The First Littoral Combat Ship Has Been Decommissioned After Just 13 Years Of Service (Updated)
The Navy plans on retiring more Littoral Combat Ships in the coming months, long before their official design lives have expired.
The axe has finally fallen on the first of the U.S. Navy’s problematic Littoral Combat Ships, with the decommissioning of the USS Freedom (LCS-1) after a less-than-stellar career lasting just 13 years, during which it was mainly used as a test and training vessel. The removal of the Freedom from the fleet continues a process of retiring these warships, which begun with the former USS Independence (LCS-2) being decommissioned on July 31, and plans are meanwhile afoot to potentially deactivate another three Freedom-class ships—and one Independence-class vessel—by March next year.
The decommissioning ceremony for Freedom, the lead ship of its class, took place yesterday at Naval Base San Diego, California. COVID-19 restrictions meant it was a closed-doors event, but it seems possible the fanfare surrounding the decommissioning would have been muted in any case, with both LCS classes having suffered a catalog of problems and the service finally having run out of patience with at least a portion of the fleet.
Nevertheless, retired Rear Admiral Donald Gabrielson, the former commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Southern Command/Commander, U.S. Fourth Fleet — and the commanding officer of the Freedom’s 2008 commissioning crew — highlighted the warship’s achievements:
“I have never in my life seen or served alongside a more capable, dedicated, devoted, talented, and inspiring group of people than the sailors I served alongside with LCS and what I have watched in every day since,” said Gabrielson. “As we acknowledge this bittersweet moment, I hope we’ll all remember that this ship was a vehicle to learn and innovate by doing and to make real progress in a short amount of time, and that doesn’t happen with other ship concepts.”
At the time of its decommissioning, the Freedom had a crew of nine officers and 41 enlisted sailors. Built in Marinette, Wisconsin, by Fincantieri Marinette Marine, the warship had originally been commissioned in November 2008.
Operational limitations meant that Freedom deployed only once in its career, otherwise being primarily engaged in test and training duties. The first two examples of each subclass were completed to different standards than the subsequent examples, further reducing Freedom's operational relevance. According to Navy officials, it would have cost another $2.5 billion to make the first four ships —two from each class — combat-ready. That’s roughly the cost of buying four brand-new LCSs.
“The decommissioning of LCS-1 supports department-wide business process reform initiatives to free up time, resources, and manpower in support of increased lethality,” the Navy wrote in an official statement. “The LCS remains a fast, agile, and networked surface combatant, designed to operate in near-shore environments, while capable of open-ocean tasking and winning against 21st-century coastal threats.”
Despite that positive spin, the utility of the LCS remains hampered by its controversial mission modules, which were originally designed to be switched in and out of the hulls rapidly while in port, before the idea was abandoned, leaving each ship with a single module to be installed. As it stands, only the anti-surface warfare version of these modules is fitted on some of the hulls, with the anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures modules not yet available.
The Navy’s statement on the decommissioning of USS Freedom alludes to the costs that will be saved as a result, reflecting the higher-than-anticipated expenses involved in operating these warships. Indeed, it’s been reported in the past that the LCS is almost as expensive to run as the far more capable Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer.
At the same time, problems with the propulsion systems on the Freedom class have continued. In particular, this has affected the combining gear, which links the two main diesel engines to a pair of gas turbines to its water jet propulsion system. Having this machinery function properly is critical to the vessels being able to reach a speed of 40 knots, which was a requirement from an early stage in the program.
Meanwhile, despite the removal of earlier units in the two subclasses, production of the LCS continues. There are now 21 LCSs in service, following yesterday's decommissioning. These include nine of the Freedom class, of which there are five more under construction or in the process of fitting out, and one more example on order. There are also 12 Independence-class warships in service, with five more under construction or fitting out, and one more on order.
Problems with the drive train led to the Navy putting a pause in deliveries of Freedom class ships earlier this year.
Now, with the first ship in each LCS subclass having been decommissioned, the Navy has its eye on the deactivation of three Freedom-class ships, the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3), Detroit (LCS-7), and Little Rock (LCS-9), plus one Independence-class vessel, USS Coronado (LCS-4).
The service hopes to be rid of these next four vessels by March 22 next year, as part of its latest budget request for Fiscal Year 2022, but that will depend on Congressional approval.
Of the next vessels destined for disposal, LCS-7 and LCS-9 have been earmarked for decommissioning due to problems with the combining gear. As for LCS-3 and LCS-4, their retirement has been recommended due to the expense of upgrading them to a configuration that would provide commonality with other more recent LCSs.
If the Navy’s plans for these four ships are approved, they will be placed in “Out of Commission, In Reserve” status, meaning they could theoretically be reactivated if required.
While the Navy remains committed to building its troublesome LCS vessels, at the same time it is planning to introduce a new class of frigates, the FFG-62 Constellation class, with construction expected to begin on the first hull imminently. However, the new warships are not expected to enter service until the late 2020s, meaning there is still a requirement for the LCS, at least on paper, even if only as a stopgap measure.
As if to demonstrate growing confidence in the LCS vessels, the Navy has announced plans to deploy six LCSs before the end of this year. This would be a significant milestone for the ships, which have so far deployed only sporadically, with more than one of those cruises being interrupted by embarrassing mechanical failures. To this date, no Littoral Combat Ship has deployed to the Middle East, including to the tumultuous Persian Gulf, an area where these giant jet boats were supposedly designed to dominate.
There are also hopes that new capabilities will increase the operational value of the LCSs, including the planned addition of the Naval Strike Missile, or NSM, on all of the hulls. Thought has also been given to adapting the ships to suit the expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept, currently being developed by the Navy and Marine Corps. Some have suggested the LCS might be used in a role akin to a fast troop transport, to move small groups of infantry around the Indo-Pacific theater.
The decommissioning of the USS Freedom, coupled with the removal of the first of the Independence-class vessels, brings at least one chapter of the LCS saga to an end. At the same time, with a stated ambition to reach a total fleet size of 355 ships, the decision to remove any hulls prematurely that would help reach this total is not one taken lightly. While the Navy has not entirely given up hope in these warships, it seems clear that the service’s future priorities lie elsewhere.
Update, October 1: Following a request from The War Zone, the Navy has confirmed that the former USS Freedom will be placed in “Out of Commission, In Reserve” (OCIR) status, as is also planned for the other four LCSs that the service wants to withdraw. OCIR ships are stored in Bremerton, Washington.
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