By Capt. Fred Kacher
Commodore, Destroyer Squadron 7
Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 7 joined U.S. 7th Fleet’s forward deployed naval forces in late 2012, with one of our principal roles assigned as the tactical commander of littoral combat ships (LCS) rotationally deployed to Singapore, on behalf of my boss, Rear Adm. Charlie Williams, commander, Task Force 73.
Having served as the deputy commodore of DESRON 7, and now as its commodore, I’ve spent the past two and a half years working closely with LCS, to include the first-ever LCS deployment with USS Freedom (LCS 1) and the current deployment of USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). As members of my team stood on the pier at Changi Naval Base last week to welcome Fort Worth back to Singapore after two months away, now is a good time to reflect on just how far LCS operations have come in a short period and to grasp where LCS is headed.
It’s no secret that Freedom’s deployment had its challenges, but that’s old news. The real story today is how solidly Fort Worth is succeeding at-sea in her first deployment to the Asia-Pacific. Deploying from San Diego in November 2014, these past six months have seen the ship execute every mission and requirement on time, every time to include contributing unique capabilities in support of the search for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 and integrating the fleet’s first-ever hybrid air detachment that operates both the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system and MH-60R Seahawk helicopter. While these are genuine advancements, as a 25-year Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) operating in the most dynamic maritime region in the world, what’s most striking to me is how quickly Fort Worth integrated into the fleet and rapidly became a productive 7th Fleet asset during the ship’s two-month swing to Northeast Asia.
On February 17, LCS Crew 104 turned over to Crew 103 following a one-week inport crew swap in Singapore, marking the first forward deployed LCS crew swap under the 3-2-1 manning concept. Just a few days later, Fort Worth headed north to participate in Foal Eagle 2015, an annual U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) exercise. Along her transit she met other warships at-sea, practicing the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) with the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA(N)), another first for a LCS. Traveling the same shipping lanes where $5 trillion in trade passes each year, Fort Worth transitioned from Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, yet another “first” as an LCS had, at that point, never traveled so far north before.
Seasoned mariners know the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula in March are not kind, and both Fort Worth and Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers persevered through 12+-foot swells for much of the exercise. But the seas did not impede Cmdr. Matt Kawas, Crew 103 commanding officer, or his superb crew. Working alongside ROK Navy warships (another first), Fort Worth operated closer to shore than our own destroyers, using her draft and speed to her advantage in the littoral environment. The ship’s Surface Warfare Mission Package proved to be of particular value, with the MH-60R serving as a maritime air controller and the two 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB) bringing embarked U.S. Marines ashore.
The weeklong exercise was a huge step forward for our Navy and allowed us to better understand how we can use LCS in 7th Fleet and beyond. Further, as we look to future LCS configurations, there is considerable growth potential in the ship’s 11-m RHIBs and the Sailors with specialized training that operate them. Whether bringing Marines ashore or loading up divers and their side-scan sonar equipment, the sheer payload of the boats allows our forces to do more work and to do it more often because the 11-m RHIBs are significantly less susceptible than 7-m RHIBs to the rough seas that characterize the region.
One critique we’ve heard is that LCS requires more frequent maintenance avails. It’s true that the maintenance construct differs from the destroyers I grew up on and the one I commanded, but we’ve expanded the ship’s operational and maintenance flexibility on a number of fronts. For example, while Freedom spent a fair portion of her deployment inport due to casualties, the opposite is true of Fort Worth. In fact, Fort Worth proved in late December that maintenance can be pushed in response to emergent operational tasking, shifting its restricted availability (RAV) three weeks later in order to support the AirAsia flight without missing a step operationally.
LCS’ maintenance flexibility was again enhanced in mid-March when the ship hit another major deployment milestone by executing an expeditionary maintenance availability. Following exercise Foal Eagle and a short visit in Busan, South Korea, Fort Worth sprinted to Sasebo, Japan in less than 24 hours, where she conducted a weeklong and routine planned maintenance availability (PMAV). While Singapore will remain LCS’ hub for maintenance and logistics, as Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, Program Executive Officer for LCS, stated last week, the successful implementation of this expeditionary maintenance concept now means that LCS can operate at greater distances throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific and can stay out for longer periods of time.
Prior to Fort Worth’s return to Singapore last week, the ship also visited Da Nang, Vietnam for the sixth-annual Naval Engagement Activity (NEA) Vietnam. Under the leadership of my extraordinary deputy, Capt. H.B. Le, a Vietnamese-American himself who commanded a forward deployed destroyer out of Yokosuka, the sailors of Fort Worth and Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62), participated in an historic exchange with the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN). In just six years, our partnership with the VPN has grown from a simple port visit to a five-day engagement that includes a day of at-sea operations.
NEA Vietnam highlights what a wonderful platform LCS can be as we engage our maritime partners in the region in direct support of the Navy’s newly released maritime strategy. With her recent participation in NEA Vietnam, and her future participation in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) this summer, Fort Worth is providing the presence to build and maintain the relationships here that our nation requests of us – and our rising naval partners throughout Southeast Asia, who operate comparably-sized and crewed frigates and corvettes, are eagerly asking to work with LCS. Simply put, we believe that we are stronger when we engage our allies and partners during exercises, exchanges and port visits, and that is exactly what Fort Worth crews will do for most of the ship’s deployment.
LCS’ routine presence here means that we are far better able to spend the time and resources required to build regional maritime capacity. And we can build that ‘Network of Navies’ without always incurring the opportunity cost of advanced warfighting capabilities that a cruiser or destroyer represents. In my mind, that’s a significant advantage for the fleet commander as he or she looks to spread naval forces from the Arctic to Antarctica, and ranging across the Indian Ocean to the International Date Line.
As I write this, Fort Worth is currently conducting her second RAV before heading back out to sea for a few more weeks with Crew 103 embarked. We’ll reach the midway point of Fort Worth’s deployment in May, and around the same time, the ship will welcome aboard senior naval leaders from around the world during the International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX) 2015 and the Shangri-la Dialogue. Afterwards, Crew 102 will take the reins and lead Fort Worth as she participates in most of the 2015 CARAT season to include engaging seven of the nine nations we operate with as part of the exercise series.
We’ve made great strides in terms of LCS’ potential in a short period of time. We’ve learned how to employ the ship during warfighting operations and also have a better grasp of how the maintenance requirements can be flexed. What’s equally exciting is that our partners want LCS here and are enthusiastic about the chance to work together at-sea with the ship. They understand – perhaps in a way we do not back home – that with LCS in Southeast Asia, when a need emerges, U.S. ships don’t have to come from somewhere else – they are already here.
So it’s no surprise when I visit my counterparts during exercises and operations throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific when I am asked early in the conversation, “When is LCS coming here?” It’s a question I expect to hear even more this May and I look forward to standing on board Fort Worth at Changi Naval Base as the ship’s great crew gives them a glimpse of the future.
It’s a future that in a very short time will include a mix of four Freedom and Independence-class LCSs darting in and out of Singapore, simultaneously participating in CARAT and high-end warfighting exercises. And that’s a good thing because with the U.S. Navy operating throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and with multiple ships like LCS out and about, we are providing our leaders even more flexibility and capability as we contribute to the stability and security of a region that may very well shape the 21st century.