Pivoting: First LCS sets sail for Singapore

The U.S. Navy’s first shallow-water littoral combat ship (LCS) is schedule to depart from San Diego for its new home in Singapore on Friday, providing one of the Pentagon’s most visible signs to date that the “pivot” toward Asia is underway.

It is only a coincidence, however, that the USS Freedom ships out on the same day sequestration budget cuts are due to kick in across the federal government. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in 2011 that the new ships would deploy to Singapore.

But it is no accident that the Pentagon, while searching for ways to meet mandated budget cuts, has kept the LCS program fully funded and on schedule. The USS Freedom is the first of four LCS vessels that will be deployed to Singapore.

“Even in the face of potential budget cuts, there should be no doubt that the U.S. Pacific Fleet remains on watch and that we will continue to deploy our most capable units forward to operate with our allies and partners,” said Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, in a statement.

“The USS Freedom's deployment to Southeast Asia tomorrow is a tangible sign of our commitment to the Asia-Pacific region,” Maj. Cathy Wilkinson, Pentagon spokeswoman, told the E-Ring on Thursday. “The ship will serve as a platform for engagement with partners and allies in the region.”

It also serves as serious firepower. In waters in and around Southeast Asia, the fast-moving ships are intended to patrol maritime traffic with allied navies, including private oceangoing cargo ships and pirate threats, while monitoring the increasingly tenuous intent of Chinese vessels, all at the contested southern door to the South China Sea.

Navy officials say the ships also provide the United States with a more appropriately sized vessel to train with local navies. Most foreign navies do not have ships the size of U.S. Navy destroyers, frigates, or flat-top carriers.

But LCS ships face intense criticism. The Navy first commissioned two completely different hull designs, but then awarded contracts for 10 versions of each ship, claiming the competition and variety were good for costs and military requirements. But critics argue the per-ship cost has doubled from its original estimates, to $440 million, and warn the maintenance on two versions of the ship only will cost more in the long-run. Many analysts predict the program could be an easy target for DOD bean counters looking for quick budget cuts. 

The Freedom is a single-hull vessel while the second LCS built, the USS Independence, is a three-hulled "trimaran." In September, the USS Fort Worth, with the single Freedom-class hull, was commissioned.

Until then, its full steam ahead. The Freedom will stop in Hawaii and Guam on its way westward. While deployed, the ship will remain officially homeported in San Diego as crews will rotate out to Singapore.

No word yet whether Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will visit the ship during the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual June conference in Singapore of Asia-Pacific country defense ministers, should he attend.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans/Released