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First littoral combat ship arrives at Pearl Harbor

USS Freedom enters Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, March 11, 2013.

HONOLULU — The USS Freedom, an aluminum-and-steel warship that will chart the Navy's future in the shallows where shipping and people are prevalent, pulled into Pearl Harbor on Monday on its way to history as the first ship in its class to head to Singapore on rotational deployments.

The first littoral combat ship turned heads for another reason: Its four-color camouflage harks back to the "dazzle" patterns of World War I and II capital ships.

Four of the speedy, shallow-draft littoral ships are expected to move to Singapore with mission capabilities including theater security, mine countermeasures, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare.

A lot is riding on the "LCS," which Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last March said clearly was "going to be one of the backbones of the fleet," but has also attracted its share of critics who questioned its combat survivability and cost overruns.

With 52 littoral combat ships planned, the vessels eventually could be based in Hawaii, according to the Navy. In coming years, 16 of the ships will be in the Pacific Fleet area of responsibility, officials said.

"This ship's deployment lines up well with my priorities — this business of having credible combat capability forward where we can respond in a short period of time given the vastness of my area of operations," said Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Haney added that the San Diego-based Freedom "will work hand in hand with our allies, partners and friends in the western Pacific as she gets out to that area about a month from now."

The ships, with interior spaces that are 40 percent reconfigurable, are designed to defeat "anti-access" threats such as mines, quiet diesel submarines and fast surface craft, depending on the mission package that's aboard.

"We have put in a lot of effort, a lot of training, knowing that the end state, the end goal, is to get the ship forward-operating," said the Freedom's gold crew skipper, Cmdr. Timothy Wilke.

Wilke added, "Now we're finally in the race."

That race includes proving the ship's worth to its naysayers.

"Operating this ship and demonstrating what we can do, I think, will go a long way to try to explain where we fit in the U.S. Navy," Wilke said as the ship headed to Pearl Harbor for a three-day port call.

Freedom is expected to participate in the International Maritime Defense Exhibition in Singapore and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training series in Southeast Asia, the Navy said.

The ship will spend eight months in theater with an initial gold crew of 91 sailors who will be replaced midway through the deployment with a blue crew.

Two types of the ship are being built: the 378-foot Freedom variant with a steel mono-hull and aluminum superstructure, and the 419-foot Independence variant, an aluminum trimaran.

The ships' shallow draft — about 13.5 feet for the Freedom compared with about 30.5 feet for a destroyer — make them well suited for near-shore duty.

Combined diesel and gas turbine engines with steerable water jet propulsion push the ships to speeds of greater than 46 miles per hour.

On the down side, Bloomberg News recently reported that the price to build each ship had doubled to $440 million.

Combat survivability questions also remain. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Navy decided to design the ship to what it calls a "Level 1+" survivability standard, greater than current patrol craft and mine warfare ships but less than the Level II standard of Oliver Hazard Perry frigates.

"It's all a question of what you are putting the ship up against," Wilke said. He added that the Freedom "is designed mainly for littoral close-to-the-shore threats — and from that basis, we do have the survivability."

Among the ship's armaments are a rolling airframe missile launching system for air threats, a 57-mm bow gun and two 30-mm cannons pointing back aft.

"And I have speed — an incredible amount of speed," Wilke said. Being able to move out of or into an area very quickly is a tactical advantage, he said.

The "basic" crew includes 50 sailors, 19 sailors trained to conduct ship boardings with two 36-foot rigid-hull inflatable boats, an air detachment of 19 for the MH-60 helicopter, and three additional ensigns, officials said.

Naval Air Crewman 2nd Class Corey Ring, 24, said the shallow-draft ship encountered 6- to 10-foot seas on the way from San Diego.

"It's a little more of a roll and pitch with this ship compared to a frigate," he said. But he said he likes being on the Freedom. "It's a smaller crew concept. You kind of get that sense of family. Everyone works together."

Wilke said Naval Sea Systems Command approved the retro four-color camouflage after the ship's blue crew floated the idea.

Fire Control Chief Donnie Langford said he felt the past and present connect when the Freedom sailed past the Arizona Memorial and battleship Missouri.

"Looking at the Arizona Memorial and the Mighty Mo over there, and the paint job (on the Freedom) and the history of the paint job, it's been a long time since all these things were tied together, but it kind of connects the dots to World War II," Langford said.
 

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