MOBILE, Ala. - Inside and out, the new USS Independence is like few other warships put into service by the U.S. Navy. The severe angles of the unpainted aluminum trimaran give way inside to a spacious interior covered by aluminum-foil-like fire protection cladding - which gives one the sense of being surrounded by a foil burrito wrapper.
The relatively few interior working spaces in the pyramidal superstructure are connected by wide passageways and stairwells - not ladders - reflecting the design's origin as a commercial ferry. Unusually for a naval ship, some stairwells even turn corners, as in a landlocked building.
The vast flight deck that tops the after third of this 417-foot-long ship is almost 90 feet wide and is the biggest ever fitted to a surface combatant. The large hangar features two roller doors, has great interior height and is able to house two H-60 helicopters. On the starboard side of the hangar, a vehicle elevator leads down to the mission bay, the ship's primary payload area.
The mission bay is one of the key features of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) concept, which envisions a ship able to move at speeds of more than 45 knots that can take on extra equipment tailored to specific missions such as anti-surface or anti-submarine warfare, all packaged into mission modules. The Independence design, adapted by General Dynamics Bath Iron Works from a high-speed commercial ferry design from the Australian firm Austal, features a hull described variously as a three-hull trimaran or a monohull supported by outriggers. Either way, the configuration has never before been used for a U.S. warship.
The mission bay is about the width of six highway traffic lanes, split into thirds fore-and-aft by steel supports. The space would seem to have no trouble simultaneously housing two of the planned mission modules.
During a Jan. 4 visit to the Independence, shipyard workers from Austal USA swarmed the ship, even though the Navy took delivery Dec. 18 and the commissioning ceremony is to take place here Jan. 16. Rear Adm. James Murdoch, the Navy's LCS program manager, acknowledged work will continue past the commissioning date, including, for example, work on the stern doors at the rear of the mission bay and on the overhead cradle system that will be used to launch and recover waterborne vehicles.
"Those will be tested in the future, after sailaway from the yard," Murdoch said.
Although the Independence began initial sea trials in early July and has been underway numerous times - at speeds up to 46 knots - those voyages were crewed by civilian mariners hired by shipbuilder Austal USA. The ship's two Navy crews - Blue and Gold - are eager to take the ship to sea, said Cmdr. Curt Renshaw, commanding officer of the Blue Crew. But much of the ship's equipment still needs to be certified for operation, he said, and sailors will then need to be qualified. That means the ship likely won't get underway manned by a Navy crew until late February or more likely March.
The Navy was keeping a tight lid on visits to the ship but relaxed those rules after the ship's delivery. A small group of reporters was among the first media to get a good look inside the ship.
The wide bridge area on the O4 level is surrounded on three sides by large windows more akin to a cruise liner than a gray warship. The ship control stations are in the center, up close to the glass: side-by-side seats and consoles for use by the officer of the deck and the readiness control coordinator or junior officer of the deck. The two watchstanders can use either left or right seats according to preference. Each has a multifunction joystick that is also the ship's helm.
Between the two positions are controls for the two gas turbines and two diesels that each power a steerable water jet. A fifth control operates a drop-down azimuthing bow thruster.
Sitting between the two and behind them is a third seat for a tactical awareness coordinator - essentially, Renshaw said, a third set of hands on the bridge who can handle a variety of duties. The commanding officer has his seat in the traditional forward starboard corner location.
Interior Communications Center
The area behind the control positions is filled by Interior Communications Center No. 1 (ICC1), a combat information center-like set of consoles complemented by a similar ICC2 below on the O1 level. Although the ICCs have interchangeable functionality, ICC1 on the bridge will be used primarily for ship-related functions such as self-defense, navigation and the engineering watch, while ICC2 will be dedicated for use by the mission module detachments. A curtain can close off ICC1 from the bridge watch.
The ICCs also function as the ship's central damage control and machinery control centers, and the ship's internal computer network allows laptop control from dozens of drops throughout the vessel. With the right access codes, for example, any laptop connected to the network can control the ship, including engineering and navigation functions.
No exterior bridge wings are provided; as a high-speed ship, the Independence is meant to be handled from inside. Toward the rear of each side of the bridge, there is a large roll-down window from which a sailor can stick his head out to peer forward or aft or down to the water. A set of halyards leads to a bar just outside the window, and an aluminum flag bag for signal flags lies just inside. Forward, all anchor- and line-handling arrangements are inside the bow.
The narrow bow forward of the bridge - not meant to be regularly accessed while the ship is underway - features an enclosure for the future Non-Line-of-Sight surface-to-surface missile battery and, ahead of that, an automatic 57mm gun mount. Forward of the gun, the deck drops off precipitously to the prow, which is not visible from the bridge. Video cameras on the bow and around the ship give the watch a topside view.
Two machinery rooms in the central hull each contain a General Electric LM 2500 gas turbine and MTU 8000 diesel. The outer hulls carry little gear and are mostly void space, Renshaw said. Two damage control stations are provided, both on the port side at each end of the mission bay. A small boat deck on the port quarter carries one rigid-hull inflatable boat.
The mess deck and wardroom share a common galley, and individual berths - though not the staterooms - are large and roomy, big enough for a sailor to sit up, stretch his arms and work on a fold-down tray table that can hold a laptop. The big, double-high racks are designed to give way to triple-highs should the need arise to increase berthing space.
On sailaway, the Independence is expected to head to Norfolk, Va., for more tests and trials before eventually going westward to its future homeport of San Diego, Calif.
There are many similarities and dissimilarities between the GD's Independence design and that of the first LCS, Freedom, from Lockheed Martin. Sometime this spring or summer, the Navy will choose one of the designs as the basis for 51 more LCS ships.