Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS
The crew of the Navy's newest ship - a type that may one day fill the basin at Mayport Naval Station - has adapted to a new way of doing business as it prepares for its first deployment years ahead of schedule.
"We have some folks doing things totally outside of their comfort zone," said Cmdr. Jim Edwards, executive officer of the USS Freedom. "We're paradigm-breaking."
The Freedom, the Navy's first littoral combat ship (LCS), stopped Thursday at Mayport to finish work before heading out to practice with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its strike group.
The LCS program represents a major shift for the Navy, which is hoping a smaller crew and the ability to outfit the vessel for different missions gives the fleet more flexibility.
The service needs the vessels sooner rather than later, Navy brass has said.
"The sooner we integrate them into our fleet, the sooner we can incorporate them in the order of battle," Adm. J.C. Harvey Jr., commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, said last month when announcing the earlier deployment. "This deployment offers a golden opportunity to learn by doing."
The new approach to the ship's design is obvious inside and out. A huge flight deck dominates the front of the vessel, with an adjacent hangar allowing the ship to carry multiple helicopters, including the unmanned rotary-wing Fire Scout that is now being tested on the USS McInerney.
Down below, the ship has two 33-foot-long inflatable boats, while atop are guns designed to be used for surface warfare missions.
In theory, almost half the ship can be reconfigured with modules brought aboard that would equip the ship to hunt submarines or search for mines.
Signs of that modular nature can be found throughout the ship, including the large gray shipping containers holding equipment used by the helicopter squadron and even bunks for some of the additional personnel temporarily assigned to the ship.
Mayport is slated to get eight of the new ships between 2015 and 2019, with additional ones possible in years after that, although that schedule is widely seen as overly optimistic. Those vessels would serve to replace the 13 frigates now home-ported at the naval station, ships that will be phased out over the next five years.
The LCS program has been criticized over the five years it has been in the works, with opponents knocking the escalating cost and some of the strategic assumptions behind the design. The Freedom came in closer to $640 million, rather than the $220 million originally projected.
'WE GET TO PUSH OURSELVES'
For those aboard the Freedom, the opportunity to work in a new way has been a success. …