(NAVY TIMES 12 APR 10) ... Christopher P. Cavas
ABOARD USS INDEPENDENCE (LCS 2) — Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Trina Williams eased off on the brake handwheel holding USS Independence’s anchor tight to the littoral combat ship’s long, narrow snout of a bow. Snaking from the windlass in the enclosed foc’sle of the ship, the steel cable smoothly paid out to lower the anchor into the warm Caribbean Sea. Then, just as smoothly, engines hauled on the cable to return the anchor snugly into its fitting.
“That was the first time we let go the anchor and set the anchor,” commanding officer Cmdr. Curt Renshaw later noted. “When we left Key West this morning, that was only the third time we’d gotten underway.”
In a boat drill later that day, the crew lowered and recovered the ship’s 5-meter boat — another first for LCS 2.
“There are a lot of little victories like that, but they add up,” Renshaw said.
While the first littoral combat ship (LCS), Lockheed Martin’s USS Freedom, is in the eastern Pacific carrying out its first operational cruise, the General Dynamics-developed Independence is at the very beginning of its Navy life. Although commissioned in mid-January, finishing work and crew training kept the ship pierside at its builder’s yard at Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., for most of the past three months, and the ship’s crew only had one overnight underway period before shoving off from Mobile for good on March 26.
As with any new ship, the crew is getting used to their new charge. The challenge is a bit higher with the Independence — the Navy’s first aluminum-hulled trimaran warship. Even before testing out the numerous facets of the LCS concept, the crew is discovering how to operate the ship’s many unique features.
“It’ll blow your mind,” Williams said to some visitors as they prepared to step aboard.
A click of a mouse starts the ship’s diesel and gas turbine engines. An automatic ship control station can, if desired, drive the ship through an entire voyage. The officer of the deck (OOD) has the conn, steering with a joystick from a bridge that harkens back to a science fiction television show of decades past.
“We definitely have a 1960s-era Star Trek-type bridge,” said Lt. Phil Garrow, the ship’s main propulsion assistant. The OOD and the junior officer of the deck (JOOD) sit side by side at identical consoles, not unlike Chekhov and Sulu piloting the starship Enterprise.
And while a traditional captain’s chair is provided on the starboard side of the bridge, Renshaw often likes to sit in the center chair just behind the bridge watch.
“It’s because of Captain Kirk, of course!” smiled Renshaw.
Garrow noted that the presence of an engineering officer on the bridge would be unexpected on any other ship.
“It’s unusual for engineers to get a bridge watch, and especially to assist with navigation,” Garrow said. Yet he had served that morning as JOOD for the Key West departure — a first for him.
The ship’s small, 40-sailor crew is called upon to take on many roles, and keeping folks from becoming burned out and exhausted is a major focus of Renshaw, commander of the ship’s Blue Crew.
“Fatigue for us is very important,” Renshaw said. “We try to maintain a regular schedule.” The ship’s port and starboard watches are trying out scheduling variations in an attempt to find what works best.
Despite that, Garrow observed that “the work load is excessive. There are lots of people working overtime here.”
About 13 members of the ship’s Gold crew were aboard for the transit from Mobile to Norfolk, Va. As in some other classes of ship, each LCS has two complete 40-member crews who alternate in manning the ship and training ashore.
Also on board were a couple dozen additional riders — engineers and officials from various Navy activities monitoring the performance of items such as engines and radars, and a number of civilian technicians for on-board trouble-shooting.
Many of the extra riders were housed in two large “berthing modules” — 12-person, 40-foot shipping containers outfitted with steel-frame bunk beds — stored in the commodious mission bay, an 11,000-cubic-meter enclosed area that in many ways is an LCS’s main armament.
A number of those extra riders could be found in Interior Communications Center 1 — similar to a combat information center on most warships — at the rear of the bridge. Able to be curtained off from the rest of bridge, ICC1 is dedicated to monitoring the LCS’s machinery, watching the ship’s sensors and manning the weapons.
A similar ICC2 is located two decks below and a bit aft, just forward of the mission bay, and is intended for use by an embarked mission module detachment that will operate the various elements that make up each mission module. Current modules are being developed for mine warfare, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, and a special maritime interception module has been created for the Freedom’s current deployment.
The mission bay takes up about 60 percent of the ship’s length. Most of the crew’s living and working spaces occupy a pyramidal structure ahead of the mission bay, known as the citadel.
LCS ships are optimized for very high speed, and, like the Freedom, the Independence excelled at turning in a smooth ride while cutting the waves at 40 knots and better. In calm seas, the ship touched a high of 44 knots on this trip and, on the bridge at least, the ride was as smooth and even as if the speed were 30 or 18 knots — the only clues to the speed, besides engine indicators, being the spray visible out the windows at the back of the bridge, or the rooster tail in the ship’s wake, visible on video cameras pointed aft.
Cameras, in fact, are key to operating a ship that not only has a small crew but also numerous spaces, particularly topside, that are off-limits when hitting high speeds.
The ship, for example, has no bridge wings. Rather, a large roll-down window is provided on each side at the back of the bridge. Video cameras are intended to monitor what’s happening, even when the ship is getting underway or trying to tie up at a pier.
But as the ship got underway from Key West on March 31, and later when it tied up at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., on April 2, officers strained to thrust themselves as far out the windows as they could in an effort to gauge the ship’s relationship to shore. Even then, it was a limited view.
“I’d like to have more television cameras around the ship,” Renshaw said in an understatement.
Maneuvering a 419-foot-long, 104-foot-wide ship in tight spaces is difficult under any circumstance, and Renshaw’s situation was slightly more acute because the drop-down bow thruster intended to make tight ship handling easier is inoperative and will be until the ship goes into drydock this summer.
The crew also is working to get more experience with the ship’s sophisticated ride control system, a computerized arrangement that coordinates two sets of underwater stabilizers, high-speed rudders, the ship’s waterjets and other fittings to compensate for a trimaran’s tendency to roll, and the snout-nosed ship’s desire to pitch forward and aft.
Every evolution at this early stage in the ship’s life is a learning experience. After a series of calibration exercises to match power output with ship performance, the OOD at one point asked for permission to try out the forward trim tabs to bring the bow down a bit and reduce pitching while improving speed.
“Yeah, let’s mess with it,” Renshaw agreed.
It was hard for visitors to tell if the ride control system was fully operational, but — at lower speeds, at least — Independence had a pretty quick roll, even in calm seas, rolling about 5 degrees to each side in about four seconds, pitching as well.
One feature of the ship’s control system got a definite thumbs-down from the bridge watch. Asked whether they liked driving the ship using joysticks rather than a traditional ship’s wheel, four watch standers gave an emphatic “no!” LCS Features Waiting While the crew gets used to basic ship operation, tryouts of some of the Independence’s major LCS features will have to wait.
Operational testing of the large stern doors at the back of the mission bay, and of the new, twin-boom expendable crane system intended to lower and raise small boats and unmanned vehicles to the water, is incomplete. Those items, according to Naval Sea Systems Command, “have been secured and placed in a temporary lay-up state and remain under the control of the shipbuilding team.” Neither system is needed “to support the ship’s immediate program,” according to NAVSEA.
More testing and evaluation awaits the Independence in the near future. Another shipyard period, dubbed a Post Delivery Availability, is scheduled for May to August in Norfolk, during which a number of outstanding issues will be addressed. After that, the work to turn the new ship into an effective combatant will begin in earnest.
The Navy’s LCS command now “is focused more on LCS 1,” Renshaw admitted. “But our turn is coming.”