A warbird materializes in Tampa Bay

The Navy's second littoral combat ship is back in action -- will this also mean the program can get back on track?

The Navy’s own “Klingon warbird,” the littoral combat ship USS Independence, has at long last rejoined the outside world after months in the yard. The ship arrived Friday in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Navy officials are eager to get the word out about LCS and bring aboard as many locals as they can for tours. Visiting or just looking at the Independence is one of the top local “Things To Do” down there this Labor Day weekend — there’s no other warship in the fleet like it.

So what can the Independence do besides look cool? Good question. We can presume the ship’s corrosion issues are resolved since it was given the green light to leave Naval Station Mayport, Fla., and that it’s seaworthy because it made the trip around the state, and that it’s handling flight operations now — the ship stood into Tampa Bay with an MH-60 helicopter on its flight deck. We know that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead just visited the Independence’s sibling, the USS Coronado, under construction in Mobile, Ala., and pronounced himself “very impressed” with what he saw.

Floating, navigating, and recovering aircraft — these are important abilities for a warship and its crew, but they fall well short of what the Navy brass has spent years saying it needed from the Independence and the other LCSes. At least the Independence is now available as a second test platform for the LCS interchangeable mission equipment, and the Navy brass has a choice about how it can move forward with integrating it into the fleet.

Last year, the Navy sent the first LCS, the USS Freedom, on what admirals called an “early deployment” — actually a drawn-out homeport change from the East Coast to San Diego — to show how far along LCS really was and how versatile the ship could be even without its unmanned accessories. On its cruise, the Freedom intercepted a few drug shipments in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific and got a chance for some of its first extended training with the fleet in the Pacific. But a congressional report last fall concluded that early deployment, however it may have helped the Navy’s sales pitch for LCS, actually had hurt the program overall: During the time the Freedom was on its “deployment,” it was unavailable to help test LCS mission equipment, which may have delayed the whole program, said the Government Accountability Office.

Now that the Independence is once again available for tasking, so to speak, Navy leaders are probably wondering how much time it should spent at sea demonstrating its on-board capabilities and how much it should be used to try to make up time and research on the LCS mission equipment. There was talk awhile ago about sending the Independence on a mission like the one the Freedom did –perhaps to the Mediterranean — but it’s hard to get a complete picture of the total LCS situation, and what effect that might have. For now, the ship’s crew is probably just very glad for the change of scenery.