Navy Fires Second Captain Over LCS Engine Casualties

USS Freedom during a crew changeover (Navy photo)

Published Oct 15, 2016 1:53 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Thursday, the head of Naval Surface Forces Pacific relieved the captain of the USS Freedom of command, the second time this year it has dismissed the master of a littoral combat ship over a propulsion casualty. 

Commander Michael Wohnhaas of LCS Crew 106 was the vessel's commanding officer on the day that a pump seal failed, leaking seawater into her number two main diesel engine.

After the leak, the Freedom continued on to participate in the international Rim of the Pacific exercises off Hawaii. She was not inspected shoreside until August 3, over 20 days after the casualty occurred. Due to corrosion damage, her number two engine was declared a total loss; it will require either removal and rebuilding or replacement.  

Navy spokesman Douglas Sayers told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the failure stemmed from a “lack of procedural compliance," and Surfaces Forces Pacific said that Wohnhaas was relieved "due to loss of confidence in his ability to effectively lead and carry out his assigned duties." A spokesman confirmed that his dismissal stemmed directly from an investigation of the casualty. 

Prior to his command of the Freedom, Cmdr. Wohnhaas headed the LCS Fleet Introduction and Sustainability Panel, an advisory body to the Navy's LCS Council. He had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a joint forces headquarters unit, and at sea, he served on the USS Anzio, Supply, Vandegrift and William P. Lawrence in positions of progressive responsibility. 

His Navy bio suggests that he had been slated to command the new LCS 7, the USS Detroit. Surface Forces Pacific said that he has been reassigned temporarily to headquarters, and a different officer is named as the Detroit’s commander in the schedule for her christening ceremony.

Cmdr. Wohnhaas is the second officer dismissed this year over a propulsion system casualty on a littoral combat ship, following the firing of Cmdr. Michael Atwell in March. Atwell was in command of the USS Fort Worth on January 12, when crewmembers started up her propulsion without proper lubrication of her engine combining gears. 

Repeated problems on both classes of littoral combat ship led the Navy to stand down all LCS crews in late August – the first-ever stand down for a full class of vessels at once. All LCS personnel with a role in engineering are being retrained; in addition, the Navy is conducting a thorough engineering procedures review of both LCS platforms. 

After the stand down, on September 13, the newly delivered USS Montgomery suffered two unrelated engine casualties. She then transited to Naval Station Mayport for repairs, where she suffered a cracked hull and bent stringers from a severe collision with a tugboat.

Analysts suggest that the LCS classes’ complex propulsion system design and smaller crew complement may make them more vulnerable to casualties resulting from human error.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, headed by Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, the committee's chairman and ranking member, recently called for the Navy to replace the littoral combat ship. In a letter released in mid-September, they asked the service branch to "start planning now to procure and begin deliveries of a new small surface combatant as soon as possible in the 2020s . . . we believe it is [important] to proceed aggressively with defining the requirements, setting the acquisition strategy and fielding the LCS replacement.