On Feb. 16, 2010, the USS Freedom (LCS 1) left Mayport, Fla., for her first operational deployment, fully two years ahead of her original schedule. Freedom is the first of the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs), and is assigned to operate within the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Area of Responsibility (AOR). Plans for her use by SOUTHCOM include counter-illicit trafficking (CIT) operations in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific, along with theater security cooperation (TSC) port visits in Colombia, Mexico and Panama.
Getting Freedom ready for this deployment has taken a special effort on the part of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The road to Freedom’s early deployment began in June 2009, when Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead ordered the creation of a study group to look at the possibility of deploying her prior to the planned 2012 date. By October 2009, the CNO’s study group was able to recommend that Freedom be deployed in early 2010, and an accelerated pre-deployment workup began.
For her first deployment, Freedom is carrying a tailored version of the LCS surface warfare mission module designed to support maritime boarding and inspection operations. Along with the basic seaframe armament of a Mk. 110 57mm gun, a Mk. 49 launcher for the RIM-116 RAM surface-to-air missiles, and a pair of M2 .50 caliber machine guns, Freedom will also have a pair of Mk. 46 30mm cannon in single mounts. She also has embarked an SH-60R Seahawk from NAS Norfolk, Va.-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22, Detachment 2, and 11-meter rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs). What Freedom will not have for her first deployment is the planned M501 Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS) for the new Precision Attack Missiles. These are not expected to arrive until 2012, but should not be required in the SOUTHCOM AOR for Freedom’s first deployment.
In terms of manning, Freedom’s SOUTHCOM deployment will be the first operational test of the LCS program’s use of “Blue” and “Gold” crew manning. This has each ship assigned two 40-man rotational seaframe crews that can be swapped out during a deployment to help overcome the strains of Freedom’s rather limited crew quarters and habitability spaces. Along with the basic seaframe crewmembers, there are about 50 additional sailors and Coast Guard personnel aboard to support aviation operations, the surface warfare mission module, and CIT boarding and inspection operations. This includes U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) 407, which will assist Navy personnel in visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) operations while at sea.
To accommodate the extra personnel over the planned seaframe/mission module complement of 75, Freedom has embarked additional personnel berthing modules to provide bunks and personal stowage. However, all personnel will have to share the existing mess and head facilities, and will likely test the design limits of systems and equipment ranging from fresh water production to laundry. The additional personnel will also go through embarked stores of food, fuel, and other supplies more quickly, making under way replenishment and refueling operations more frequent. Nevertheless, Freedom will likely prove a potent force for SOUTHCOM and 4th Fleet when she arrives in the AOR.
Freedom’s early operations will likely include acting in concert with SOUTHCOM’s highly successful Joint Interagency Task Force – South (JIATF-S), which is based at Key West, Fla. Tasked with setting up CIT engagements for military, law enforcement, homeland security, and international partner agencies, JIATF-S will likely find Freedom a premium asset. With her high speed, heavy armament, aviation capabilities, and ability to deploy RHIBs, Freedom is exactly the kind of resource that Rear Adm. Vic Guillory, the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet, wants right now. Over the past few years, maritime intercepts have interdicted a growing percentage of cocaine and other contraband shipments into North America, Africa and Europe, and LCS-type ships are well configured to support this effort.
In addition to her operational missions, Freedom’s first deployment will also see the continuation of her test and evaluation program. These will continue throughout Freedom’s deployment cruise, all the way to her new homeport in San Diego, Calif. For Cmdr. Randy Garner, commanding officer of Freedom‘s Gold Crew, taking LCS 1 to sea is just going to be a continuation of the ongoing process of bringing the LCS concept into the fleet. No doubt there will be unexpected challenges and problems that can only come to light in the arena of open-ocean operations and possible combat. But more than a decade after visionary naval officers like Adm. Art Cebrowski and Capt. Wayne P. Hughes first laid out their “Streetfighter” concept at the Naval War College, Freedom is operational and at sea. And at sea is where the Navy will determine the real value and possibilities of the LCS concept.