USS Churchill Shows Off High-Tech Gear
Navy’s latest destroyer, en route to
commissioning, polishes skills of its crew
by Harold Kennedy
Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy’s newest and most potent
Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer–the USS Winston
S. Churchill (DDG-81)–sailed from the shipyard in tiny Bath,
Maine, where it was built, to the huge naval base at Norfolk, Va.,
for its commissioning and duty in the Atlantic Fleet.
The wintry cruise was punctuated with port calls along the way
at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, N.H., and New York City to allow
the $1 billion ship to show off the technological marvels stuffed
inside its 513 feet-long hull.
During the port calls, the ship’s crew conducted public tours
of the vessel at dockside, and a few civilian guests–mainly
representatives from the defense industry and the news media, including
a reporter from National Defense magazine–were invited along
for portions of the cruise.
Mindful of the experience of the USS Greeneville, the submarine
that collided with and sank a Japanese fishing vessel near Hawaii
just days before, the Churchill’s crewmembers politely, but
firmly kept their visitors away from the ship’s controls.
"We don’t want anything untoward to happen," explained
the Churchill’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Michael T. Franken.
The Navy is investigating charges that the Greeneville’s visitors
may have distracted its crew during a critical surfacing maneuver,
contributing to the accident, which resulted in nine Japanese citizens
being lost at sea and presumed dead.
The voyage also gave the Churchill’s 351 officers and enlisted
crew members one last opportunity, before commissioning, to polish
the skills required to run this latest "greyhound of the sea,"
as destroyers are known.
The Churchill is named for Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill,
best known for his leadership as prime minister of the United Kingdom,
from the darkest days of World War II to the dawn of the Cold War.
She is the first U.S. warship to be named for an Englishman since
the end of the American Revolution.
She also is the only U.S. Navy ship to have a British Royal Navy
officer assigned as a member of the ship’s company. Lt. Angus
Essenhigh, of Portsmouth, England, is serving as ship’s navigator
during his two-year tour of duty. He told National Defense that
he volunteered for the job.
"My captain told me that it was available, and I jumped at
it," he said. "It’s a fantastic opportunity to serve
as liaison with any other navy. To serve with the U.S. Navy is pretty
Launched in 1999, the Churchill is the 31st of 51 Arleigh Burke
destroyers to be built for the Navy. She is the 18th to be built
by Bath Iron Works. The others have been built by Litton Ingalls
Shipbuilding, in Pascagoula, Miss.
Since her launching, the Churchill has been through the slow process
of receiving and installing equipment and undergoing a series of
arduous sea trials to ensure that she is ready to become a ship
of the line.
The testing process is not yet complete, Franken said. The Churchill
is scheduled to conduct shock trials in May, followed by a goodwill
tour of the United Kingdom, he noted. She will not join the battle
fleet until October of 2002.
Already, however, the Churchill is crammed, from stem to stern,
with the latest in naval weaponry. She contains several improvements
over previous ships of the Arleigh Burke class. For example:
- The Mk 45 Mod 4 Naval Gun System–made by United Defense
Armament Systems Division, of Minneapolis–will fire a 5-inch
62-caliber extended-range guided munition (ERGM) that is designed
to hit precise targets more than 60 nautical miles away.
- Two hangars, not present in earlier destroyers, can house LAMPS
(for light, airborne, multipurpose system) MK III SH-60B Seahawk
helicopters, made by the Sikorsky Aircraft Division of the United
Technologies Corporation, in Hartford, Conn. The LAMPS MK IIIs
can be armed with air-to-surface missiles to attack hostile submarines
and missile-equipped surface ships.
- The AN/SPY-1D phased array radar incorporates significant advances
in the detection capabilities of the Aegis weapon system, particularly
in resistance to enemy electronic countermeasures (ECM).
This high-powered radar can guide more than 100 vertically launched
missiles simultaneously to targets as distant as 600 nautical miles.
The Churchill carries Tomahawk, Standard and ASROC (VLA) Missiles.
Heart of the System
The AN/SPY-1D is the heart of the Aegis system, which is named for
the mythical shield of Zeus. Aegis is a surface-to-air integrated
weapons system, designed to defend U.S. ships against any airborne
threat. Currently, it is used on two types of vessels, Ticonderoga-class
cruisers and Arleigh Burke destroyers.
To protect itself against other ships, the Churchill carries six
Mk-46 torpedoes, which are fired from two triple-tube mounts.
To provide "last-chance" protection against anti-ship
missiles and littoral-warfare threats that have penetrated other
defenses, the ship is armed with two Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems
The Phalanx–made by the Raytheon Company Electronic Systems,
of El Segundo, Calif.–is a fast-reaction, rapid-fire 20 mm
gun system. It features the M-61A1 Gatling gun, which can fire up
to 4,500 armor-piercing rounds per minute.
The Phalanx automatically detects, tracks and engages anti-ship
missiles and aircraft, while the Block 1B’s man-in-the-loop
system counters the emerging littoral warfare threat. This new threat
includes small, high-speed surface craft, small terrorist aircraft,
helicopters and surface mines.
The terrorist threat was very much on the minds of the Churchill’s
officers and crew during the cruise. When the ship pulled into New
York Harbor–one of the largest, most chaotic in the world–the
crew went on heightened alert and stayed there until she cruised
out, four days later.
As the Churchill docked at Staten Island’s Stapleton Pier,
sailors stood guard in the bridge wings, wearing combat helmets
and armored vests, armed with loaded M-60 machine guns and carefully
scanning every vessel around them. Other sailors, armed with automatic
shotguns, patrolled the waters around the Churchill in rigid, rubber
rafts. Once the ship docked, heavily armed guards, wearing camouflaged
combat clothing, were posted at the entrance to the pier, a long
distance from the vessel.
"We’re all sensitive to what happened to the USS Cole,
and we don’t want that to happen to us," said Lt. Cmdr.
James Morrison, a public affairs officer assigned temporarily to
the Churchill. The Cole was disabled last year in the Middle Eastern
port of Aden by a terrorist bombing that killed 17 sailors.
Departing New York, the Churchill demonstrated her agility. She
zigzagged through the busy harbor, past slower-moving ships–primarily
container and tankers–from ports as distant as Bremen, Monrovia,
Nassau and Singapore. Increasing her speed to above 20 knots, she
passed beneath the 228 foot-high Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which
spans the harbor entrance, with about 18 feet to spare, according
to estimates by ship’s officers.
Once at sea, the Churchill began testing her new equipment. She
shot 19 practice rounds from the Mk 45 Mod 4 gun. The target–a
12 foot cube of red plastic, nicknamed "the killer red tomato"–was
about five and a half miles away, too far to be seen with the naked
The gun, which can fire 20 rounds per minute, expended its shells
in four rapid bursts. The rounds were inert–meaning they contained
no explosives–so a direct hit would have been necessary to
damage the target, explained Fire Control Technician 3rd Class Bill
Placek, in the ship’s combat information center.
None actually hit the target, although several came within yards.
The rounds fell in "a nice grouping," Placek said. "If
the rounds had been live, we would have killed the target."
Still, Franken said, the firing "didn’t go the way that
my people wanted it to go. They wanted to do ‘a John Wayne,’"
a direct hit.
To dispose of the target–and to give the crew some small
arms practice–Franken ordered the ship to get close to the
killer red tomato. At that point, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class
James Jensen, posted on the port bridge wing, received permission
to pump it full of holes with 7.62 mm rounds from his M-60 machine
gun. The target finally sank beneath the waves, to the cheers of
the ship’s crew.
The Churchill also practiced helicopter landings, both during the
daytime and at night. The purpose of the practice landings, using
a Seahawk helicopter from Patuxent Naval Air Station, in Maryland,
was to determine the ship’s "wind envelope."
Because the Churchill contains two hangars that previous destroyers
did not have, it is slightly longer than its predecessors. Thus,
the wind conditions required for safe landings on the Churchill
are a little different and are still being determined.
For hour after hour, in the cold, gray mid-winter daylight and
the pitch black of the Atlantic night–broken primarily by
the lights on the landing deck–the ship and the helicopter
repeated their mating dance.
The maneuver was made difficult, in part, by 46-knot wind gusts,
which rocked both the ship and the chopper. Both had to match their
motions carefully to achieve each landing.
Another factor was the crew’s inexperience. At one point,
the nighttime landings had to be postponed briefly, because a critical
team member was still in bed. "I’ll have words with him,"
his chagrined supervisor promised.
The incident pointed up the importance of a trained and ready crew.
"There’s a lot of very fine technology on this ship,
but the most important thing about her is the people," said
Many of the crew are inexperienced, he noted. "For more than
half, this is their first ship," he said. Some boarded as recently
as December, he noted.
Crewmembers are also young. The average age of enlisted personnel,
including senior non-commissioned officers, is 28. Officers are
an average of 31 years of age.
A total of 53 crewmembers–including several officers–are
women, 15 percent of the whole. Some of the ship’s older,
male traditionalists are unhappy about their presence. "I’d
just as soon they weren’t here," said one senior non-com,
who asked not to be identified.
The ship’s captain, however, made it clear that women are
welcome. "The older generation can’t get used to women
on ships," said Franken, who graduated from the University
of Nebraska in 1981. "But my generation doesn’t think
twice about it." His replacement as commander of the Churchill
is scheduled to be a woman, he said.
The women seem quite comfortable on the ship, although one–Seaman’s
Apprentice Candice C. Nicholas–said she could use more space.
"There’s 21 women in my berthing area," she explained.
"If you look in the females’ lockers, everything is just
smashed. The guys just don’t bring as much."
All enlisted personnel–men and women alike–have to
squeeze all of their belongings into one narrow wall locker apiece
and a thin space, a few inches deep, underneath their beds. The
beds, called racks, are stacked three high, with less than two feet
between them. The top one is six feet off the deck, the bottom,
less than a foot. Reading a book in bed is difficult, at best. The
only way to get in or out is to roll.
Despite the small spaces, crewmembers eventually have to learn
to get along, they explain. "It’s like, I may hate your
guts," said Placek. "But when we’re on liberty,
I’ll watch your back, and you’ll watch mine."
The crowding is made easier, ship’s officers said, by the
availability of some creature comforts. The Churchill, they noted,
offers most of the services associated with a small town, including:
The enlisted mess deck serves three hot meals a day, with a choice
of entrees. To help pass long nights at sea, the mess deck is equipped
with big-screen televisions, which show movies–such as "Shaft"–-every
night. A stereo system is available to play music. The CD of choice
one night of the voyage was "The Dixie Chicks." On special
evenings, such as the night before entering a port, pizza may be served.
- Two physical-fitness centers.
- A library.
- A bank with an automatic teller machine.
- A small store.
- A vending machine.
- Hairdressing services for men and women.
The ship’s captain does what he can to keep even the day-to-day
work entertaining for his crew. "I have to keep these people
interested," Franken said. "I have to keep them wanting
to do this."
The Churchill is heavily dependent upon information technology,
Franken said. "We have 13 LANs on board, without which we’re
sunk," he said. Software is becoming a big, big deal."
To run this sophisticated equipment requires highly trained technicians,
Franken said. "But I can’t offer the kinds of pay and
benefits that they can get from AOL, Microsoft and all the dot coms.
I can’t compete with them. All I can do is to make this job
During this voyage, for example, the Churchill joined with another
destroyer, the USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79)–commissioned just
last summer–to conduct leapfrog exercises.
The purpose was to practice the skills needed for the ships to
refuel at sea. During the drill, each ship was required to move
up quickly beside the other. The move had to be done carefully to
avoid collision. First, one did the maneuver, then the other.
To add an element of fun to the exercise, the captain of the Churchill
authorized his crew to attempt to pelt the other ship with raw eggs,
spray it with a high-pressure water hose, and then speed away to
the raucous sound of the Rolling Stones rock classic, "Satisfaction."
The high jinks went awry, however, when the Austin proved to be
too far away to be hit in the high wind. Still, the Churchill’s
skipper–insisting that "fair is fair"–ordered
his ship to slow down and permit the Austin to return fire. The
Austin, however, declined.
Those kinds of lighthearted escapades are useful, Navy officers
said, in building esprit de corps on a ship. If so, they seem to
have been successful on the Churchill, where junior enlisted sailors
told reporters over and over again: "This is the best ship
in the Navy. They don’t know it yet, but we are going to prove
it to them."
The chance for the Churchill’s crew to prove themselves was
just beginning as the ship cruised into Norfolk and docked along
a long line of battleships. A few days later, in early March, the
USS Winston S. Churchill received her commission, becoming officially
the newest destroyer in the fleet.
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