ABOARD THE LITTORAL COMBAT SHIP INDEPENDENCE — Many of the sailors on this ship have been aboard for years, shepherding it through a long, sometimes difficult, construction. But they still clearly remember the first time they saw it.
"I was blown back, it was like `Star Trek.' Where did this Klingon ship come from?" said Culinary Specialist 1st Class (SW) Nicholas Young. "You show up and it's like, `Where do I go? What do I do? It stops you in your tracks. You say, 'Hey, wait a minute.'"
The ship's look is only the beginning. Apart from a few important similarities with its cousin, the LCS Freedom, the Independence is the surface Navy's equivalent of the Galapagos Islands, a place entirely unto itself, where life has developed in an altogether distinct way. This one-of-a-kind warship, and its crew are so far outside the Navy norm they even hear rumors, from other sailors, about themselves.
"I've heard we carry nukes; I've heard that this is some kind of special armor; I've heard that this is a `stealth ship,'" said Gas Turbine Systems Technician (Mechanical) 1st Class (SW) Dan Ooley.
Independence, which was delivered to the Navy last winter and commissioned in January, is the second of two designs the Navy is considering for a fleet of 55 ships; officials say they'll decide as soon as this summer whether to order a batch of 10 more Independences or Freedoms. However, even as
Freedom has spent this spring on a "trial deployment" that has included drug-smuggler takedowns and training with a carrier strike group, the Independence crew is still figuring out how to run its ship.
Navy Times joined Independence for a few days in late March and early April, as it made for Norfolk, Va., after four years of construction in Mobile, Ala. Despite all that time and months of sea trials last year, the ship is still very new to its crew. It practiced its first underway crash-back and set its first anchor, among other milestones, in a cruise around Florida.
"We've done a lot of it before in training and in the simulator, but it's like they say in the NFL , we need to get up to game speed," said Cmdr. Curt Renshaw, skipper of Independence's Blue Crew. 'We're in a risk-mitigation phase right now, our bias is not on fighting the ship, our bias is on safely navigating the ship, running the plant. ... We've gotta take the building-block approach and build confidence."
Like Freedom, Independence is designed for a small crew of senior, highly trained "hybrid sailors," each of whom takes multiple jobs to include tasks far outside their rating. Ooley, for example, had to attend engineman "C" school and learn much more about the workings of diesel engines than a normal GSM ever needs to know.
Engineers also regularly stand bridge watches, in fact, as it gets into the fleet, Independence needs to qualify as many of its engineers as possible for bridge work, so the ship can spare its fire controlmen and operations specialists to work radar and monitor the ship's air picture, Renshaw said. For that, the ship has two combat information centers, known as "interior communications centers" in LCS jargon, one of which is located behind a curtain in the pilothouse.
Both LCS hulls are high-performance speed demons, although in different ways: Where Freedom uses raw horsepower to blast over the water like a Jet-Ski, Independence's trimaran hull slices through it with much less violence. Also, Independence has a one-of-a-kind engineering plant, with two gas turbines and two main diesel engines, each of which has its own drive shaft, reduction gear and steerable water jet. The ship also has a bow thruster, although it was not working during Navy Times' few days aboard, forcing Independence to rely on tugs.
Unlike Freedom, or any other ship, Independence's entire crew works what are effectively port and starboard watches, 12 hours at a time. To keep people in that rhythm, reveille and taps are not called over the 1MC, so the ship underway can feel more like a sub-marine, more or less constantly quiet, than a traditional surface ship.
"Someone's always trying to get some sleep for the next watch," said Cmdr. Kenneth Coleman, Blue Crew's executive officer.
Renshaw said the crew has found that the ship's schedule creates opportune times for all-hands events that would be unusual on other ships, midnight, for example, when many people are awake for the change of watch.
In addition to normal watchstanders, one of two "flex teams" of sailors is always on call in case the ship needs to do something that takes a lot of people, such as landing a helicopter or launching a small boat. If there are no pressing jobs, members of the flex teams conduct maintenance, clean the ship, or even relax a little, but they must be' ready, just in case. Independence's flex teams clean twice a day, but there is no call over the 1MC for "sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms." Instead, the team coordinates over walkie-talkie.
Even the Navy's standard all hands on-deck is different for Independence, which has two kinds of general quarters: In "general quarters battle," sailors are positioned such that they're in the best places for fighting; "general quarters recovery" places people in different spots to help with damage control, Renshaw said. Both go over the 1MC: "General quarters, general quarters, all hands man your recovery stations!"
As an example of the difference, in battle mode, a sailor might have his action station helping shoot the 57mm deck gun, while in recovery mode, his duty station might be in the sick bay, standing by to treat casualties. Independence can handle damage control while in GQ battle, Renshaw said, but he said it's useful to have a second variant focused on quickly recovering from damage or accidents.
Independence's crew takes damage control as seriously as on any other ship, but sailors told Navy Times they don't worry about the safety of its aluminum construction. Much of the interior of the ship is coated with an insulation called Superwool, which looks like aluminum foil bolted to the doors and bulkheads, and raises the temperature tolerance of the ship's aluminum structure so that it's comparable to steel. It's rated to with-stand a 1,000-degree fire for about six hours, said Lt. Phil Garrow, the ship's main propulsion assistant.
The principal fire-fighting systems are aqueous film-forming foam and water mist for the main spaces the Navy has done away with Halon on its new ships and engineers said this was the best equipment for their needs.
Independence has actual staircases, not steel ladder wells, and the staircases include landings and full turns as they ascend the decks. The feature carried over from the civilian ferry design on which the ship is based. Crew members go through the mess line together, as on Freedom, and bus their own trays and silverware, but there is no traditional, open crew's mess.
After everyone goes through a mess line in a main passageway, like the one on a destroyer, people retire to one of three rooms closed off from the thoroughfare: a wardroom, a goat locker and the crew's mess or the "first class lounge," as sailors have nicknamed it, given that Independence has only one E-5, its junior-most sailor, and everyone else is an E-6.
The crew's mess has a door that closes off to the passageway, to give sailors the kind of privacy that only exists in khaki country on other ships.
"It's nice, you don't have chiefs and officers running in all the time and saying, `Hey, I need this,'" Young, the CS1, said.
Still another unusual feature of Independence is its crew accommodations, which are relatively nice, compared with the rest of the fleet, but eccentric within the ship. Although each stateroom has its own head and shower and no more than five racks, those features appear in many combinations.
"Every stateroom is different," Garrow said. "We have not found two that have the same layout."
A work in progress
The Navy has had almost two years to observe and test Freedom. When Navy Times joined Independence in Key West, Fla., on March 31, its crew had a total of five days at sea. The ship has opened its enormous, hydraulically operated stern doors, the key to its ability to handle mission modules and launch boats, only once. Its equally huge ramp in the star-board quarter has been open only a handful of times.
The Navy hasn't even formally taken ownership of this equipment, or the massive overhead crane in Independence's mission bay designed to lift and move its watercraft. The ship still needs an entire second set of acceptance trials after its pending yard period in Norfolk, long after the Navy will have chosen which LCS to put into full production, according to its current schedule.
And despite the Navy's growing experience with LCS, Independence suffers from the same basic challenge as Freedom: doing the full-time work of a ship at sea with far fewer people than normal.
Chief Engineman (SW) Gary Thomas said that under normal circumstances it might take 50 or 60 sailors to run an engineering plant like Independence has, but instead, it has 10.
"It's no secret here that the e workload is excessive," Garrow S said. "If you didn't have people working overtime, giving it their all...." He trailed off.
Proper rest and good time management are crucial to making it all work, Renshaw said.
"What we've found is that our sailors can do anything, but they can't do everything at the same time. We have to have sailors who invent, they have to be able to think," he said. "Sailors who are slow starters or who need a lot of extra attention, there's not a lot of room for them here."
Finding sea legs
The "hybrid sailors" on this ship acknowledge there's a steep learning curve for people coming from the fleet to the LCS lifestyle, but they also said they relish being on the vanguard of a completely new surface Navy.
"We're actually laying the groundwork as we go. We're writing the book," said Operations Specialist 1st Class (SW) William Smith, and so far, so good: "Of all the planning we did in San Diego, most of it has worked well. We've never come across an event where we said, `Let's just scrap that.' We've only needed minor little tweaks."
Lt. Phil Garrow, the ship's main propulsion assistant, said managing his team of highly trained, relatively senior sailors was a different experience from his earlier jobs in the fleet.
"Most of them are married, most of them have kids, so there are not a lot of personnel issues, or legal issues compared to my last ship, where I had a bunch of rookies," he said. "Now, because the guys are a little older, I actually deal with a lot of old sports injuries that spring up at an inappropriate time, so medical has replaced legal as the most common issue."
People within the LCS world are realizing that it requires a lot of effort to get sailors ready to serve on these ships, and that effort will only increase as more hulls hit the water.
"It's all about finding the right sailors for the right job — you need to get ahead of it because it takes so long to train," said Chief Hospital Corpsman (SW/AW) Tricia Loomis, the ship's independent duty corps-man. But it's worth it, she said."This was one of the best career choices I've ever made."