USS Detroit: A new breed of ship for U.S. Navy

$440M highly adaptable combat vessel to drop anchor in namesake city

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Marinette, Wisconsin — Imagine it this way: It’s like a jet ski powered by Rolls-Royce engines that’s longer than a football field, with room for a helicopter and 98 friends. It’s also not something to mess with.

The new USS Detroit, classified as a littoral combat ship (LCS), will arrive in its namesake city by Friday as the $440 million vessel will be commissioned during an Oct. 22 ceremony following a week of festivities and tours along the Detroit River near the Renaissance Center.

Yet even before its arrival, the Freedom-class ship has already brought an uncommon honor to Detroit.

“The fact (Detroit) has had six ships named after it — most names in the Navy are rarely given more than once or twice,” said historian Mark Evans, who works with the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The USS Detroit is part of a new controversial breed of naval vessel, which operates with speed, agility and is designed to work in shallow waters. It is, according to one of its designers, “not like anything else out there.” It’s designed to be quickly modified, even at sea, to take on different missions.

Five previous Navy ships may have carried the Detroit name, but no prior iteration has moved like this one can. So says Ben Capuco, chief naval architect with Gibbs & Cox Inc., the firm that designed the Freedom-class ship.

“This is a very unique vessel in terms of its combination of speed, flexibility and maneuverability,” he said.

Out on the USS Detroit’s forecastle or at the helipad, the ship has the look of larger Navy vessels but a feeling that everything is compressed.

Inside, gray paints, narrow walkways and maximized use of every inch of space will likely remind veterans of ships gone by.

Its weapon systems lack the visual impact of a battleship’s massive main batteries, yet the weaponry makes her more than capable of defending herself, according to top officer Cmdr. Michael Desmond.

Having served aboard the earliest LCS ships, Desmond said he likes what he has in the USS Detroit. So far, four LCS Freedom variants have been delivered to the Navy.

“This ship is highly maneuverable, highly capable, and it’s awfully fun to drive,” Desmond said.

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The U.S. Navy pulls back the curtain on its latest ship — one that bears a familiar name. The USS Detroit is a littoral combat ship designed to operate and thrive in shallow waters near the coast. It is all about speed and maneuverability. Daniel Mears / The Detroit News

A highly versatile vessel

In the year following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Navy initiated a design competition for a new kind of focused-mission ship.

“It was to be a small, very fast ship that could work close to the shore, handle multiple mission packages and be reconfigurable,” Capuco said. The specs called for something adaptable — a new kind of military ship for non-traditional kinds of warfare.

Capuco and his design team came up with something that could get into areas larger, traditional naval vessels wouldn’t risk entering. Despite being 389 feet in length with a displacement of 3,400 metric tons, the USS Detroit and other Freedom-class ships have a draft of 13.5 feet.

Shoals, inlets, rivers and shallow ports that were once off-limits are now accessible. And with a top reported speed of 45 knots, and the ability to turn around within its own length, the USS Detroit will be able to get in and out quickly.

Such speed and agility are the byproduct of a state-of-the-art propulsion system.

“This is the first ship of its size for the Navy to have water jets for propulsion,” Capuco said. “It has some very large gas turbine engines — Rolls-Royce engines — the same as a (Boeing 777) plane.”

At full throttle, those engines can force nearly 2 million gallons of water through its four water jets in a minute — enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 20 seconds.

The USS Detroit complements its ability to get in and out of shallow or narrow waters with its ability to bring all manner of equipment and personnel along for the ride.

“The LCS was meant to go in at the pointy end of operations near shore and very specifically take care of a specific problem — a single thing at a time,” said Sean Patton, director of Lockheed Martin’s littoral ship systems. “It would be tailored to perform that mission.”

Depending upon mission needs, the ship can be outfitted with different modules that include:

■Manned aircraft, such as a helicopter and flight crew

■Manned and unmanned watercraft

■Sensor equipment

“Essentially, the whole back end of the ship is a lot of open space,” Capuco said. “We’ve designed it so you can launch and recover boats off a ramp that comes down from the back end of the ship. We can move large mobile (vehicles). It’s even capable of bringing wheeled vehicles on board the ship and bringing them off as well.”

That kind of adaptability extends to the ship’s personnel. Typically, two core crew complements of 50 sailors rotate during regular operations usually for about four months. Another 25 crew members can be added as required for specific missions.

While a combat vessel, the USS Detroit is largely a defensive ship. Its makeup and design rely on avoiding fire more than being able to sustain it. And its weaponry, including a 57mm deck gun, missile system and countermeasures, are made to ward off attack.

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Critics: Program has issues

Development of the Freedom variant of LCS ships has not come without issues. First and foremost is their cost.

Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor on the project, and the ships are being built by Marinette Marine Corp. in Marinette, Wisconsin. When the project first came off the drawing board, the estimated cost for a single ship was roughly $220 million. Now that cost is $440 million.

Lockheed Martin spokesman John Torrisi defended the program, saying the company is “executing within the Navy’s budget.”

“With each ship produced, the team is increasing efficiency and working to drive down costs,” he said.

Since the LCS program was first conceived, there have been differing opinions of just what this new breed of ship should be. In the post-9/11 atmosphere, a ship tailored to shallow water incursions and adaptability seemed prudent for the war on terror. But in the interim, new concerns have risen about more traditional naval threats in the form of China and Russia.

Critics contend the ship may no longer be what the U.S. Navy needs. Amidst that changing environment, the Freedom class has been adjusted to add a frigate variant — more heavily armored and armed — out of concerns over its “survivability” in combat.

Changes between conception and production are not uncommon in military projects, according to Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, who targeted critics in a written statement this summer.

“What bemuses me most ... is how some are surprised when things do not go according to plan with ‘early adopted’ platforms,” he wrote. “Our Navy’s history contains many examples of procurement efforts that encountered strong headwinds.”

After naming several projects, from early frigates in the late-1700s to more recent classes of cruisers and destroyers that overcame early problems, Swift wrote: “I am convinced the LCS/frigate program will be similarly vindicated.”

Despite that optimism, the Navy’s approach to developing its LCS ships has also been questioned. While Lockheed has been building Freedom variants in Marinette, General Dynamics has been building Independence variant LCS ships in Mobile, Alabama.

Designwise, they are different. The Freedom class is a single-hull ship made of steel while the Independence class is a multi-hull made of aluminum. The Navy’s approach called for each contractor to build several ships, at which time a selection would be made and the losing program would be “down-selected” — eliminated in favor of the other.

In a report on LCS production submitted to Congress in June, Ronald O’Rourke, an independent specialist in Naval affairs, summed up the program’s issues.

“The LCS program has been controversial over the years due to past cost growth, design and construction issues with the lead ships built to each design, concerns over the ships’ survivability (i.e., ability to withstand battle damage), concerns over whether the ships are sufficiently armed and would be able to perform their stated missions effectively, and concerns over the development and testing of the ships’ modular mission packages,” he wrote.

“The Navy’s execution of the program has been a matter of congressional oversight attention for several years.”

Once out of production, Freedom engine issues have resulted in three of the new ships having to return to port within the last year.

But David Singer, an associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of Michigan, said changes and cost overruns can often be part of the process in military projects that take years to complete and have specs changed along the way.

And it’s all in pursuit of a product that will put the U.S. far ahead of other nations by the time it’s completed.

“The reality is you’re trying make a product (where) at the same time you’re developing the research and development to make that product,” he said. “You don’t want the products you produce now to even be close to our adversaries. That’s not the goal.

“One of the reasons our military is so strong is because we are so much better than anyone else. So you’re trying to design a very complex product with technology that hasn’t been developed yet and an adversary that’s (always) changing.

“The goal is not to be in a fair fight.”

JLynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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