the ability to sprint at high speeds of 40+ knots, allowing it to quickly deploy into crisis areas.
The LCS warships were designed to be frigate-sized ships capable of fighting in littoral waters—that is, close to coastlines, within island chains, and otherwise close enough to influence fighting on land. The ships are delivered lightly armed and equipped from the shipyard with only a single 57-millimeter gun, a point-defense weapon system, and two 30-millimeter guns.
LCS were meant to be fast, inexpensive, and utilize easily swappable “mission modules” that allowed an individual ship to rapidly reconfigure for anti-surface, anti-submarine warfare, and mine-hunting missions. After 15 years, only the anti-surface module is fully deployable, with the anti-submarine and mine-hunting modules still not ready for prime time. Other secondary missions, such as irregular warfare and support for special operations forces, seem to have been quietly abandoned.
The littoral combat ship fleet consists of two classes, the Independence and Freedom classes. In addition to the mission module problem, the fleet has suffered from cost overruns, delays, propulsion reliability issues, and high operating costs. Purchases of both classes have been cut, and the Navy has proposed decommissioning all of the Freedom-class ships, some only three years old. Six more Freedom-class ships, including the USS Beloit, commissioned this week, are still in the pipeline. The Navy is still taking delivery of them, but the ships are likely destined for very short sailing careers.
The littoral combat ship class is just one of several troubled warship classes that originated in the late 2000s. The Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers were supposed to be a class of 32 destroyers, but ballooning costs led to just three ships being built. The USS Gerald R. Ford, a new class of nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, has been plagued by numerous cost and technical issues and is years late in its first overseas deployment.
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