SINGAPORE - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the U.S. Navy's new small combat ship, the USS Freedom, the first of a new class of littoral warships recently deployed to Asia to partner with allies in the region.
His visit to the ship on Sunday comes amid nagging questions about the cost and viability of the roughly $34 billion program and whether the Pentagon's plan to buy as many as 52 of the vessels should be chopped by as much as half because of budget constraints.
Docked at Changi Naval Base, the Freedom has been participating in naval exercises with countries in the region, and going through regular maintenance and logistical checks as part of an effort to work through any problems in its maiden mission.
With a maximum speed of more than 40 knots - compared with the Navy's larger destroyers and cruisers, which travel at about 30 knots - the littoral combat ships are about the size of a Coast Guard cutter. The USS Freedom is a bit longer that a football field.
Hagel is the first Pentagon chief to step aboard a littoral combat ship that has deployed, and this was his first visit to any ship as secretary. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates toured one of the vessels when it was in development at Naval Station Mayport in Florida.
On board the warship, Hagel met with crew members, starting on the deck, where a Black Hawk helicopter stood ready to go, and moving to the bridge and then the compact operations center, with its array of computer stations and displays. He also watched as sailors in a rigid-hull inflatable boat demonstrated a launch and landing, easily sliding up into the docking area, then returning out into the Singapore Strait.
The USS Freedom, with its crew of about 90 sailors, arrived in Singapore on April 18, for the first overseas deployment of an LCS.
Swift and agile, the smaller ships are designed to operate in littoral waters, which are shallower and close to shore, and to give the U.S. the ability to work better with navies from Asian nations - such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand - that use smaller vessels to patrol the seas.