Damaged USS Fort Worth has repairs on its horizon

The Navy’s littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, the first vessel to be named after the Texas city.
The Navy’s littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth, the first vessel to be named after the Texas city. AP

Six months after an embarrassing mishap in Singapore that damaged the USS Fort Worth, the ship is scheduled to return to San Diego this summer.

Its trip across the Pacific for an estimated $23 million in repairs and maintenance was announced in April. And while the Navy is officially standing by that timetable, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the ship’s sponsor, says Navy officials have suggested to her that repairs may still be made in Singapore, where it is docked, at a greatly reduced cost. That could mean a longer stay in Singapore’s Changi Naval Base.

The USS Fort Worth’s ailments come at a difficult time for the littoral combat ship program. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has ordered cutbacks in the number of the small, speedy ships, from 52 to 40, saying the Navy needed ships with greater firepower.

The littoral combat ship is a class of smaller, faster vessels that can get close to shore — littoral means along the shore. The Fort Worth had what the Navy describes as “an engineering casualty” in January while in Singapore.

A preliminary investigation found that the crew’s failure to add oil to lubricate a key mechanism, the combining gears, caused severe damage. The combining gears regulate the ship’s diesel and gas turbine engines — switching between them — to use optimum propulsion for high speeds or cruising speed. It will cost an estimated $23 million to repair and to do scheduled maintenance on the ship, though the Navy won’t say how much each costs. But the damage has already cost the ship’s commanding officer his job.

The Navy’s Pacific Fleet public affairs office announced in a news release March 28 that “Cmdr. Michael L. Atwell was relieved . . . due to loss of confidence.”

The Fort Worth has a new commanding officer, Cmdr. Michael Brasseur, and a new crew — they rotate out every four months — to make the six-week, 8,872-mile journey. Because of the combining gears damage, the ship will use its gas turbine engines — its high-speed mode, which requires more frequent and expensive refueling.

“They may be able to fix it in Singapore for less money,” said Granger in an interview. “That would be great. We’d get it back out.”

The ship, built by Lockheed Martin’s Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Wisconsin, will then undergo scheduled maintenance in San Diego for eight to 11 months.

A final investigative report on the January incident will soon be issued by the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, according to Lt. Clint Ramsden, Navy spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The initial review found that the damage was due to “operator error.”

Defense chief Carter cut the number of littoral combat ships in President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget proposal from 52 to 40 and ordered the Navy secretary to select a single builder. There are two LCS variations and two manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics.

In a firm memo to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last December that became public, Carter rebuked the Navy for focusing on increasing the number of ships and not on their capability as weapons systems.

“For the last several years, the Department of the Navy has overemphasized resources used to incrementally increase total ship numbers at the expense of critically needed investments in areas where our adversaries are not standing still, such as strike, ship survivability, electronic warfare and other capabilities,” Carter said in the memo.

Carter said the U.S. was still on track for a 308-ship Navy but wanted to switch to building a different, more armored ship. Littoral combat ships can carry two helicopters and have anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare systems and mine detection, but they are not heavily armed.

Mabus, the Navy chief, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the littoral combat ship was a “crucial part of our fleet.”

“We have got a validated need for 52 small surface combatants,” he said.

Mabus spokesman Capt. Patrick McNally told McClatchy, “The decisions about the number of littoral combat ships will be made by the next administration and by Congress.”

“The secretary of defense made the decision against the Navy’s wishes,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “This is a program with a big question mark on it.”

Former Navy commander Bryan McGrath, assistant director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Sea Power, said, “The problem is what it’s designed to do is no longer in fashion in the post-Cold War era. In 2016, we look at that speed as far less important since missiles and torpedoes can go a hell of a lot faster.”

Still, the program has support in Congress, which increased the number of littoral combat ships in the 2017 defense budget.

“We’re really behind in shipbuilding,” said Granger, vice chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, “especially for wars we’re fighting now.”

The USS Fort Worth

It is a Freedom-class littoral combat ship, the first vessel to be named after Fort Worth, Texas. It was christened by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the ship’s sponsor, and launched Dec. 7, 2010, then placed into service in 2012.

  • Length: 387 feet
  • Weight: 3,400 tons
  • Speed: 52 knots (about 60 mph)
  • Crew: 40-50 people
  • Cost: $475 million