WASHINGTON (NNS) -- A month into a maiden voyage that has seen a trio of drug-smuggling attempts thwarted, the commander aboard the Navy's first littoral combat ship described March 22 the vessel's performance to date as "exceptional."
Now floating off the coast of Colombia, Freedom received high marks from Cmdr. Randy Gardner, who delivered an assessment to reporters March 22 from aboard the ship via telephone.
"The performance of the ship so far has been exceptional," he said of the Freedom, which set sail Feb. 16 from Mayport, Fla. "We are learning a lot about what Freedom can do well."
Freedom and its crew grabbed headlines in recent weeks after interdicting three vessels transporting illicit drugs through the western Caribbean. Military officials say the ship's speed, which at roughly 46 miles per hour is significantly faster than U.S. frigates that max out just below 30 miles per hour, is responsible for much of its counternarcotics success.
In its most recent interdiction, Freedom disrupted a high-speed ship known as a "go-fast" vessel and recovered more than 2 tons of cocaine that officials said was bound for the United States.
After detecting the suspected drug vessel March 11, Freedom launched a high-speed pursuit and deployed a separate team of sailors and Coast Guardsmen aboard rigid inflatable boats to intercept it. Smugglers aboard the fleeing vessel began dumping its cargo into the southern Caribbean Sea.
The Navy-Coast Guard response team recovered 72 bales of cocaine weighing a total of 4,680 pounds from the water after being jettisoned from the vessel that was on a "stereotypical route" pursued by drug traffickers with U.S.-bound narcotics, Gardner said.
During its first two successful drug seizures in the Caribbean - on Feb. 22 and March 3 - Freedom seized one "go-fast" vessel, five suspects and more than 3,700 pounds of cocaine.
In addition to counternarcotics operations, Freedom made its first shore leave in Cartagena, Colombia, Gardner said. Freedom also played host to top defense officials from Colombia who toured the ship while it was docked in Cartagena.
Freedom, which is deploying about two and a half years before the first littoral combat ship was expected to be operational, is bound for Panama and Mexico before it's set to return to its home port in San Diego in late April 2010. After undergoing about a month of routine maintenance, the ship then will carry out operations in Canada, followed by an exercise in the Pacific Ocean, military officials said.
Freedom, along with the USS Independence (LCS 2), is at the vanguard of a Navy littoral combat ship fleet that is expected to grow to about 55 vessels by 2035, officials said.
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