“You are sitting up there and it was kind of amazing,” said Commander Long, now retired, recalling the moment they set out on the deployment in early 2020, after more than two years of training and preparation. “Just how fast you were going and how smooth.”
But the dream began to crumble as the ship approached the Panama Canal, Commander Long said in an interview, detailing the sequence of events publicly for the first time since he left the Navy in late 2021.
First, the ship’s diesel generators started to malfunction, and the ship briefly lost electric power. The littoral combat ships were built to be operated by a relatively small crew, and did not carry sailors to fix complicated mechanical issues. So Commander Long decided to head back to the Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the ship sat for about a month waiting for repairs.
An even more complicated issue had emerged with the ship’s radar system — meaning it could not target its guns or look for incoming air threats. A contractor repair team was flown from Germany to Cuba, but the necessary fix was so complex that the Navy decided to send the U.S.S. Little Rock back to Mayport.
And that is when an even bigger problem surfaced.
Commander Long was in his cabin near the bridge when a crew member brought him a sample of the ship’s engine oil. Instead of the caramel-colored, slippery stuff that lubricates the gears, the oil looked like it had been mixed with silvery glitter. The oil was polluted, it turned out, with specks of metal from high-speed clutch bearings of the gears that had broken into tiny bits.
The ship had lost half its engine power — and it had to limp back home.
The Navy soon confirmed that the gear system failure was a design flaw in the Freedom class, meaning all of the vessels then based at Mayport. (A second version of the littoral ships, known as the Independence class, is also in service but has fewer problems.) Engine failure reports were filed on 10 of the 11 deployments these ships were sent on, according to a report last year by the Government Accountability Office examining both classes of the ships.