SAN DIEGO — The USS Fort Worth is slated to depart Monday for Asia, where it will operate largely out of Singapore for 16 months, the longest deployment of a U.S. Navy ship in more than 42 years.
Almost a year after the first littoral combat ship deployed to Singapore, contractors and crews have completed some 400 improvements to the ship and are finishing last-minute preparations, Navy officials said.
But the crew of 54, plus the 24-person aviation squadron, will swap out early next year, and that group will be replaced again late in 2015, said Cmdr. Ken Bridgewater, the ship’s commander. The crew will switch out a third time before it returns to San Diego. After 16 months, the Fort Worth will be replaced by the USS Freedom.
Navy officials told Reuters news service that this would be the longest deployment of a U.S. Navy ship since the carrier Midway was under way for 327 days in 1973. The Midway used one crew.
The Navy wants to keep the Fort Worth deployed for a long time to stress the Navy’s logistics capabilities, and understand where problems might arise.
The Freedom, which spent 10 months in Southeast Asia dealing with significant maintenance problems — the ship lost propulsion during a replenishment, and had issues with its steering water jets — also delivered humanitarian relief supplies to areas of the Philippines hardest hit by a 2013 typhoon.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican poised to head the Senate Armed Services Committee, has questioned the ships’ ability to survive attacks at sea.
The Pentagon is reviewing Navy recommendations on whether to upgrade the ships, modify them or switch to a different design. The decisions will be part of the fiscal 2016 budget request.
The Navy has taken advantage of the lessons learned on the Freedom’s maiden voyage and incorporated those and other changes into the Fort Worth — including different air compressors, fixes to cooling systems that experienced corrosion issues and a 15 percent increase in fuel capacity, in addition to cosmetic changes, the commander of the ship and the commodore of LCS Squadron 1 said.
The Fort Worth will be the first LCS to deploy with both an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter and an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter. The ship also has crew members and the necessary equipment for “visit, board, search and seizure” missions, to include anti-piracy operations.
The LCS is a fast ship with a shallow draft, which allows it to go into ports other Navy ships can’t access, Bridgewater said.
“We can go in and engage with a lot more partners and allies,” he said.
The Fort Worth uses water jets instead of traditional propellers, which allows the ship to “walk sideways,” pivot and get into tight spaces, Bridgewater said.
Capt. Randy Garner, commodore of LCS Squadron 1, said the ship offers extensive automation, which means it can do more with fewer people. Crews operate without any administrative tasks, so those costs have been transferred to supporting shore commands.
The ship’s design allows different “packages” of gear designed for different missions, Garner and Bridgewater said. The Fort Worth is loaded with the surface warfare package; the two other packages are still in the testing phases.
The surface warfare package includes two 30-mm gun systems, two 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats that can launch out of the back of the ship, and the two helicopters. The ship also has a 57-mm gun with a range of 10.5 miles to guard against small boat threats, Bridgewater said.
One of the advantages of the ship’s design is that the crew can switch out modules quickly, said Cmdr. Mark Haney, the ship’s executive officer.
“As long as you can put it in a conex box, you can put it on an LCS,” he said, standing just a stone’s throw from boxes with overflow berthing inside.
Navy planners view the LCS as a cheaper alternative to rotating a larger ship into the region. An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer generally has more than 300 crewmembers and requires more fuel, water and other resources. Operations and support normally make up about 70 percent of costs over a ship’s service life.
However, LCS critics question whether the originally envisioned savings will prove accurate.
The Navy planned the LCS to have a core crew of 40 sailors and mission and module crews of 15 to 20 sailors, according to a July Government Accountability Office report on the USS Freedom’s 2013 deployment to Singapore. It later increased that number after finding sailors were overworked and not getting enough sleep.
The Navy expects to have an LCS manpower study done next year, although the GAO report sees potential flaws in the findings.
“Manpower studies do not account for the issue of core crews relying on mission module crew and contractor ship riders to assist with their core crew functions,” according to the report.
The LCS class of ships consists of two variants, the Freedom and the Independence, which has a distinctly different hull. The Freedom variant team is led by Lockheed Martin. The Independence variant team is being led by General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works and Austal USA.
The ship is expected to do patrols, training and joint exercises around Singapore, the South China Sea and other areas of the 7th Fleet area of responsibility.