Singapore is renowned through the Navy as one of the best liberty ports in the world. And the Concept of Operations for the Navy’s new LCS class of ships sees them deploying across the Pacific to operated forward deployed to the city-state for six to nine months at a time, cruising for three or four weeks, with a week or so in port for upkeep and liberty.
But Breaking Defense brings us the news that the extremely small crew size of the LCS means simply running and maintaining the ship wears the crew to the nub, in spite of massive contractor support while in port.
WASHINGTON: Some spectacular glitches marred the first overseas deployment of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, including an electrical failure that left the USS Freedom“briefly” dead in the water. Now Breaking Defense has obtained an unpublished Government Accountability Office study of Freedom‘s Singapore deployment that raises more serious questions about a long-standing worry: whether the small and highly automated LCS has enough sailors aboard to do up all the work needed, from routine maintenance to remedial training.
By now, the Navy brass have surely gotten tired of GAO taking shots at LCS. But according to GAO, LCS sailors are getting literally tired of the ship: They averaged about six hours of sleep per day, 25 percent below the Navy’s eight-hour standard, and key personnel such as engineers got even less. That’s in spite of
- extensive reliance on contractors both aboard and ashore, with a “rigid” schedule of monthly returns to Singapore that restricted how far from port the LCS could sail;
- the decision to increase Freedom‘s core crew by 25 percent, from 40 to 50 — the maximum the ship can accommodate without a “significant” redesign; and
- the 19-sailor “mission module” crew, who are supposed to operate LCS’s weapons, helicopters, and small boats, pitching in daily to help the core crew run the ship’s basic systems.
None of this was unforeseen by critics of the program. Comparably sized conventional ships might have a crew of from 150 to almost 200. Of course, one of the major design goals of the LCS was to use automation to reduce crew size drastically, as personnel costs are one of the highest life-cycle costs of a ship. And to be sure, to a certain extent, using automation to reduce the workload is a good idea.
But much as the Army found that increased automation and networking might increase awareness across a battlespace, there still remains a requirement for a certain critical mass of people. It’s the same thing at sea.
While the engineering failures of the LCS-1 were embarrassing (especially since the ship has been in commission for years before its first deployment), to some extent, that’s typical teething trouble of a new class.
But that mechanical unreliability is also greatly troubling, in that a central part of the Concept of Operations is to have large scale contractor support forward in the theater where LCS will operate. Now, the LCS isn’t designed to operate with the battle fleets of our Navy, but rather to fulfill many of the presence missions that every navy spends a great deal of time performing. That’s fine when the LCS is patrolling the waters of the Straits of Malacca. Singapore is a modern city, with the infrastructure to support the LCS, and finding qualified contractors willing to spend considerable time there isn’t terribly difficult.
But when LCS class ships begin deploying to less pleasant spots around the globe, the infrastructure to support them will be lacking, and finding contractors willing to support them will be more difficult (and hence, expensive). If for any reason, contractor support is unavailable, either the ship’s crew will have to do required work, or the ship will simply be unavailable to perform its mission.
Again, none of these problems were unforeseen. Critics of the program have, from Day One, bemoaned the extreme measures reducing the crew size drastically. They’ve noted that tying the ship to peirside support means the ships lack strategic mobility, as they will be unable to suddenly shift from one theater to another (say, from the Red Sea to the Levant). And as crews wear themselves out, many will make the decision to leave the service, reducing the numbers of qualified, experienced sailors, and increasing the spiral of overworking crews.