Her future uncertain, USS Milwaukee reaches Mayport after her deployment

The USS Milwaukee returned to Naval Station Mayport after a 15-week drug interdiction deployment on Saturday, days after the US Navy proposed decommissioning it and seven other Mayport littoral combat ships .

Family and friends held signs and cheered the returning crew who helped US Coast Guard crews disrupt shipments of about a ton of contraband cocaine, worth about $64 million of dollars. Eight suspected drug traffickers have been captured.

“It was a great experience for the crew,” said Cmdr. Brian Forster, the ship’s commanding officer. “…The returning crew is a very different crew [from the one] who left months ago.

Luis Garcia watches U'lunni Garcia reach out to his mother for the first time in much of his year-long life after the littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee returned to Naval Station Mayport on Saturday from a deployment to the Caribbean and Latin America which began in December.

The deployment, Milwaukee’s first to U.S. 4th Fleet territory in the Caribbean and Latin America, featured the first use of an upgraded unmanned helicopter, the MQ-8C Fire Scout, to enhance surveillance of potential targets , as well as training with French, Jamaican and Ecuadorian navies.

But reaching Jacksonville for the first time since December was also significant, both for the families and for the more than 100 crew members and the helicopter and law enforcement detachments traveling with them.

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NCO Luke Mauck had used Facetime to talk with his wife and daughter at sea. “But actually smelling them and touching them and seeing them is like, wow,” said Mauck, an electronics technician , as he held 18-month-old Evangeline in one arm.

USS Milwaukee crew member Luke Mauck holds his daughter Evangeline after the littoral combat ship returned Saturday to Naval Station Mayport from a deployment to the Caribbean and Latin America that began in December.

Ximena Borges and her 6-year-old son, Peter, waited at the pier with a poster covered in handprints and a message for her husband, master mechanic, Peter Borges, that those hands had prayed for his safety. The deployment was not exceptionally dangerous, but Borges said she was still worried about accidents in the engine room and was just glad her husband was coming home.

Mechanical and propulsion issues

Although not disastrous, mechanical problems were a recurring problem with LCSs and propulsion issues played a part in the Navy’s decision to recommend the decommissioning of Mayport’s eight LCSs as part of the a 2023 budget proposal sent to Congress on March 28.

The ships, a style of LCS known as the Freedom variant, were built with a system combining power from separate diesel and gas turbine engines which the Navy deemed faulty last year and which should be replaced with new ones. complicated repairs.

Those repairs have yet to be made to commissioned ships, and an admiral overseeing navy budgets said the retirement of nine LCS — the eight in Mayport and another Freedom variant in San Diego, Calif. — as well as the cancellation of a delayed mission package for the ships represented “an opportunity to reinvest $1.8 billion” to meet other needs.

Milwaukee is Mayport’s oldest LCS, but didn’t go live until late 2015.

Because they are still far from their expected lifespan, the ships cannot be retired without Congress approving a special waiver, and a decision on that is almost certainly still months away.

While it might be a shame to retire young ships, another Navy family member hailing Milwaukee said that choice might be better in the long run.

Rachel Wilkins said her husband, a gunnery chief, had previously deployed to another Freedom LCS, the USS Detroit, which broke down at sea and could not operate.

USS Milwaukee crew member Eddie Kawczak makes a grand entrance for his cheering family on Saturday as the littoral combat ship returns to Naval Station Mayport after a 15-week deployment.

If a ship can’t operate reliably, Wilkins said, it might make sense to retire it.

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The downgrading proposal does not affect the type of LCS called the Independence variant, which is manufactured by a different shipbuilder and does not have the same propulsion design.

Another Freedom LCS, slated for commissioning in May as USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul and to be based in Mayport, has already undergone the repairs the decommissioning proposal would avoid, and the Navy has not suggested to remove it.

Other Freedom LCSs that are still under construction or have been completed but have not yet been accepted by the Navy are also expected to receive repairs on “combined gear” that merges the power of separate engines to allow ships to travel. at maximum speeds.

Five-year-old Jazelle Castillo waves flags as she waits with her family for Jaramillo Castillo, a crew member of the USS Milwaukee, to disembark the littoral combat ship after returning to Naval Station Mayport on Saturday after a deployment that began in December.

Whether Congress ultimately approves a downgrade in 2023 or not, Forster said Milwaukee still has work to do this year. After some maintenance, he said, the ship is expected to return to sea this summer for exercises with other warships.

Although a few people boarded the ship right after it docked to tend to the vessel, others had been on board for quite a long time.

Forster’s son played ball about two hours after docking in Milwaukee. As his crew returned home, the captain of the ship had an appointment to keep.

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