The USS Little Rock will roll into the waters of the Menominee River on July 18 from Lockheed-Martin’s Marinette, Wis., plant.
As the first of eight littoral combat ships currently slated to be docked at Mayport Naval Station by 2020, it also will be critical to the base’s future.
“The final number may grow as Navy leadership makes homeport decisions for future ships, but for now, eight is the number,” said Capt. Paul Young, commander of Mayport’s burgeoning LCS Squadron 2.
The littoral combat ship’s importance to Mayport is profound as it will replace — at least as far as numbers go — the retiring fleet of Oliver Hazard-Perry class frigates at the base of which only one remains. Just four years ago, 11 frigates called Mayport home.
Months of sea trials lay ahead before the Little Rock pulls alongside Mayport’s docks, with a delivery date set for December 2016. Though two ships will make a cameo appearance.
The USS Milwaukee and USS Jackson, LCS 5 and 6 respectively, are based in San Diego, but will operate out of Mayport for the better part of 2016.
“Those will be San Diego ships, but we’ll have a Mayport crew on USS Milwaukee,” Young said. “As we will be seeing them for the better part of 2016, they’re going to feel a lot like the true beginning of the presence of these ships here.”
More will soon follow.
“We’re looking to be pushing one out every six to seven months,” Lockheed-Martin spokesman Joe Dougherty said. “The Sioux City, LCS-11, has a tentative launch date of December of this year.”
The Sioux City will be followed by the Wichita, LCS-13, that is scheduled to be launched in May 2016, and the Billings, LCS-15, set to hit the water in December 2016, Dougherty said.
The touted source of the ships’ strength, like Sampson’s hair, is their ability to switch mission packages from hunting submarines to clearing mines or engaging surface targets — what the Navy calls “modularity.”
However, that hair has been clipped from the design of the last 20 ships in the Navy’s total order of 52 after then secretary of defense Chuck Hagel called for a redesign of the LCS over concerns the ships were too lightly armored and lacked firepower.
The new ships won’t have interchangeable mission packages, but will return to a more traditional Navy concept of “multi-mission” — being prepared to handle multiple assignments with the ship’s onboard equipment.
““The frigate will provide multi-mission, anti-surface warfare (SUW) and anti-submarine warfare capabilities (ASW), as well as continuous and effective air, surface and underwater self-defense,” said Cmdr. Thurraya Kent, spokeswoman for the Navy’s Department of Research, Development and Acquisition.
In other words, swapping mission packages is out. Now, the ships will have a dedicated capability.
“LCS proponents made a lot of claims about modularity, but they haven’t panned out in practice,” said James Holmes, a former Navy officer and now a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College. “The idea that you could take a ship out of a battle zone, reconfigure it quickly, and have it zip back into the battle was an untried one, and I think it disappointed.
“Again: great in theory, not so workable in practice.”
In war games, the current LCS was confronted by a mock Iranian naval force. An LCS equipped with a surface warfare package made short work of a swarm of Iranian small boats attacking it.
Yet when the opposing force sent a squad of small submarines, the LCS had to return to a port to have its mission package swapped out.
At best, it takes three days to switch modules.
However, the ships are fast and, as their name implies, can operate close to shore because of their shallow draft — a major objective for today’s Navy leadership.
“It’s going to allow us to operate in the narrower, shallower waters that are critical to things like international commerce and freedom of navigation,” Young said. The LCS variant (coming to Mayport) has a draft of about 14 feet, so it’ll be able to operate in significantly shallower waters than the bulk of our surface fleet operates in right now.
“In the Fifth Fleet area, the Strait of Hormuz, there are lots of narrow waterways around the world where the fleet commanders will want that capability.”
Electronically, it will be at the forefront of naval technology with superior intelligence gathering ability, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Young pointed to the modularity as a way to ensure the ships remain viable for years to come. “I think mission modules and modularity will allow us to refresh technology at a much faster rate than we’ve been able to in the past,” Young said.
Young likened the process to a 30-year-old aircraft carrier’s cutting edge planes.
The teeth of a carrier is its planes, and they can be taken on and off and upgraded or replaced, he said.
“You can use the same analogy for our mission modules,” Young said. “You’ll be able to refresh that technology while the mission modules are not actually embarked on the ship.
“So when we do put them to sea, we’ll always be putting to sea the latest and greatest sensors and weapons.”
Even if the ships are limited to a single mission package, Holmes still sees a role for the ships.
“I suspect what you’ll see is the first 32 LCSes used mostly in a single mode,” Holmes said. “Numerically speaking, we will have enough LCSs to replace the entire fleet of 11 mine countermeasures ships, plus 21 others for anti-submarine warfare or light surface-warfare missions or, for that matter, to act as minesweepers or minehunters.”
It remains unknown how many of the final, upgraded 20 frigates will be stationed at Mayport.
At least a portion of the first 32 ships will be retrofitted, but the Navy isn’t releasing that information yet.
Kent said an assessment and acquisition strategy has been sent to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
For the first 32 ships, only time and real-world deployments in waters around the globe will prove any advantage of modularity.
Holmes is skeptical.
“If we have the leisure to change out weapons packages, the logistics are favorable and the enemy doesn’t do something to foil our plans, then maybe we’ll reconfigure the fleet to fit the circumstances,” he said. “But the fleet of transformers — the fleet that reinvents itself on the fly — will probably remain in Hollywood for the time being.”