The U.S. Navy's effort to develop and field the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) got more focused after the July 11 establishment of a single program executive office that combined ship and mission module development efforts under a single leader. Rear Adm. James Murdoch, a previous director of the LCS ship development office, is the new PEO LCS, returning after about a year of working on fleet maintenance.
Despite the recent award of several construction contracts for both LCS variants, the program remains under occasional fire from congressional opponents, spurred by high costs, program decisions sometimes seen as hasty, reports of corrosion on Austal USA's USS Independence (LCS 2), and superstructure and weld cracks on Lockheed Martin's USS Freedom (LCS 1).
Murdoch addressed a number of issues during a July 20 interview at his Washington Navy Yard headquarters.
Q. WHAT'S YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THE LCS PROGRAM RIGHT NOW?
A.Overall, the program is pretty healthy. The shipbuilding side has reached a place where we're into the contracts we want; we're in serial production with a stable design. Mission packages, we're getting in to the test phase. The challenge now is to put it all together.
Establishing a single PEO gives an end-to-end responsibility for the warfare capability to one guy. We'll have one organization covering three big themes: getting the shipbuilding in a stable march down the learning curve; testing the mission packages with all their components and then into the ship; and introducing it into the fleet.
I recognize the concerns that recently surfaced, but frankly these are all part and parcel of the challenges in building ships, and complex ships at that. Where there are issues, we're going to assess, analyze and fix 'em.
Q. LCS 1 HAD TWO STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS: PERSISTENT CRACKING IN THE ALUMINUM SUPERSTRUCTURE AND A WELD SEAM BREACH. HAVE THOSE BEEN FIXED?
A.There was about a 6-inch crack in a weld. I'm certainly not happy with it, but this is pretty normal for a new warship design, to have some sorts of issues. My personal perspective is we probably had fewer problems with both of these ships than I might have expected, based on past Navy experience.
All ships work in a seaway. Navy ships go faster, generally speaking, so there's more potential for stress and strain.
When I was working this program earlier, I would see workers putting more scantlings, stiffeners, longitudinal frame members and so forth, into the structure. I would typically ask, "What are you guys doing?" Well, they said, "We were reviewing the design and decided that, based on structural models, we need to put a little more in here." I think actually the designs came out pretty well.
The hull crack in Freedom was in a chine area. I'm pretty confident from the summaries that this was a weld defect, didn't do it right. There are miles of linear welds on the ship and this is six inches. Once again, I'm not happy about that. We've looked at other places in the ship, haven't found any problems we need to go repair. And we've beefed the design a bit in that particular area, added some additional structure around that break point. I think the crack issue is understood; we've addressed it.
Superstructure cracking, frankly, is not uncommon, especially in ships that have aluminum superstructures. Aluminum is lighter by weight, it has the strength to hold the ship together and is more resistant to oxidation corrosion, and you don't have to paint it. But it has to be treated more carefully in terms of its fatigue life. We have the technology to get that right.
This is not something that keeps me awake at night. There are things you worry about in every job, but that's not one of them.
The corrosion that's recently resurfaced on LCS 2, we were looking for this. We've looked at it on both designs.
It's not a different mechanism of corrosion than what's taking place on [other Navy ships]. Where you have different materials used between the propellers in the water jets and the hull of the ship, you have to do a variety of things to prevent one of those metals corroding in sea water.
We made design decisions on both of these ships with regard to where to put zinc anodes, where are we going to employ impressed current cathodic protection systems. We thought we got the design pretty right, but in this and in other areas, we said, first one we built. So we're going to go in and look at them periodically.
In LCS 2, we found inside the water jet tunnels the paint surface had degraded, and we started having pitting corrosion which was obviously galvanic. So we'll put some additional aluminum plating around the water-jet tunnel area so I can continue operations until I can get her into dry dock, which was a planned evolution.
There is any number of risks, quite a few of which just didn't materialize. I had people telling me the water jet impellers would experience a lot of cavitation, degrade rapidly and not make it to the post-shakedown availability. We've gone in and inspected those, and they're behaving much more on the favorable side of the predicted model than the unfavorable side. So there are things in the design that went very well, better than expected.
I think we did a pretty fair job on this design, especially given the amount of time we took on it. We didn't get it exactly perfect, but it came out pretty well. And the areas we need to go fix are pretty fixable.
Q. COMPARED WITH LAST YEAR'S PUBLIC RELATIONS EFFORT TO SHOW OFF LCS 1, THERE HAS BEEN A DEARTH OF NEWS ABOUT THE INDEPENDENCE (LCS 2). IT'S OPERATING FROM MAYPORT, FLA., RATHER THAN THE MAIN FLEET BASE AT NORFOLK. IT HAS YET TO MAKE A SIGNIFICANT CRUISE. THERE IS ALMOST NO WORD OF ITS ACTIVITIES, FEW PHOTOS ARE RELEASED, AND AUSTAL USA, UNLIKE LOCKHEED MARTIN AND LCS 1, HAS BECOME VERY RELUCTANT TO TALK ABOUT THE SHIP. THE ONLY NEWS THAT'S OUT THERE IS ABOUT CORROSION PROBLEMS. IS LCS 2 BROKEN?
A.There's nothing wrong with LCS 2. Fair observations, I wouldn't dispute you. You could certainly draw the conclusion that you haven't heard about the ship, then, gosh, is there something wrong with it? That's why I'm here. I believe the fleet introduction of these ships is very important. When it comes to these ships, nobody cares like I care.
I guess I agree with you. LCS, in the press, has kind of gone sinker, and maybe we shouldn't have let that happen.
LCS 2 has been doing things. Vice Adm. Richard Hunt, commander of Naval Surface Forces, was on board last month. He watched them maneuver an unmanned vehicle around the mission bay, put it in the twin-boomed extensible crane, launch it from the ship. They operated it, drove it back into the recovery system, picked it up and brought it back aboard the ship. It was the first underway day he had in his new job, on the Independence. So why aren't we getting that message to you? I don't know.
Q. DO THE SHIPS' MISSION BAY HANDLING SYSTEMS WORK?
A.Not only have we launched and recovered and operated an unmanned surface vehicle, we've also recently launched and recovered the remote multimission vehicle. Handling is part of the main battery. I'm very pleased with where we are on both of these.
But we're building these ships at the affordable end of the spectrum here, so over time I expect the industry guys to get smart on these crane systems and provide me something they can procure affordably, that sailors can operate, that are reliable and maintainable.
I'm not looking for continual improvement in terms of being able to lift more weight. Both are pretty good. I'm always looking for something that makes the ship more affordable.
Q. ARE THERE ANY SIGNIFICANT RELIABILITY ISSUES WITH EITHER HANDLING SYSTEM?
A.Not to my knowledge. Both systems are solid designs. I'm pretty confident in the systems.
Q. WHEN CAN THE FLEET EXPECT AN OPERATIONALLY EFFECTIVE, DEPLOYABLE, NON-TEST LCS WITH A MISSION MODULE?
A.By the end of 2012, I would like to have that mine warfare mission package testing over and done with. I need that to wrap that up and the testers need to do all their reporting. The real question you're asking me is, when does LCS 1 go out on its first all-operational cycle of deployment? My suspicion is that would be more likely to occur sometime in 2013.
BANGKOK - Thailand's army has grounded a number of its helicopter fleet, a military official said July 25, after a string of deadly chopper crashes that some have blamed on angry jungle spirits.
On July 24, three troops were killed when a Bell 212 helicopter went down in Phetchaburi province, southwest of Bangkok - one of three helicopter crashes in the area in little over a week that have together claimed 17 lives.
The crashes had spooked the superstitious even before it emerged that the third chopper had carried the bodies of those killed in the second helicopter, which had in turn been sent to retrieve those who died in the first crash.
"It is a big loss," Maj. Gen. Pitaya Krajangwong, the Thai army aviation commander, told a press conference in the capital.
He said the first two crashes, involving a Huey and a Black Hawk helicopter respectively, seemed on initial investigation to be caused by bad weather, while in the third incident the Bell 212 appeared to have a tail rota fault.
"The other 20 Bell 212 choppers will not fly until they are well-checked.
Once it is found that there is nothing wrong, they can go back to missions," he said, adding that a formal 30-day investigation into the crashes would be held.
The Bell lost on July 24, which was travelling from Bangkok to a task force base in Phetchaburi, had a day earlier transported bodies from a Black Hawk helicopter crash on Tuesday, in which nine people were killed.
The victims were eight military personnel and a television cameraman.
The Black Hawk was found in dense forest just across the border in Myanmar on July 22, three days after it disappeared during a mission to recover the bodies of five soldiers killed in the Huey helicopter accident on July 16.
The strange sequence of events has sparked a range of theories among those living in jungle-heavy areas close to the crash sites, according to Thai media.
A number of military and civilians "believe bad omens are to blame" and have cited earlier predictions by a fortune teller, the English-language Bangkok Post reported July 25.
"The guardian spirits here are very fierce," said one villager quoted by the paper.
The Thai Rath newspaper said the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment planned to hold a ceremony on July 25 to pay respect to spirits believed to be in the jungle.
Top army brass and politicians, including outgoing premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, attended a Buddhist ceremony for the victims of the Black Hawk crash in the western province of Kanchanburi on Monday.
Army chief Gen. Prayut Chan-O-Cha was initially due to travel to the service by helicopter but changed his plans and went by car, Pitaya said.
WASHINGTON - The top U.S. military chief warned July 25 that U.S.-Pakistan military-to-military ties were at a "very difficult" crossroads, allowing that a path to progress on that front was not yet clear.
President Barack Obama's administration recently suspended about a third of its $2.7 billion annual defense aid to Pakistan in the wake of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden near the country's main military academy. But it assured Islamabad it is committed to a $7.5 billion civilian assistance package approved in 2009.
"We are in a very difficult time right now in our military-to-military relations," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told a press briefing billed as his last before retirement.
Despite the strain, Mullen said "I don't think that we are close to severing" those ties.
And the retiring admiral said he hoped the two nations would soon find a way to "recalibrate" those ties.
Still, Mullen acknowledged: "we need to work through the details of how this (recalibration) is going to happen."
Top U.S. officer Mullen has suggested that Pakistan's army or Inter-Services Intelligence agency likely killed journalist Saleem Shahzad, who had reported about militants infiltrating the military.
On a visit to Washington, Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf staunchly defended the army and ISI. He denied any Pakistani support for bin Laden, who apparently moved to the garrison town of Abbottabad while Musharraf was in power.
U.S. officials have long questioned Pakistani intelligence's ties with extremists, including Afghanistan's al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network and the anti-Indian movement Lashkar-e-Taiba that allegedly plotted the grisly 2008 assault on Mumbai.
Adm. James Winnefeld, nominated to be the number two U.S. military officer, described Pakistan as a "very, very difficult partner."
"We don't always share the same worldview or the same opinions or the same national interest," Winnefeld told his Senate confirmation hearing last week.
Obama has nominated Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Dempsey is due to succeed Mullen, who is retiring at his term's end Sept. 30.