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Navy's new ship and crew multi-task

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on November 13, 2009.

The crew of the Navy's newest ship - a type that may one day fill the basin at Mayport Naval Station - has adapted to a new way of doing business as it prepares for its first deployment years ahead of schedule.

"We have some folks doing things totally outside of their comfort zone, " said Cmdr. Jim Edwards, executive officer of the USS Freedom. "We're paradigm-breaking."

The Freedom, the Navy's first littoral combat ship (LCS), stopped Thursday at Mayport to finish work before heading out to practice with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its strike group.

The LCS program represents a major shift for the Navy, which is hoping a smaller crew and the ability to outfit the vessel for different missions gives the fleet more flexibility.

The service needs the vessels sooner rather than later, Navy brass has said.

"The sooner we integrate them into our fleet, the sooner we can incorporate them in the order of battle, " Adm. J.C. Harvey Jr., commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, said last month when announcing the earlier deployment. "This deployment offers a golden opportunity to learn by doing."

The new approach to the ship's design is obvious inside and out. A huge flight deck dominates the front of the vessel, with an adjacent hangar allowing the ship to carry multiple helicopters, including the unmanned rotary-wing Fire Scout that is now being tested on the USS McInerney.

Down below, the ship has two 33-foot-long inflatable boats, while atop are guns designed to be used for surface warfare missions.

In theory, almost half the ship can be reconfigured with modules brought aboard that would equip the ship to hunt submarines or search for mines.

Signs of that modular nature can be found throughout the ship, including the large gray shipping containers holding equipment used by the helicopter squadron and even bunks for some of the additional personnel temporarily assigned to the ship.

Mayport is slated to get eight of the new ships between 2015 and 2019, with additional ones possible in years after that, although that schedule is widely seen as overly optimistic. Those vessels would serve to replace the 13 frigates now home-ported at the naval station, ships that will be phased out over the next five years.

The LCS program has been criticized over the five years it has been in the works, with opponents knocking the escalating cost and some of the strategic assumptions behind the design. The Freedom came in closer to $640 million, rather than the $220 million originally projected.

'WE GET TO PUSH OURSELVES'
For those aboard the Freedom, the opportunity to work in a new way has been a success.

"This is the reason I joined the Navy, although I didn't know it at the time, " said Cmdr. Kristy Doyle, captain of the ship. "We get to push ourselves as far as we can."

The ship has a 40-person crew, a fraction of the 200 or so that deploy aboard a frigate.

The complement is fleshed out with additional personnel who come along to handle specialized functions, such as a crew who use the inflatable boats the ship carries for maritime interdiction duties.

Those 40 sailors are all experienced. All came from other ships, and in many cases higher-ranked sailors are doing several jobs that would be handled on other ships by several lower-ranked crew members.

Officer prerogatives even have been trimmed, Edwards said, with the ship's leadership helping with tasks, such as cleaning duties. Other jobs have been outsourced, either to administrative staff back ashore or to contractors who swarm to the Freedom when it pulls into port.

"It's a significant culture shift for the Navy, " Edwards said. "Nothing is standard anymore."

The Freedom also makes up for the small crew by relying on more technology. Rather than having sailors manually turning wrenches, much of the work is given over to systems run by a push-button control panel.

"I'm an old steam guy, " said Lt. Cmdr. Barry Barrows, the ship's chief engineer. "This is like 'Star Trek.' "

For the most part, the smaller crew simply means the sailors have to multi-task.

"You've got to be flexible, " said Petty Officer 2nd Class Naomi Jackson, a cook who's also tasked with launching the small boats and helping fight fires. "It brings you out of your comfort zone."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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