Once maligned, Littoral Combat Ship program now a model in Navy training
By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: September 7, 2017
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — It’s been a year since the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Littoral Combat Ship Training Facility at Naval Base San Diego.
The facility boasts 89 military staffers, plus 31 Department of Defense civilian and contractor employees and a wonderland of display screens so exact that they’ve made sailors sea sick on land.
“I’ll find myself doing this,” said Capt. Jordy Harrison, the commodore of the San Diego-based Littoral Combat Ship Squadron One. “I’m rocking on my toes because you feel like you’re standing aboard a ship, even if it’s not really moving.”
The high-tech facility had its start at a rocky time for the controversial ship program. Reeling from a decade of design glitches, cost overruns, yard delays and leadership snafus, the LCS program by mid-2016 appeared to be mired in dysfunction.
Relying on automation, the radically reduced crew sizes aboard the LCS vessels promised deep savings to the Navy by shaving the dollars spent on personnel and their families. But to make the ships work, crews selected for the littoral combat fleet needed to perform multiple jobs, putting a premium on training.
Originally conceived as a futuristic fleet of cheap and nimble warships capable of fighting in the shallow waters of the Pacific Ocean and Persian Gulf, the LCS accounted for $12.4 billion in wasted spending, according to U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Since December of 2015, five of the eight LCS warships delivered to the Navy suffered what are called “engineering casualties” — expensive and often preventable mechanical breakdowns at sea that sidelined the vessels for months. The Navy blamed the ongoing problems not only on construction quality and design problems, but also on poorly trained crews.
In September 2016, Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, the Coronado, Calif.-based commander of Naval Surface Forces, ordered a pause in LCS operations to reboot the testing and training of all the vessels’ engineering departments, part of a larger ongoing effort to reconfigure crew sizes and duties while constructing new squadrons in both San Diego and Mayport, Fla.
Rowden also turned to the Littoral Combat Ship Training Facility. Navy leaders hoped that the facility would train both individual shipmates and whole crews ashore, eliminating much of the on-the-job instruction taken for granted aboard destroyers and cruisers.
On a video screen stretching across a darkened room built to resemble exactly an LCS bridge this past week, trainers brought up a nearly perfect digital replica of San Diego Bay, including the carrier Carl Vinson, but with snow flurries whipping into the face of the ship.
“OK, you’d never likely see that in San Diego, but it shows you how we can change it up to fit any scenario,” said Cmdr. Will Chambers, a career surface warfare officer who runs the LCS Training Facility, ticking off where his instructors can put a crew virtually, like an anti-piracy mission near the Middle East or the bustling sea lanes trafficked by the Japan-based 7th Fleet’s warships.
“But it’s important because a littoral combat ship might have only three watch standers on duty. You’d have 12 on a destroyer.”
There also are two mammoth mission bays that replicate to the inch the size and configuration of both the Freedom- and Independence-class warships, allowing whole crews to train at the same time.
By late 2019 or early 2020, the campus will be fully built, gobbling a large portion of what used to be the Fleet Industrial Supply Warehouse, but Harrison and other top Navy leaders told The San Diego Union-Tribune that they’re already starting to see the fruits of the training complex and its teachers.
“We’re even learning things about the LCS ships on the simulators before we see it at sea,” said Capt. Ronald W. Toland Jr., commander of the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center that sponsors the LCS complex.
The cost: About $450,000 to run the program annually, according to Toland, but the figures are hard to crunch because expenses are shared between several commands and often are built into the procurement price of the LCS program itself.
Toland calls it “LCS University” and credits the Navy for borrowing the best ideas from aviation simulators and the submarine fleet’s school houses to make it come together.
©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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