By Rear Adm. Charlie Williams
Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific
Commander, Task Force 73 (CTF 73)
Singapore Area Coordinator
After her first full year operating forward, it’s time to pause and examine – and, I dare say, appreciate – what USS Fort Worth has accomplished during her maiden overseas deployment.
On Nov 17, 2014, Crew 104 sailed Fort Worth across the Pacific from San Diego to Singapore, via stops in Hawaii, Guam and Jakarta, Indonesia, charting a new course for Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) rotational deployments. Fort Worth’s arrival in 7th Fleet was a greatly anticipated day, and for good reason. Expectations across our Navy were high for this deployment, and our partners and allies throughout the region were all looking forward to operating with LCS – something I was hearing at every stop I made in the region in the months leading up to her arrival.
Amongst the many goals we set for Fort Worth’s rotational deployment to Singapore, three principal ones captured my focus and have maintained it throughout: expand LCS operational reach; increase the ship’s reliability and adopt an expeditionary maintenance philosophy; and normalize LCS deployments, or, said another way, operate and maintain her just like any other 7th Fleet deployer.
With a full year of operating forward under her belt, Fort Worth continues to simply knock the ball out of the park. She has proven herself in a variety of mission areas, she has proven the ship’s reliability, and she has demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability of the ship as originally designed. A quick summary: through the course of three crew swaps with more than 400 Sailors, Fort Worth has operated from the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea, through the South China Sea to the East China Sea and throughout Northeast Asia, all while participating in nine bilateral and multilateral exercises with partners and allies from Korea to India and many places in between. She has conducted 12 port visits – spent more than 200 days underway – all while making every single commitment on time – and in every regard has earned her stripes as a 7th Fleet deployer!
Expanding Operational Reach.
As Fort Worth’s deployment began, the team in Singapore – primarily the operators in Task Force Seven Three and Destroyer Squadron SEVEN – were determined to push the envelope in terms of where LCS would operate. This included routine 7th Fleet ops in Northeast Asia, which is where Fort Worth found herself in February, 2015 as part of Exercise Foal Eagle with the Republic of Korea Navy. Of course the exercise and the integration into the CTF-70 and CDS-15 teams were interesting, and both proved successful. Fascinating, however, was the transit from Singapore to Korea – a transit started by LCS Crew 103 in her first week after the initial crew swap and having relieved Crew 104.
While transiting the South China Sea en route Korea, Fort Worth came across a frigate from the People’s Liberation Army (Navy), and for the first time conducted Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) communications. Great professionalism displayed by the crew, especially given the nature of a crew swap: unlike deployments when I was a JO, which included a month long transit and plenty of time to review the policies and procedures in our future operational area, this LCS crew had almost literally helicoptered into the theater, took possession of their ship and commenced ops at sea. Expected? Absolutely. Also a clear signal that our LCS training pipeline is delivering rotational crews who are ready to execute dynamic and complex missions.
Fort Worth continued on to the Korean peninsula where she chopped over to Destroyer Squadron FIFTEEN, and proceeded to demonstrate the maneuverability and agility of the LCS in a space constrained, multi-platform environment working alongside destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. This initial sail, the furthest ever LCS operations away from Singapore, served as a great precursor to what was to come later that fall.
Reliability and Expeditionary Maintenance.
I’m a firm believer that operational reliability builds on itself. In Fort Worth’s case, early success generated tangible momentum that allowed us to further explore and realize the potential of LCS. What constitutes success for a deployed ship and crew? I’d start with seizing opportunities to operate in unplanned, real world environments and being reliable enough to do just that. Fort Worth’s opportunity came literally upon her arrival in Singapore on Dec 29, just after the tragic crash of Air Asia flight QZ8501 in the Java Sea; instead of starting her planned two-week maintenance availability, the crew made immediate preparations to embark a Mobile Dive and Salvage Unit (MDSU) with a side-scan sonar system and deploy to the Java Sea to support our Indonesian partners in the search for the Air Asia flight.
To execute this mission, a long-planned maintenance period was delayed for more than two weeks until Fort Worth completed her tasking. This was supposed to have been her first planned maintenance following the transit from San Diego to Hawaii, from there to Guam and Indonesia, and finally to Singapore. Instead, because the ship and crew had already demonstrated their engineering readiness, leadership didn’t hesitate to task them to the SAR mission, and Fort Worth joined USS Sampson under CDS-7 in a two ship SAG. The MDSU team’s embarkation combined with the 11 meter RHIBs resident in the embarked SUW Mission Package proved an extremely capable addition to the SAR efforts, and Fort Worth’s ability to respond to this tragedy made a profound statement about LCS reliability.
We learned during Freedom’s deployment that operational reliability and flexibility were not going to be realized by relegating all LCS maintenance to Singapore. Adopting the principles of Distributed Logistics, the team planned Fort Worth’s second significant maintenance availability to take place in Sasebo, Japan, allowing the ship to stretch her legs, get refreshed in a maintenance period and then continue operating. This Preventive Maintenance Availability (PMAV) in Sasebo proved exactly on the mark, and represents a capability we will replicate in other locations in the AOR.
Along those lines, in the coming months we will test a new concept in LCS sustainment: bring the maintainers to the ship, instead of driving the ship to a location to accomplish maintenance. We’ll do this in a walk-run process by demonstrating the capability in Singapore, bringing the personnel and equipment to perform maintenance to Fort Worth via the USNS Millinocket (T-EPF-3). There are hurdles to overcome, of course, but if successful, this concept will open up a whole new realm of possibilities in determining where and when to fit in the periodic maintenance required in an extended rotational deployment.
Being Treated Like any other Deployer.
Seventh Fleet deployers do several things as a matter of routine: they operate a lot, and throughout the AOR; they engage with partners and allies in a variety of missions; and they push the edge of our war fighting capacity, always working to refine our tactics, techniques and procedures. Fort Worth has proven herself every bit a regular deployer, from the UAV ops she conducted during CARAT with the Republic of Singapore Navy (our MQ-8B Fire Scout, their Scan Eagle) to her Maritime Counter SOF work with the ROK Navy; from advanced Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) operations with the Indonesian Navy, to increasingly complex gunnery exercises with the Philippine Navy’s ex-Hamilton-class cutters, and numerous deck landing qualifications during each CARAT phase.
Equally valuable are the relationships fostered through Fort Worth’s presence in South and Southeast Asia. LCS is an ideal platform for hull-to-hull operations with our partners in this region. Beyond platform interoperability, LCS enables persistent presence and relationships by design – it can access ports and locations that larger ships cannot, especially in the case of our partners in South Asia.
One other thing that 7th Fleet deployers do routinely is adapt to changing requirements. That rang true again for Fort Worth this fall, when the 7th Fleet Commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, tasked Fort Worth to join the Theodore Roosevelt strike group and participate in Exercise MALABAR, alongside our Indian Navy partners and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force allies. So after completing CARAT Bangladesh, Crew 102 continued west to Chennai, India, where they represented 7th Fleet as the only U.S. ship in port for the harbor phase – again demonstrating flexibility in having LCS in the region – and a great opportunity to showcase LCS.
Fort Worth hosted two days of senior leader engagement for VADM Aucoin, while the crew conducted the harbor phase with their counterparts from India and Japan. The close relationships made that week set the tone for a successful sea phase in the Bay of Bengal, as far west as any 7th Fleet deployer is going to find herself operating.
Looking to the Future.
All of these milestones culminate a very successful first year for Fort Worth operating forward, but we can’t rest on our laurels. Just like the inaugural deployment of an LCS by USS Freedom (LCS 1), we’ve learned a great deal from having Fort Worth operate throughout 7th Fleet. And with more LCS arriving in the region soon, we need to keep applying those lessons learned and improving our own process along the way – a tooth-to-tail process to ensure we continue to learn from each rotational deployment.
Fort Worth’s broad scope of employment over the last year demonstrates that flexibility is an operational enabler for LCS. The technology and equipment in LCS is of course a critical piece to the ship’s success. But more important is the people, and the flexibility of the Officers, Chiefs and Sailors that enable us to meet the dynamic mission requirements of this region. Our people, both inside the lifelines and ashore, enable ships like Fort Worth. Now it’s our responsibility to maintain this momentum moving forward – as we set a course for multiple LCS rotational deployments in the near future.