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March 2007

FEATURE ARTICLE

April 2001

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 unique."

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 (CIWS).

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 eye.

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.

Difficult Moves
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 Franken.

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:

  • 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 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.

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 interesting."

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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