ABOARD THE USS FREEDOM, SAILING IN THE PACIFIC — The Navy will soon decide which version of the Littoral Combat Ship it will buy. Selecting the ship model, however, is only the beginning of what could be a long, arduous adjustment for sailors who will be serving aboard these new vessels.
Since it was conceived more than a decade ago, the LCS has survived a convoluted acquisition process and now appears to be on track to join the fleet. But these challenges pale in comparison to what it will take for sailors to make the transition from 200-crew frigates to an LCS that will be run by a crew of just 40.
“People ask me, ‘Is 40 the right number?’” says Cmdr. Kris Doyle, commanding officer of the USS Freedom’s Blue Crew. The Freedom is one of two competing designs. Following its maiden deployment earlier this year to South America and the Eastern Pacific, it has been at sea now for several months testing “operational concepts” for how the vessel could be used in the future.
Whether a crew of 40 can do the work of 200 so far is hard to say, Doyle says in an interview during a recent exercise off the Hawaiian island of Oahu. “My job here with the ship is to push everything to its limit, whether it’s the teams, my sailors, the processes, to see what works and what doesn’t.”
The lean crew demands that sailors perform multiple jobs. Everybody on board pitches in, whether it’s washing dining trays or any number of security-related duties. The payoff is that there are more opportunities for upward mobility than is usually the norm.
Designed to sail in close-to-shore waters, the 3,000-ton LCS is technologically unlike anything sailors have experienced before. But it remains to be seen whether advanced technology can make up for actual hands on deck.
“When we started this, we knew we had to learn more than one job. We knew we would have to be multi-talented. But I don’t think any of us had any idea how much we were going to have to know and learn and stretch ourselves to be able to get this ship to operate,” says Doyle, who has been with the LCS program since 2005. She served as the crew’s executive officer through Freedom’s build and commissioning process and became commanding officer in March 2009.
The Freedom, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., is a steel monohull. Its competitor is an aluminum catamaran made by General Dynamics Corp. The Navy already has agreed to buy two of each, but the rising cost of the ships meant that only one design could be purchased in large quantities. The winner will receive a contract for 10 ships. The loser goes home, but may have another opportunity to compete in five years.
The crew operating Freedom was instructed to not talk about the competition. But ask them about the ship and they will spout plenty of praise and little criticism. Despite feeling overworked, they remain fiercely dedicated to the LCS concept, says Doyle. “They just keep pressing forward.”
Most of the crew has completed tours aboard traditional surface combatants, such as frigates, cruisers and amphibious ships.
LCS follows the submarine force’s model for crewing. Just as submarines are staffed by blue and gold teams that swap out at sea every few months, the LCS rotates blue and gold crews every four months.
In addition to the 40-sailor crews, there are 15 operators that run special mission equipment and 23 sailors with the aviation detachment. During the biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise, Freedom deployed with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22, Detachment 2, based in Norfolk, Va.
LCS sailors are “extremely proud of our way of doing business,” says Cmdr. Jim Edwards, who was executive officer for Freedom’s Blue Crew prior to becoming skipper in August. “We’re all cross-trained,” he tells reporters in the wardroom.
The LCS has been compared to watercraft, or jet skis on steroids, for the way its two speedy prototype designs handle in the water. USS Freedom sailors have come up with another moniker: a “mini-amphib” for the way she can launch a speed boat into the water from her stern ramp just as amphibious ships can launch landing craft from their well decks. It is one of the features that distinguishes Freedom from its trimaran competitor.
The ship turns in less than half the distance that a typical surface combatant would, Edwards points out. Operators could make the ship do donuts if they wanted, he adds with a chuckle.
Freedom usually transits on the two diesel engines, but when the ship has to sprint, sailors light its two gas turbine engines. “That’s when you can really move,” says Edwards, who has been on the ship since April 2009. When Freedom exceeds 40 knots, she kicks up a 30-foot high rooster tail that fans out behind her, he says. Edwards recalled witnessing the ship hitting 48 knots and speeding ahead of a wave. “It really looked like it was surfing down the wave. It was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done on a ship,” he says.
“We don’t have big fuel tanks though, so while we’re very efficient, we can’t go far,” says Edwards, who last month took command of Blue Crew and sailed Freedom back to her home port of San Diego.
Space is a precious commodity. While certain areas of the hull are more spacious compared to larger classes — the flight deck, the reconfigurable mission zones, the staterooms that permit sit-up berthing — other parts are more confined.
When asked what he would improve about the ship, Petty Officer 1st Class Brad Vincent, an engineman, commented that the engine room is tight.
In the back of the hangar sits a large freezer that was brought on board to support the extra sailors embarked for the exercise. “This actually helps us have more food on board, so we’re not doing a lot of vertical replenishments and alongside connected-replenishments,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Naomi Jackson, culinary specialist.
The crew works in three six-hour shifts. Sailors stand watch at their assigned stations for six hours and then have the next 12 hours off. But the caveat is that the ship conducts many missions that require more sailors than just one shift’s worth of watch standers, Doyle says.
To launch a helicopter, the ship’s combat systems officer, Lt. Cmdr. Earl Timmons, donned one of the red safety vests to be part of the fire team standing watch on the flight deck during take off. On any other surface combatant, an officer ordinarily would not have to participate because there is a dedicated fire team for the job, he tells National Defense. But because he had just finished standing first watch monitoring the ship’s communications and weapons systems, he had to answer the flight quarters call. When sailors end their shift, they often have to hang around to fill in other positions, such as helping with helicopter launches or resupply duties.
Sailors only end up with about six hours of rest a day. “We try not to impinge upon those six hours. But sometimes we have to,” Doyle says. Emergencies, such as fire or flooding, require all hands on deck. Pulling in and out of port also involves the entire crew.
Timmons says he only has four to six hours of sleep every 24 to 48 hours. The work cycle on board is grueling but manageable, he says. He believes that LCS is the future of the Navy.
Jackson, one of three cooks on board, agrees. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s paid off,” she says. When she first arrived, Jackson was a third class petty officer but discovered that she could move up the ranks quickly. Her primary job is to prepare meals for the crew. But she also serves as a signalman during on-board replenishments when the ship pulls alongside an oiler for fuel. She’s a line handler whenever the ship launches one of its rigid-hull inflatable boats, and she is prepared to assist the doctor when they encounter any mass casualty scenario.
Nowhere is the reduced manning concept more evident than in the ship’s combat information center. The Freedom crew calls it their mission control center — a darkened room filled with computer consoles and screens displaying sensor images and video feeds. Aboard other ships, almost two-dozen sailors would man the center. Here, there are three watch standers. Along the perimeter of the space, additional work stations for the mission package teams sit vacant for the moment.
With fewer sailors to do the job, the downsized crew receives a lot of help from computers that automatically monitor parts of the ship.
“We’re still finding the balance on automation and how to build networks,” says Doyle.
When it’s time to load up on fuel, the officer of the deck engages the autopilot to maintain a course 160 feet from the oiler. On other naval combatants, steering the ship involves a complicated process not unlike the children’s game of telephone. Navigational commands proceed through a chain of officers, from the captain or executive officer to the safety officer and the helmsman, before they reach the hands that turn the ship, Doyle explains.
“We’ve taken a lot of the human element out of it,” she says. “We don’t want to take every human element out, but the more people you put in the chain, the more likely you’ll get human error.”
Vincent, who maintains the diesel engines and gas turbines, concurs that automation provides a big help to the crew.
“It’s been a challenge to learn, but once you learn automated systems, it makes life a lot easier,” he says.
To become an LCS crewmember, sailors must pass a lengthy training program ashore.
It took combat systems officer Timmons 22 months to train for LCS. As an ensign, he spent eight months training to go aboard his first ship, a cruiser. He had one months’ worth of training for his second ship. For LCS, he spent several months alone learning the ship’s COMBATTS-21 system, which is based upon the Navy’s Aegis combat system.
When crews finish a rotation, they have two weeks to recover before they’re back in the training center sharpening their skills for their next deployment.
Blue Crew was scheduled to turn over the ship to Gold Crew last month.
“I’m no longer surprised by what the U.S. Navy sailor can do. Every day, I’m amazed,” says Doyle.