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NAVAL STATION SAN DIEGO — When the littoral combat ship Freedom left San Diego on March 1 for a 10-month deployment to Southeast Asia there were three brand-new ensigns onboard.
What happened next isn’t common on any U.S. Navy ship.
“The ship’s captain wrote back in a regular report that all three ensigns had qualified as junior officer of the deck in just a few days underway,” said Joe Shifflett, who runs the Littoral Combat Ship Training Facility at Naval Station San Diego. “That’s really unheard of as, normally, it takes junior officers with no sea time much longer to qualify as JOOD underway.”
The game changer, Shifflett said, was the hours those officers spent inside the high-tech trainer here, practicing getting underway and driving their ship in a virtual setting as one of Freedom’s two swappable crews.
These young ensigns were able to get “sea time” right here in the building, and that’s what allowed them to qualify in a couple of days, Shifflett said.
It wasn’t just the ensigns who qualified quickly, either. Both of Freedom’s crews were certified for deployment by 3rd Fleet with only a few weeks of underway time off the California coast prior to the ship’s departure.
Shifflett said LCS training is a shining example of the capability that simulation can bring to the table over and above the basic training sailors get in Navy Schools.
Training for both LCS officers and enlisted starts once a sailor reports to the Littoral Combat Ship Squadron in San Diego. Depending on which position onboard the ship they’re destined for, they’ll get up to a year of individual training before they report to their crew.
Most will first attend Navy and contractor schools to give them the basics of the operation and maintenance of the equipment their watch station requires and that can take six months or more. Then they report to the LCS training facility to put that knowledge together as part of an integrated team.
It’s called “Train to Qualify” by Navy officials, and it’s designed to make these sailors a qualified individual of a watch team. Later they “Train to Certify” together as a crew.
There’s just not a lot of OJT on LCS, he said. So much of the training now comes through simulation.
This schoolhouse does two things, first providing individuals what’s called “capstone” training. During these four weeks, all future crew members learn the details of their individual watch station and then migrate into a team-training environment.
“By the time you get to the end, it will bring the mission package sailors and the sea-frame sailors together all in the same scenario where they train in an integrated team,” Shifflett said. “So when they qualify, they’re not qualifying in a vacuum.”
A class in the LCS training facility could include, for example a second class fire controlman, a second-tour division officer or department head and a first class operations specialist, said Phillip Lamonica, head of manning and training in the LCS program.
But even when they’ve qualified as an LCS sailor or officer, simulation continues as a critical portion of their training during both on- and off -hull rotations.
“Notionally the [LCS] squadron has five weeks blocked off during a four-month off hull period For the crew to be back here in the trainer,” Shifflett said.
And even nondeployed crews often leave the shippier side and come to the trainer, too.
“We have basically an hour and a half each day, in between our first and second shifts, for the squadron to schedule crews to get what we call ‘stick time,’” Shifflett said. “Right now, it’s focused on the bridge watch teams and we can’t support combat systems [teams] yet.”
The most evolved trainer is the one for the LCS 2 class of ship. The original trainer for LCS 1 is very basic and is slated to get upgraded over the next few years.
Also, officials plan to bring online in 2014 the ability to simulate gun and missile shoots, as well as electronic warfare capability.
Most of the upgrades won’t happen until the whole training facility moves into a larger building closer to the waterfront on Naval Station San Diego’s “wetside.”
The contract for this new facility is expected this fiscal year and could be fully operational by early 2016.
A nearly identical facility will also be built at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., slated for 2017.
The biggest addition to the trainers will be full-sized mockups of the mission bays for each LCS variant.
There will also be a “virtual reality” lab with gaming software that will allow sailors access to train anywhere int eh ship without leaving the building.
“Students will enter any LCS ... as an avatar and be able to walk through the ship and interface with their watch stations and the equipment to a level ... unheard of in the Navy,” Lamonica said.