PACIFIC OCEAN (May 8, 2012) The guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas (FFG 47) conducts a passing exercise with USS Underwood (FFG 36) in the Pacific Ocean. Underwood is deployed to Central and South America and the Caribbean in support of Southern Seas 2012. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stuart Phillips/Released)

Mark Faram of the Navy Times has scored an article many reporters have been seeking for years – one of those ‘come out and ride my ghetto ride’ type articles, which in the Navy means a trip on one of the frigates. USS Elrod (FFG 55) is only 27 years young serving on what my be her second to last deployment. Not bad, considering the Oliver Hazard Perry frigates are one of the few surface combatant classes in decades where a large portion of the ships will actually serve their full designed life cycle.

The article has a very detailed section described as Tough Life, and it begins like this:

This is Worcester’s second tour on Elrod and third on a frigate. He made chief onboard Elrod and is proud to be back as the ship’s top enlisted sailor.

“I feel there’s something special about these ships and the type of sailor it produces,” he said. “Grow up in this environment and you’ll be a better sailor for it — our sailors don’t just survive, they thrive.”

That sentiment is echoed up and down the ranks. Life is tough onboard the 453-foot-long, 45-foot-wide ship. The gear is old and has a tendency to break. But still, Worcester said, the mission gets done because of the crew.

“We’ve got old machinery that doesn’t always work. In fact, we still have electronic gear in here that uses vacuum tubes. You know how hard that is to fix?” Richards said.

Even worse, he said, is the lack of spare parts. Many of the companies that provided the gear in the 1970s and 1980s are now out of business, causing Elrod and the other frigates to scrounge for parts and often make their own.

“And that’s where our sailors benefit,” Richards said. “Sailors learn their jobs best by doing them, by tearing down gear and rebuilding it — and this is a real hands-on environment for them to learn.”

The entire article is well written, so credit the journalist, but it still amuses me how the hard work by a sailor on a 27 year old frigate is romanticized on the internet while the hard work by a sailor on the newer Littoral Combat Ships is somehow akin to cleaning the heads with your own toothbrush. I got started in my IT career with old mainframes that used vacuum tubes, and anyone who romanticizes any aspect of working with that technology needs a drug test.

But this isn’t really a story about technology, because the sad truth about the Oliver Hazard Perry class is that the ships have long been obsolete. What this article is really about is how truly fantastic sailors in the US Navy are, and how lucky the nation is that we the nation can put virtually any ship in the hands of our well trained, motivated, professional sailors and the sum of the ship + crew is often greater than the ship itself. The old idiom is correct – necessity is the mother of innovation, and in the case of the frigates the necessity for the hulls has been fostering innovation in sailors towards keeping the ships relevant despite the ships being obsolete years ago when their combat capabilities were sacrificed to the alter of the accountants.

What made this article in Navy Times a great read for me was the candid commentary of Senior Chief Gunner’s Mate (SW/AW) Asa Worcester, the ship’s command senior chief. His words are no different than what one will hear from most senior chief’s on any ship in the fleet, only that it is refreshing to see where ownership of the ship and everything associated with the ship – good and bad – is captured in a public news story. When discussing the reduced size of the crews on frigates today, “That’s not a bitch, that’s a fact that we live with every day ‘cause the mission still has to get done,” Worcester says.

We are three decades into the life of the Oliver Hazard Perry class, almost as long into the Ticonderoga class cruisers, and over 2 decades into the Arleigh Burke class destroyers – and in these three ship classes there are many examples of public demonstrations of pride by sailors who have or are serving on these vessels – and the public perception of those classes today is a reflection of that pride expressed by those sailors. Basically, they sold us long ago on how good the ships are, even though an honest assessment would highlight any number of flaws in the ships. In the real world ships have flaws, big deal – sailors find ways to work around them and in some cases find virtue in the challenges and solutions. Thus is the nature of ships and sailors going back centuries – if not a few millenia if we were to ask the ancient Greeks.

Before 2 years ago, sailors didn’t publicly say much of anything nice about LPD-17, but over the last two years, story after story (outside the Navy’s own information machine) has changed the perception of that ship class – indeed one might suggest Lucien has done that to some degree discussing his old ship USS San Antonio (LPD 17) on these blog pages.

I just thought it was worth observing that as sailors take ownership of their ships (including the unique challenges that come with all new ships), the perception of a ship can change fairly quickly right before our eyes, often leaving critics to shout in a vacuum of mirrors. Once upon a time the Oliver Hazard Perry class was a highly criticized program, indeed the first Oliver Hazard Perry class ship to field the three major capabilities touted for the FFG-7 class: RAST + Link 11 + LAMPS III – was USS Underwood (FFG 36), or said another way the Navy commissioned 35 OHP frigates without the 3 big promised capability upgrades, and the Navy was heavily criticized at the time for doing so. Few remember those kind of details these days, because history is written at the end of a story, not in the middle of the beginning which is where we find the LCS story today.

It is going to be fascinating to observe the Littoral Combat Ship classes as they head from their initial phases of operations and early deployments towards a true networked battle force contributor, because as ships get fielded and more sailors get engaged with the new ships – and most importantly innovate capabilities by taking ownership of the LCS and the associated unique challenges of the LCS program (to include the modules – not just the first three either), it is a virtual certainty the perception of LCS will change over time, just as it always been with every other new class of ship over the last century.

What makes it different with LCS? I am not sure it really is different, although an argument can be made that the information age has impacted the public perception of the LCS. Mass information on any subject in the information age gives the effect of amplifying problems, but as we have seen with LPD-17 recently, it also amplifies opportunities as they emerge over time, which means we can expect it will also amplify the perspective of the LCS sailors who for the most part, haven’t even begun to tell their stories yet.

Posted by galrahn in Navy

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  • ND

    Inoperable equipment is one thing. Tube-based electronics is another. A GSM making fun of tubes is ironic in itself. Modern tube technology has qualities that are beyond semiconductors, that’s why tube technology is nearing 150 years and still going strong.

  • Coast Guardsmen are saying only 27 years old, almost new.

    “said another way the Navy commissioned 35 OHP frigates without the 3 big promised capability upgrades”

    Good point, but you are forgetting FFG 1-6 were “Brooke” class.

  • Captain Steve

    We must keep an eye on LCS manning. I believe the OHP-class ships were designed/planned for 130 Sailors? And eventually the crew size was expanded to ~220, including the air detachment. LCS has a crew of 40… and 75 racks, total, including the air detachment.

    The Navy has learned, repeatedly, that manning is the number one cost driver over the life of the ship. (RAND study, John Birkler, et al, ~1996)

    So how does a crew of 40 do the maintenance on a ship almost the size of an FFG? Simply put, I don’t believe it can. Given that adding Sailors is a huge cost driver, the Navy needs to give this support strategy significant thought going forward.

    My two cents.

  • SwitchBlade

    Well said, however, as alluded to by Captain Steve, the LCS is starting out with more of an insurmountable problem. I served on USS Gallery, FFG-26. We never had what you call “the three major capabilities touted for the FFG-7 class: RAST + Link 11 + LAMPS III,” (I consider RAST and LAMPS III parts of the same system – since they were) and I don’t recall it being an issue. The reason was that those three were supposedly necessary for the FFGs to operate with the Battle Group. However, there were many missions the FFGs could and still are doing that aren’t operating with the BG.

    Can the LCS do these missions? As I said a couple of years ago – it will be 10 years before we really know what we have in the LCS. But I’m still not seeing it. The whole concept, from not enough crew to not having the right “mission package” at the time the mission needs to be done (if at all), the ships are a problem.