Biden Faces New Shipbuilding Crisis; Must Move Fast And Kill Freedom Class LCS – Forbes

In a surprise, the U.S. Navy used the final hours of the Donald J. Trump Administration to set the troubled Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship on course for cancellation. A day before President Joe Biden’s Inauguration, just as the outgoing Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite released a videotaped farewell message from Wake Island, the Navy announced that, due to the discovery of a “latent” propulsion system design defect in every single Freedom class ship, the service will refuse to accept the delivery of any new Freedom class ships until the flaw in the ship’s propulsion system is fixed. Cancellation of the entire program is now the only viable way forward.

The Navy’s unprecedented class-wide sanction is enormously disruptive. A hold on vessel deliveries puts the Navy’s multi-billion-dollar fleet of ten commissioned Freedom class ships in disarray. It traps two near-completed littoral combat ships—the future Minneapolis-Saint Paul (LCS 21) and Cooperstown (LCS 23)—at Fincantieri’s Marinette Wisconsin shipyard, and puts the fate of four additional uncompleted Freedom class hulls in doubt. Thousands of workers and sailors depend on just how quickly—and creatively—the incoming Biden Administration can wind down this flawed shipbuilding program.

While Navy leadership lacks the intestinal fortitude to cancel the program outright, an opportunity to quickly axe the Freedom class may be something of a political boon for the new Administration. But time is of the essence. Without prompt and firm guidance from Biden’s incoming Pentagon leadership team, sustained long-term disruption of the Freedom class production line puts the popular and highly-anticipated Constellation class (FFG 62) Guided Missile Frigate Program at risk.

The Navy justified yesterday’s abrupt move against the Freedom class by formally identifying a long-suspected class-wide design flaw deep within the Freedom’s reduction gears, or “transmission”—a tough-to-replace part of the ship that is normally meant to last the life of the vessel. While the fault was only formally “announced” yesterday, the ship’s problematic propulsion system has long been a concern of observers both inside and outside the Navy. Savvy members of the Littoral Combat Ship community have worried about the viability of the Freedom class’ complex drivetrain for more than a decade. But those concerns were only realized last year, as deploying Freedom class ships collapsed under the strain and forced the Navy to begin formally zeroing in on what is, unsurprisingly, a serious class-wide design defect in the high-speed clutch bearings within the ship’s drivetrain. 

While the Navy appears outwardly committed to the Freedom class, keen observers knew something was coming. Rumblings of a class-wide problem had been circulating since late last year, soon after this author proposed cancelling the program. Last week, at the annual Surface Navy Association meeting, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday hinted that he “just had a meeting” the week before “on a key problem that we’re having with combining gears, as an example, on the Freedom-class.”

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Despite Happy Talk, The Fix Is Not In:

Despite the gritty, “we are going to fix those problems” optimism from the Chief of Naval Operations, the Freedom’s fix is not in. There is no viable path forward.

The Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship industrial team, led by prime contractor Lockheed Martin LMT , has sketched out a proposed solution, but the path forward is fraught with risk. A skeptical Navy is forcing Freedom class stakeholders to put the engineering fix through a battery of land-based tests as well as in-field tests aboard both the Minneapolis-Saint Paul (LCS 21) and Cooperstown (LCS 23). These steps alone will add months of delay to the troubled program, stressing the industrial base.

On the surface, optimism abounds. Overlooking well-articulated capacity concerns at the Nation’s shipyards, the Lockheed Martin industry team believes the transmission fixes, once validated, can quickly be rolled into eight of the ten currently commissioned Freedom class ships (the first two “prototype” Freedom class ships are likely to be retired early) over a series of months-long shipyard visits. 

But optimism is unwarranted. At this early stage, any proposed timeline is, at best, a guess. Too many variables are in play. If something—anything—goes wrong during land-based or sea-based testing, subsequent investigations and rounds of additional fixes and tests will take even more time. And, given that any new delays during testing will only lower the bar for the outright cancellation of this glass-jawed platform, analysis will be tremendously difficult. If the flawed Freedom class is allowed to fester, will be very hard for Biden’s new civilian leadership at the Department of the Navy to obtain unbiased information on the platform.  

Even if the proposed fixes are successful, fiscal shocks will echo throughout the Freedom class industrial base. Halting vessel deliveries is a contract action that likely halts progress payments for all the members of the Lockheed Martin-led production team. Even more worryingly, the Navy offered no information on how the repairs will be funded other than pointing at Lockheed Martin. If contested, those contractual questions may well end up in court, potentially toppling the already-stressed Freedom class industry team into chaos. 

Such disruption is normal for troubled Pentagon programs. But there is a limit. If problems with the Freedom class threaten to weaken the finances or disrupt the work schedule at the busy Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard, those problems will endanger the highly anticipated Constellation class (FFG 62) Guided Missile Frigate program. With construction of the first new frigate set to begin this year, the Navy will be loath to see the Freedom’s troubles harm their new, high-profile small combatant program. 

Pessimism is warranted. With high-profile production programs, the U.S. Navy has a very poor record of internally acknowledging, publicly recognizing and then quickly solving tough class-wide technical issues. In one example from ten years ago, photos forced the Navy to publicly acknowledge that the special hull treatment used to coat Virginia Class (SSN 774) nuclear attack submarines was debonding and peeling off the boats. While Navy stakeholders knew about the problem for years, the Navy, fearing any technical problems would upset their high-profile new sub program, kept quiet and let the Virginia class production-run proceed without a hitch. So, over the intervening decade, the Navy built more and more Virginia class submarines while confidently announcing fix after fix. And while one proposed coating solution after another have come and gone, tattered Virginia class submarines continue to pop up all over the world and Virginia class skippers continue to take on added tactical risk due to their boat’s degraded sound-dampening coatings.  

But the Freedom class littoral combat ships are not as valuable as Virginia class submarines. They can be—and must be—sacrificed. As Admiral Gilday has said, “These platforms have been around since 2008—we need to get on with it.” While he appears to be trying, the incoming Biden Administration should waste little time in offering indecisive naval leaders the extra guidance and backing they need to kill this deeply flawed program. Even if the Freedom Class goes away, the Navy has plenty of options to keep the industrial base—and the critical Constellation class Guided Missile Frigate Program—healthy.

If the Biden Administration moves quickly and frees the U.S. Navy from the Freedom class, the action would be met with universal bipartisan acclaim and be cheered throughout the Navy. It won’t be an easy process. But while nobody wants to kill an established program of record, there are enough options on the table right now that even the most committed members of the Freedom Class Littoral Combat Ship industrial base could walk away happy, ready to support new programs and relieved that their long naval nightmare is over.

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