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When the littoral combat ship Freedom set sail from San Diego in March, the ship carried an unusual crew. This newest class of warship normally sails only with experienced sailors and officers, most with at least one tour under their belts. But as Freedom headed for a 10-month deployment to Southeast Asia, three new ensigns were aboard.
Within just a few days underway, the ship’s captain reported, all three had qualified as junior officer of the deck.
“That’s really unheard of, as normally it takes junior officers with no sea time much longer to qualify as JOOD underway,” said Joe Shifflett, who runs the Littoral Combat Ship Training Facility at Naval Station San Diego.
The difference was the hours spent in the facility’s revolutionary LCS trainer, where they had practiced getting underway and driving the ship as one of Freedom’s two swappable crews. This ability to get “sea time” inside a building puts the LCS on the cutting edge of the Navy’s simulation capabilities.
Shifflett said the ensigns were recent Naval Academy and ROTC graduates who attended Surface Warfare Officer School and the Basic Division Officer Course, but would not have completed sufficient sea time to qualify right out of college.
And it wasn’t just the ensigns who qualified quickly. According to Shifflett, 3rd Fleet officials certified both of Freedom’s crews for deployment after just a few weeks of underway time off the California coast. This was key to the LCS philosophy of training sailors to be part of multiple crews; the plan is to have three full crews available for every pair of ships.
Training as a Team
“Train to certify” was developed by Navy officials to make sailors qualified members of watch teams before they ever stepped on a real ship — particularly because the LCS is designed with a minimum crew size that means little on-the-job training is available.
“What we’ve done here is become a step between that brick-and-mortar schoolhouse and the ship,” Shifflett said. “We use high-fidelity simulation and emulation-based curriculum that is focused on giving the sailor the portion of their education that’s traditionally been done with shipboard on-the-job type training.”
Depending on their position on the ship, sailors can receive up to a year of individual training to learn about the operation and maintenance of their equipment before they report to their crew. From there, the training becomes highly integrated within the simulated ship.
The schoolhouse does two things. First, it provides students with “capstone training,” four weeks where future crew members learn the details of their individual watch station. They then migrate into an integrated team training environment, building up into subteams such as a bridge, combat information, or a mission module team.
Shifflett said the LCS trainers are “stepping up the ability to support the combat watchstanders for the mission modules initially for mine countermeasures, surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare packages.”
By the end of the training, the mission package and sea-frame sailors work in the same scenarios and train as a group.
“So when they qualify, they’re not qualifying in a vacuum, they’re qualifying with the same gear they’ll use on the ship alongside other watchstanders they’ll have to interact with when they’re deployed as a crew,” Shifflett said.
It’s this part of the training — actually qualifying in their watch station — that’s the biggest departure from how the rest of the fleet still trains today. Many Navy schools use some simulation or virtual reality in the curriculum, but it doesn’t usually go any further.
“In a Navy school, you’re normally sitting shoulder to shoulder with other people going through the same training to do the exact same job you are,” said Phillip Lamonica, head of manning and training in the LCS program. “That’s the opposite of how we train as integrated teams from the start.”
A class in the LCS training facility could include, for example, a fire controlman second class, a second-tour division officer or department head and a operations specialist first class. This is “an actual representation of the watch organization they will be a part of on the ship,” Lamonica said.
After Qualification, More Sims
But even when they’ve qualified as an LCS sailor, simulation continues as a critical portion of their training during both on- and off-hull rotations.
“Notionally, the [LCS] squadron has five weeks blocked off during a four-month off-hull period for the crew to be back here in the trainer,” Shifflett said. “It’s not always fully integrated bridge and combat systems team, as it could be either the bridge subteam or the combat subteam or even the mission package subteam.”
But as crews progress through those five weeks of refresher training, they gradually do more and more as a fully integrated watch team. They work towards being certified as a team before they head back to a ship rotation, Shifflett noted.
And even nondeployed crews often leave the ship pierside and go to the trainer.
“We have basically an hour and a half each day, in between our first and second shifts for the squadron to schedule crews, to get what we call “stick time,” Shifflett said. “Right now, it’s focused on the bridge watch teams, and we can’t support combat systems [teams] yet.”
These groups get what he calls “vanilla ice cream-type of training,” where they complete basic procedures for getting underway, harbor scenarios, and practice underway replenishment approaches.
Upgrades to Come
Ironically, the more evolved trainer supports the LCS 2-class ship, not the earlier LCS 1, whose basic trainer is slated to get upgraded over the next few years.
In 2014, officials are planning to bring in the ability to simulate gun and missile shoots and electronic warfare.
Beyond that, many of the upgrades won’t happen until the entire training facility moves into a new, larger building closer to the waterfront on Naval Station San Diego’s “wetside.”
The contract for the new facility is expected to be awarded within the fiscal year, and should be fully operational by the beginning of 2016, according to Shifflett. However, completion of the project on those dates depends on the funding staying in place.
Those developing the facility hope it will take already strong training to a new level. In addition to the same team simulators available, there are plans to add a virtual reality trainer and mockups of sections of the ship.
The biggest addition will be full-size mockups of the mission bays, one for each class of the LCS ship, which Lamonica said are “drastically different in layout and size, but which function roughly the same.”
There, crews will lay out their mission module gear exactly as they would in the real ship. They’ll even have the same cranes and forklifts to work with, for moving equipment from the storage position to the pre-staging area to do underway checks.
In the mine countermeasures package, crews will prepare their remote mine-hunting vehicle and do everything they normally would on the ship, right up to the point when they would release it into the water.
“At that point, the training will shift to virtual, with our virtual trainers teaching at the consoles,” Lamonica said. The sailor will launch the vehicle virtually and complete the mission. But then, “It’s back to the mission bay mockup, where they’ll recover, do the actual post-mission checks, and put everything back away.”
Alongside this hybrid training will be a virtual reality lab, where high-tech gaming software will allow sailors to train anywhere in the ship without leaving the building.
“Students will enter any LCS 1 or LCS 2 ship as an avatar and be able to walk through the ship and interface with their watch stations and the equipment to a level of fidelity unheard of in the Navy,” Shifflett said.
For example, they’ll be able to train not only individual sailors, but teams of sailors working together.
“If an engineer is doing a maintenance check on a pump that requires two people to complete — one to lift the cover while the other changes the filter — this trainer will do that,” Shifflett said. “The other benefit is we’ll be able to change the configuration to match the actual gear on the vessel this sailor is going to, because the exact gear on LCS 1 and LCS 39 might be quite different.”