From shipyard to Mayport: Littoral combat ships pass through Great Lakes to get home
By JOE DARASKEVICH | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 2, 2017
The era of littoral combat ships at Mayport Naval Station is about to start picking up speed now that a new ship is scheduled to join the base’s squadron about every six months.
Each ship will have to make its way from the middle of the country through a system of waterways before it can finally call Mayport home.
The USS Milwaukee and USS Detroit have already made that trip, and they officially joined Littoral Combat Ship Squadron Two in December. They’ll soon have company as more Freedom-variant littoral ships are in the water on the coast of Wisconsin waiting to make the journey to Northeast Florida.
Wisconsin is much more famous for cheese and cold-weather football than the history of shipbuilding, but half of the Navy’s littoral ships are built in the state — a long way from any ocean.
“When I came into this job I didn’t have any realization the Navy even built ships up here,” said Capt. Tom Anderson, the Navy’s LCS program manager, during an interview this summer. “I didn’t envision I was going to spend half of my time in Marinette, Wis.”
He spends half his time at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine Shipyard overseeing the construction of the Freedom class of ships headed to Mayport and the other half of his time at Austal USA in Mobile, Ala. where the Independence class of littoral ships are built. The Independence ships are all based in San Diego.
Both variants of ships use steerable jet propulsion so they can operate close to shore, but there are significant differences in design.
The Independence ships are made entirely of aluminum and have trimaran hulls while the Freedom ships have steel hulls that resemble traditional Navy ships with aluminum superstructures.
The two classes of ships are also built in completely different places.
The Independence ships first touch water in the Mobile River, a short distance from the Gulf of Mexico by way of Mobile Bay. From there they can easily reach open ocean or traverse the Panama Canal to reach their home in California.
The crews of the Freedom ships have to cover more than 3,500 miles from the Wisconsin shipyard to reach Mayport, according to the Navy. Nearly one-third of that journey is spent in the Great Lakes.
“At the yard we spend a few months getting the crew to take ownership of their ship, because up to this point it’s been all about a machine. There’s no humans, there’s no Navy crew that’s operating that ship before the Navy takes it,” Anderson said. “Once the Navy takes it that crew’s got to become familiar with their ship.”
Before the crew can take control, the shipbuilder — Lockheed Martin — takes the vessel out into Lake Michigan for builder trials. The Navy then gets a chance to do an independent assessment before the ship’s crew can embark.
Anderson said the ships are launched into the water when they are about 80 percent complete because a lot of the systems require water to operate. Once in the water, the builders spend about a year completing construction before the trials can begin, Anderson said.
There are currently four Freedom ships in the water at the Wisconsin facility in various stages of the process.
The future USS Little Rock and USS Sioux City are undergoing trials this summer and fall, according to Lockheed Martin. They will head to Mayport when those trials are complete.
The future USS Wichita launched Sept. 17 and the future USS Billings launched July 1, according to Lockheed Martin. Those ships will begin acceptance trials in Lake Michigan when construction is complete.
But the crews undergo extensive training in classrooms and simulators before they ever touch the ships, according to the Navy. Once that training is complete they can finally begin the trip to Mayport.
First they move from Green Bay into Lake Michigan where they pass under the Mackinac Bridge into Lake Huron. The ships then turn south and toward the St. Clair River. The journey then takes the crew through Lake St. Clair and into the Detroit River before they enter Lake Erie.
They head east in Lake Erie toward Buffalo, N.Y.
All the ships are commissioned to the Navy in different cities, and when the future USS Little Rock makes the move to Mayport it will stop in Buffalo for the commissioning festivities.
The ships spend about a week in the location of the commissioning to prepare for the ceremony and to allow the crew to enjoy the festivities, according to the Navy. After the commissioning the ships are officially considered a part of the U.S. Navy.
When the future USS Sioux City makes the trip to Mayport it will be commissioned in Annapolis, Md., according to Lockheed Martin.
But to get from Buffalo to the Atlantic Ocean the ships head north through the Niagara River and into Lake Ontario. Once reaching the Northeast corner of Lake Ontario, the crew navigates a series of locks to leave the Great Lakes and enter the St. Lawrence River.
The ships pass through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, heading past New Brunswick and Nova Scotia where they finally reach the Atlantic Ocean.
The trip from shipyard to home port can take nearly a month, according to the Navy, but by the end of the journey the crew is familiar with their vessel.
The shipyard in Marinette along the Menominee River on the border of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was founded in 1942, and they’ve been building ships there ever since, according to Fincantieri. The owners have spent over $120 million since 2008 to update the facility and make it sufficient for the Navy’s littoral combat ship program, said Joe North, vice president of littoral ships and systems for Lockheed Martin.
The Navy’s reason for building the ships in Wisconsin ultimately comes down to the price tag associated with the process.
“We the Navy, we look to buy ships that meet a certain requirement set and we want to buy them in the most cost effective way for the taxpayers, and one of the nice things up here in Marinette with the shipyard here and with the workforce in place is that the cost of shipbuilding is affordable,” Anderson said in June.
“That’s really the reason that we came here is because the cost associated with building the ships here was affordable,” he said.
The crew’s from Mayport will continue to make the journey through the Great Lakes about once every six months until Littoral Combat Ship Squadron Two is operating at its full capacity of 12 ships.
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