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(NAVY TIMES 26 APR 10) ... Philip Ewing

ABOARD THE LITTORAL COMBAT SHIP INDEPENDENCE — Even if the Navy doesn't pick its design for full production, this could end up as one of the most influential ships in the history of the fleet.

But to understand why, it helps to be a nerd.

Visitors to Independence's pilot-house see many resemblances to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, including two side-by-side command chairs with their own computer keyboards, a third chair behind them for overseeing the ship's activity, and more consoles for engines, weapons and sensors in the back of the pilothouse. The ship's captain has a fourth chair, of his own, on the starboard side, with a monitor for the ship's vital information.

"But I like to sit where Captain Kirk is, too," said Independence's commanding officer, Cmdr. Curt Renshaw in other words, behind his Chekov and Sulu. With all the new technology on the bridge, many familiar things are missing: Bridge wings, a ship's wheel, an engine-order telegraph, and other features common to pilothouses in the rest of the fleet. In their place are digital controls, electronic sensors and entirely new ways of standing watch With shipboard crew sizes steadily decreasing, those new ways are likely to become increasingly common on the Navy's: newer, more advanced warship including its Zumwalt-class destroyers and, potentially, Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. They point toward the future in which fewer sailors h more control over a ship at than has been the case, but coal also require sailors to give up long standing conventions.

Independence, for example, has no standard commands: An officer of the deck doesn't say "engines ahead one third" or "left full rudder," as on a normal ship. Instead, watchstanders pilot the ship themselves, physically moving controls for throttle and steering.

The first LCS, Freedom, is the same way.

In the old days, commands from the bridge had no immediate effect on the ship's speed they were simply instructions to engineers below decks, who "answered bells' and adjusted the engines as ordered. But with Independence and Freedom, the engineering officer of the watch is on the bridge, monitoring a computer-controlled plant only feet away from the OOD. As soon as the OOD pushes the throttles, the ship goes.

On Independence, it goes fast 40 knots or more in just a few moments. But with sailors on the bridge standing lookout less often, Renshaw and his crew have had to come up with ways to make sure that one of the two people driving the ship keeps watching where it's going. So if one operator knows he needs to spend a few moments looking at the radar, or working on the computer, he announces "eyes down!"

"Eyes up!" says his counterpart, making clear that, for the moment, he'll be focusing completely on the water outside the ship.

Navigational sea changes

What new ships give crews in control and speed; they lose in visibility and familiarity. Both Independence and the Zumwalt-class destroyers are designed without bridge wings, and when Navy Times was aboard LCS 2 in early April, it was plain that the design forced the ship's team to relearn the basics of mooring and operating underway.

Instead of bridge wings, the ship has roll-clown windows like a classic car, so watchstanders can lean out to see what's alongside and behind the ship. They still can't quite see everything, including the bow or stern, but topside video cameras are supposed to make up for that. Watchstanders are expected to use the ship's Global Positioning System receivers to help track its motion forward or backward.

This makes docking and undocking tricky. When Independence moored at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., Renshaw and the harbor pilot decided to leave the bridge and stand on the weather deck below to better see how the ship was aligning with the quay wall. Sailors around the ship equipped with laser range-finders reported distances to the pier and other nearby ships over the radio, because it was too tricky to judge the ranges from the bridge, or not possible with the topside video cameras.

Engineers and designers may like the sleek profile and low radar signature of a superstructure without bridge wings, but the design drives surface warfare-types crazy, said a retired cruiser commander who asked not to be identified because of an ongoing relationship with the Navy.

On paper, cameras and sensors seem like they'll give the same information as human eyes and ears, but in practice, that seldom proves true especially when sensors replace a human.

"If someone falls over the side, how are you going to see them?" the former cruiser skipper asked, worrying that a sailor could be lost at sea if he went overboard in a blind spot between topside cameras.

And if mooring Independence is tricky with no bridge wings and only roll-down windows, mooring a Zumwalt-class destroyer could be even harder: All of its bridge windows are designed to stay sealed, to maintain the positive pressure inside the ship, the cruiser skipper said.

But that won't last long, he said, because captains won't stand for it.

`They're going to say, `You mean, every time I come into port I've got to just sit there and be pushed onto the dock by tugs, and I've got no say in that? No way I'm going to disable the positive pressure and open the windows so I can see out.'

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