A fitting cap on the Freedom-variant LCS

In an allegory to the tale of the 16 vessel class, the final monohulled Freedom-variant Littoral Combat Ship, the future USS Cleveland (LCS 31), was christened and launched last weekend at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine, Marinette, Wisconsin Shipyard.

A traditional (for the yard) side launch, while such events are always dramatic, this one proved even more so when PCU Cleveland was involved in a minor collision with a commercial tugboat that was helping her take to the water.

No injuries were reported, and damage to Cleveland was reportedly “limited” and above the waterline.

Even before the incident, the Navy had reported that “Follow-on ships are planned to be launched using a ship lift system,” which translates to the new Fincantieri-awarded USS Constellation (FFG-62) class frigates.

The future Cleveland is the fourth ship to be named in honor of the city of Cleveland, Ohio. Previous USS Clevelands were the World War I cruiser (C 19), the World War II light cruiser (CL 55), and the Vietnam-era amphibious transport dock (LPD 7), decommissioned in 2011.

Sadly, her class has been probably the most troublesome to the Navy in decades.

While the Navy originally wanted as many as 28 Freedom variants in 2005 (and a similar number of trimaran hull Independence-class LCS variants) to replace the 51 old Knox class frigates and 14 Avenger-class mine countermeasures ships, the program as a whole has proved such as let down that this has been capped at 16 Freedoms and 19 Indys.

While the Indys have had their own issues with mechanical failures and hull cracks, a series of propulsion hardware defects (particularly in the transmission and combining gear) led to the Freedoms having numerous high-profile breakdowns at sea that required extensive post-delivery repair and refit– a problem that is likely still not fully corrected.

This led to class leader USS Freedom (LCS-1) to be placed in mothballs in 2021 after 13 years of service, and the first nine vessels of the class (Fort Worth, Milwaukee, Detroit, Little Rock, Sioux City, Wichita, Billings, Indianapolis, and St. Louis) all show up on the Navy’s decommission wish list with planned lay-up dates as early as this year, even though the latter two ships are realistically just past their shakedown period.

While I’d love to see the vessels rebuilt to work properly, even if that meant just swapping them out to a humble diesel-electric plant that actually worked but dropped the speed down significantly, it may be for the best to sideline these albatrosses.

In related news, the Indys seem to be finally kind of hitting their stride and only the first two (Independence and Coronado) have been mothballed. Further, the two oldest that have not completed completed lethality and survivability upgrades– USS Jackson (LCS-6) and USS Montgomery (LCS-8), commissioned in 2015 and 2016, respectively– are now marked for foreign military sales as part of the decommissioning plan. 

A baker’s dozen is in active service, with USS Santa Barbara (LCS-32) just commissioned three weeks ago and the final four-pack set to join the fleet in a few years. 

The future USS Kingsville (LCS 36)— the 18th Independence-variant LCS and the first warship named for the town near Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas– will be christened during a 10:00 a.m. CST ceremony on Saturday, April 23, in Mobile, Alabama.

I’ve been to the commissioning of two of these thus far, including limited tours, and was impressed with the design even though I would like for them to be much better armed, especially when it comes to ASW and AAW.

Plus, they are increasingly getting outfitted with NSM anti-ship missiles and are seeing some real West Pac in USINDOPACOM deployments.

Moreover, their helicopter decks are huge for their size, allowing them to embark a lot of different packages. For instance, all these were recently aboard USS Montgomery (LCS 8):

Speaking of which, a group of shots taken by the “Scorpions” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 49 off San Diego earlier this month just captured four Indys at play off the coast in an ad-hoc surface action group. Reportedly the first ever LCS IPEX (integrated phase exercise) with a four-ship SAG. 

Four LCS underway, in early April 2023: USS Manchester (LCS 14), USS Kansas City (LCS 22), USS Montgomery (LCS 8), USS Mobile (LCS 26)

Four LCS underway, early April 2023: USS Manchester (LCS 14), USS Kansas City (LCS 22), USS Montgomery (LCS 8), USS Mobile (LCS 26)

Four LCS underway, early April 2023: USS Manchester (LCS 14), USS Kansas City (LCS 22), USS Montgomery (LCS 8), USS Mobile (LCS 26)

I have to admit, something like this, paired with a flag DDG for air defense and loaded up with full  MH60/MQ-8C air dets, could be of some actual use.

It’s an idea that has been around for a minute. As suggested in a 2021 USNI article by LCDR Christopher Pratt: 
An LCS’s offensive capability comes primarily from weapons organic to the LCS hull, the SUW mission package, and the aviation detachment’s MH-60S Seahawk helicopter. Deploying multiple SUW-configured LCSs in a SAG would increase the targeting radius of the ships’ weapons and the lethality of their combined aviation detachments.
Two mutually supporting LCS SUW mission packages could triple the integrated sensor coverage, increasing weapons employment range.6 Multiple LCSs could combine intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data from all SAG assets, including the embarked MH-60S Seahawks and the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aircraft systems. Equipped with a multisensor targeting/surveillance system and surface-search radar, the MQ-8 is a valuable scouting platform. Two Fire Scouts operating concurrently in separate sectors theoretically could increase the surveillance range by 300 nautical miles, feeding ISR data into a common operational picture.7 The MH-60S is equipped with a Multi-Spectral Targeting System well-suited for integration into the kill chain. Two MH-60Ss and two MQ-8s would increase surveillance capacity and over-the-horizon targeting capabilities for weapons such as the Naval Strike Missile.
And that’s just two LCSs working together. What if it is a four-pack or a six-pack?

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