By David Alexander
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Sunday toured the new combat ship at the leading edge of the U.S. military's pivot to Asia, a modest little vessel whose development over the past decade has been beset by cost overruns, mishaps and criticism.
Hagel spoke with the crew of the USS Freedom, the Navy's first Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a class of shallow-draft vessels built to patrol in coastal waters while tackling threats like mines, quiet diesel-electric submarines and other systems used to deny access to big warships.
"You're all making history out here," Hagel told the crew, speaking over the ship's public address system because there we're no spaces aboard big enough to hold the 91 crew plus guests. "What you represent to our country and our partnerships in the Asia-Pacific, I don't think can be overstated."
The visit, the first by a defense secretary to an LCS outside a construction yard, came just a month after the vessel began a forward deployment to Singapore and promptly fell victim to a coolant system problem that forced it to port for repairs.
The incident was symptomatic of problems that have plagued the $37 billion LCS program since it was conceived a dozen years ago and have prompted critics to question whether plans to build 50 of the ships should be slowed or substantially curtailed.
But analysts and supporters of the program say the LCS is a serious effort to rethink the way the Navy builds, staffs and maintains ships, and many of its problems stem from having to work out many new ways of doing things.
"It's had every problem you could possibly imagine, partly because it tried to do every innovation you could think of, all at one time," said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank outside Washington.
Some of the vessels have had corrosion problems, hull cracks or other structural issues. Critics have questioned the ship's small crew size, expressed doubts about its survivability in combat and warned it would be ineffective against anything bigger than a speed boat.
But Rear Admiral Thomas Rowden, the U.S. Navy's director of surface warfare, said despite the many criticisms, 3,000-ton ships - similar to a Coast Guard cutter - were the right size vessel for the kinds of forward-deployed missions the Navy undertakes when it engages partners in Asia and Africa.
Destroyers and cruisers tend to be too big for effective training and crew swaps, so the best way to build cooperative operational ability is to go with a ship "of similar size and punch" to the ones your partners use, he said.
"I think that it's important that we recognize that what we have with LCS is in fact a brand spanking new ship with a bunch of brand spanking new concepts to put forth combat capability forward," Rowden told Reuters in an interview last week.
"I think as we go forward we're going to find out that the criticism of LCS is going to start to go down significantly and the value to the fleet commanders and to the combatant commanders out there is going to be significant. But we've got to get some water under the keels on these babies" he said.
The Navy is building two variants of the ship. The USS Freedom variant, designed by Lockheed Martin, is a semi-planing steel monohull built at Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. The other, a General Dynamics design, is an aluminum trimaran hull built at Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, Alabama.
From early days of the program, the focus was on trying to produce an inexpensive ship, both to build and to operate.
"We were designing these cruisers and destroyers and things that were spiffy as hell but were costing us several billion dollars a copy," Goure said.
"In a sense we built ships, modern ships, pretty much the way they were built four or five hundred years ago," he said. "The idea behind the Littoral Combat Ship was to try to bring more modern construction management, integration, networking, approaches to the construction of ships."
The ships were designed to be small versatile vessels, capable of traveling over 40 nautical miles per hour with flight decks to launch unmanned drones or helicopters. They have a large space that can be reconfigured to hold different modules of sensors, weapons and other assets depending on their mission.
The aim was to build the vessels in a commercial yard for $220 million apiece, but the price estimate was hugely optimistic and has since ballooned to between $550 million and $650 million apiece.
The modular design gives the ships their versatility. Current plans call for mission modules for anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasures and surface combat, but analysts and officials say the possibilities for new modules are endless.
"The fact that you can take a ship that's configured to hunt and kill submarines and within less than a week ... reconfigure it to hunt and kill mines ... is kind of mind-blowing," Rowden said. "As the enemy or the threat evolves, we have the ability to agilely and affordably adapt."
Goure likened the modules to the tiny software applications - "apps" - that add value to an iPhone or tablet computer.
"What you'd love to have is a Littoral Combat Ship apps store … with people designing technology, not just apps, but pieces of hardware so if somebody comes up with a really neat sonar buoy ... you'd love to just be able to swap it out."
"That's the concept behind this. And it's groundbreaking for big systems for the military," he added. "They don't build anything that way. They are in that sense 30 years behind where the modern industrial world is."
The LCS ships also use entirely different systems for crew training and maintenance, part of the effort to keep the crew size small. Those changes plus the other innovations have inevitably have led to hitches and bugs that have to be worked through, Rowden said.
The value of deploying the USS Freedom to Singapore this year is to put a ship in the water and begin to find those problems and deal with them, he said, adding that it would ultimately pay dividends.
"I think these are tremendously capable warships, I really do," he said. "I think the value to the fleet commander, the value to the strike group commander, and the value to the Navy and the nation will be proven as we press forward."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)