ABOARD CRUISER NORMANDY, VIRGINIA CAPES – The passageways are cleanly swept and smell of fresh paint; colorful life jackets and flight deck gear is laid out in neat rows in the helicopter hanger; and the forecastle and fantail are draped with tightly coiled lines: Normandy is preparing for INSURV.

In the life of most ships, preparing for the Board of Inspection and Survey inspection is all consuming. But not on Normandy. The crew here doesn't have the luxury of focusing solely on this major inspection.

Over the past two years, the cruiser has been transformed from a quarter-century old ship, with an outdated combat system and worn down engineering plant, to one of the most lethal and advanced warships in the surface line.

But The transformation has strained the crew during a difficult and undermanned yards period and a busychallenging basic phase. Then and, through an unforeseen accident, Normandy was thrust into the forefront of the limelight for testing of the Navy's latest and greatest combat system.

Normandy is getting ready for a nine-month deployment in the early spring that will take the crew around the world. But while they go through the normal workups ahead of a cruise with the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, they have also been serving as the test platform for the Navy's newest combat system, Aegis Baseline Nine.

"I just gave my crew the first three-day weekend since I took command [in May], and that's not me," said Capt. Scott Robertson, commanding officer of the Normandy, in a November[date]?//SF interview. "I'm a big family guy, so when I see an opportunity, I like to bring people in on Friday, do some PT, clean our spaces and cut out. But there just hasn't been any time."

Transforming the ship from an aging hull to the East Coast's foremost surface combatant has saddled the crew with a long list of demands in a short window of time.

"We've never had a day when I can say, 'Today, ship, we get to focus on INSURV,'" Robertson said. "It's never been like that because there are always competing requirements, whether it's [Afloat Training Group] certification or its Baseline Nine validation or strike group deployment preparations, it's been a lot to juggle."

But All the hard work has begun to pay off for the crew. While many of the sailors look short on sleep, with a lot of work remaining and long on work to be done ahead of INSURV, the ship is hitting its stride.

During this dry run for the inspection, the ship's crew, white-knuckled, brought Normandy up to full power and sent it darting through the water at 32-plus knots.

"Last time we did that we had to limp back to port," observed one Normandy sailor, a corpsman.

Robertson, standing on the bridge wing and listening for any unwelcome engine stalls or flagging, seemed to be willing his ship's plant to take the beating of the full-power run, which includes quickly throwing the ship in reverse, called a crash-back, and then throwing it back in drive.

With just a few tense moments, Normandy made it through its run.

"That felt really good," the corpsman said. "It's like every time we get through one of the evolutions, we're one step closer to spending some more time with our families."

Around the world in nine months

Despite the heavy work-load and more than their share of, the crew of Normandy is are a happy group. Every sailor who spoke to Navy Times praised said their CO, Executive Officer Cmdr. Rochelle Hill, and Command Master Chief Gregory Carlson were good leaders who spent time talking with sailors and addressing sailor concerns.

Many sailors are excited about the spring's upcoming nine9-month deployment — a rare, around the world deployment. The Normandy will leave Norfolk escorting the which will be a nine-month trip around the world escorting the carrier Theodore Roosevelt CAN WE SAY BY WHAT ROUTE?//SFto San Diego by way of the Middle East.WHAT IS THE REASON FOR THIS?//SF.Then the cruiser will continue on through the Panama Canal and then return to Hampton Roads. It is incredibly rare for ships from the East Coast to operate in the Asia Pacific, let alone travel all the way to San Diego and back.

Carlson, the CMC, said told Navy Times that he's having difficulty balancing the ship's manning needs because so many sailors have requested to extend for the deployment.

Keeping morale up, even with the crush of inspections and testing, hasn't been a major hurdle, Carlson said.

"The crew is motivated," the CMC Carlson said. "It's easy to motivate sailors for what we're doing. I do it all the time, especially with these new check-ins and sailors who have never been to sea. before, I give them their command ball cap, sit them down and say, 'Shipmate, we're taking this ship around the earth. We're getting underway, we're circumnavigating the earth together.' And they smile, just like you did when I said that."

And the crew that Robertson, Hill and Carlson are taking around the globe is about as green as they come, the CO said.

"At one of my first all-hands calls," Robertson said, "the master chief alerted me, he said, 'Captain, you have a pretty inexperienced crew here.' So I asked the crew, 'By show of hands, how many of you have never deployed before.' Over half the crew raised their hands.

"So I said, 'For this upcoming group sail in December, three weeks, for how many of you will this be the longest you've been underway?' I still got a quarter of them to raise their hands."

The modernization overhaul lasted 11-months modernization and the long stretch between deployments. Normandy last deployed in 2010.

An unexpected turn

In addition to the remarkable itinerary — the crew is already buzzing about an anticipated stop in Australia — the cruiser Normandy will be taking some of the Navy's newest toys on theirfirst deployment. Normandy will be loaded out with the new, long-range SM-6 missile along with the new Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system, part of the Baseline Nine upgrade.

NIFC-CA is being hailed as a major step forward in the surface fleet's Navy's warfighting technology. The system expands the Navy's kill zone on both the surface and in the air — the exact ranges are classified, but it's greater than 130 nautical miles — which should give allow Normandy the chance to shoot down an enemy much farther out than other cruisers or destroyers. destroy a potential enemy can get in range to fire its own missiles.

Testing of these new systems was being conducted mainly on the cruiser Chancellorsville. But then, in a catastrophic accident, a telemetry drone punched its way into the ship's computer central in a catastrophic accident on a testing range off the California coast in November 2013. That spelled big changes for Normandy, which is one of the three cruisers to boast the have received the Baseline Nine upgrade.

"We were scheduled to do a lot of our baseline testing earlier in the year, so when the Chancellorsville happened, all the Baseline Nine testing took a big pause," Robertson said. IS THIS A QUOTE?//SF"They took a deep dive into control of the drones, the whole error chain, to figure out the lessons learned, then put in mitigating steps to make sure it never happened again.

"But that whole big pause got passed over to Normandy because we couldn't conduct our Baseline Nine testing at sea to include the missile shoots."

The testing was pushed back, and Normandy's crew found itself learning a whole new combat system, preparing for deployment and getting the ship ready for INSURV all at once.

"It's a big toll, no question," Robertson said. "There are no free lunches in the Navy, and I know I've asked a lot of this crew. It's been a big concern for me and I've voiced that to them regularly that I know I'm asking a lot. And I know I'm asking a lot of their families, because I feel it just like they do.

"One of things I've tried to do, whether it's underway for three weeks for group sail, [Afloat Training Group] cert[ification]s or getting ready for INSURV, focus on the fact that all these things are getting us ready for deployment. So that when we go over the horizon for nine months, we know all of our systems are going to work right. That means if we get called into action, all our sailors are going to know exactly what to do. Then adding, "It's a fantastic crew."

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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