The Freedom, still with orange primer showing on its hull, sails off the coast of San Clemente Island, Calif. The two 30mm guns of the surface warfare package are mounted amidships atop the superstructure. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
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ABOARD THE LITTORAL COMBAT SHIP FREEDOM — Battlecat 706 whirred on the flight deck, warming up in the dim green glow of the ship's night lights. After a few minutes the lights darkened even more, and the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter lifted off this LCS to conduct close surveillance of the Heart of Manila, a suspicious merchant ship.
Below in Freedom's waterborne mission zone, 15 members of Surface Warfare Mission Detachment Blue, in full battle gear, quickly boarded an 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat mounted on a ramp. Freedom's large stern doors swung open, the ramp was angled up, and the RHIB launched into the darkness.
In a similar large compartment known as a reconfigurable space, sailors repositioned another 11-meter RHIB using an overhead gantry and moved it aft onto the ramp. Two more members of the SUW team launched in the second RHIB, to hang back and provide security for the first boarding team.
As the helo covered from overhead and the security RHIB kept watch, the first RHIB maneuvered in large swells alongside the Heart of Manila to board and conduct a maritime interdiction operation, a staple of Navy operations, searching for weapons, explosives, drugs, illegal aliens, contraband cargo or anything else that might be suspicious.
But these waters weren't the Persian Gulf. Freedom was operating off Southern California, and the Heart of Manila was a contractor-operated vessel. Still, the SUW team, helo detachment and Freedom's blue crew were training in earnest, making the most of a final week of at-sea time before relinquishing the ship to the gold crew and its detachments. In early March, those sailors will leave San Diego to begin Freedom's biggest test yet — a planned 10-month cruise operating from Singapore.
After the ship reaches Singapore, the blue crew will fly out and operate it for several months before turning over again to the gold crew. It's all part of the LCS concept of multiple crews conducting scheduled turnovers to keep the ships operating as much as possible.
The blue crew's final month with the ship on this go-round will be spent in a Navy dry dock, where the ship will get a final tuneup and a new, camouflage-style coat of paint.
"We pushed ourselves pretty hard, but this is not something new for us," Cmdr. Patrick Thien, blue crew commanding officer, said Jan. 8.
Littoral combat ships were conceived to operate in pairs or even larger groups and not originally intended to deploy alone. But with only three ships in commission, that operating profile is still some years off. Freedom, the first of the type, will be the first to conduct a major overseas deployment.
Pointing to the MIO exercises, Thien exuded confidence in his ship's ability to pull off the mission.
"We do the same things other ships in the Navy do," Thien said. "The guns shoot, we conduct MIO operations, and we move fast."
He acknowledged his ship's relatively limited range — another design feature for ships intended to stay near shore — but also is prepared to deal with it.
"I don't see it as a negative limitation," he said of the need for frequent refueling. "It's a fact of life."
But, he added, "it does take some planning."
Some modifications already have been made to Freedom to prepare for the deployment. One of the most significant was a decision to increase the ship's core crew and provide additional berths for the detachments and other teams. Several berthing areas that previously featured two-high "racks" now are fitted with three-highs, and some two-person officer staterooms have had a third berth installed.
Overall, 20 new berths were installed, bringing the berthing capacity to 98. More can be accommodated in berthing modules installed in the mission bays.
When fully manned, the former 40-person core crew will have 50 sailors, plus racks for three junior officers learning the ship. Three "prospective" officers set to join the crew in a few months already were on board Freedom to prepare for LCS duty handling main propulsion and combat systems.
Training continues ashore
When the rotating LCS crews are "off-hull," they're anything but idle. Training continues at the LCS Training Facility next to the 32nd Street naval base in San Diego, where watchstanders run through numerous, electronically simulated scenarios.
"We simulate most of the systems of each LCS type," said Joe Shifflett, director of the facility, during a visit Jan. 8.
He pointed to rooms simulating each design's bridge layout, including operating controls and consoles. Each ship's combat information center also is replicated, along with the Independence type's separate mission control zone for the mission detachment.
The simulators are linked, Shifflett noted, allowing teams in different locations to experience the same scenarios together.
"We can integrate the bridges, combat systems, engineering and mission control centers," he said.
Ultimately the system will connect with fleet simulators, allowing the training facility to take part in large, synthetic fleet exercises.
Most of his instructors are civilians, he said, but as more sailors move through the program, more uniformed instructors will be brought on board.
While about 150 crew members of both LCS types have completed the basic core crew curriculum, training for the mission detachments is just starting. And, as the LCS program expands and more ships join the fleet, the center will expand, too, moving from its current 12,500 square-foot location to a new, 150,000-square foot building inside the base and closer to the waterfront.