By Cmdr. Rich Jarrett
Commanding Officer, USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) and LCS Crew 102
On a wintery Norfolk day – January 24, 2005 – I reported to Training Support Center (TSC) Hampton Roads to start my second department head tour as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO). Unlike my first assignment in the fine destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71), this follow-on job would be quite different from anything in the surface force. My orders directed me to “PRECOMUNIT FREEDOM LCS 1,” and I did not report to a ship, but to a small office space for new construction crews. The first day on the job led to a pair of rooms that were mostly barren, outfitted with a couple of desks that were missing chairs, no computers, no phone and an empty supply cabinet. I was met by a salty Master Chief and a gruff limited duty officer chief engineer who were among the 12 “nucleus crew” members and the trailblazers tasked to commission the first littoral combat ship (LCS).
Ten years removed from my start as a LCS Sailor, I can now look back on those days from an extremely satisfying vantage point here in the South China Sea, perched in the commanding officer’s chair on the bridge of USS Fort Worth (LCS 3). With the time nearing to relinquish command of this agile and lethal warship, I can’t help but recall earlier days in USS Freedom (LCS 1) and take note of the leaps of progress made in a relatively short period. The sailing has not always been smooth for our LCS program, but my experience aboard Fort Worth throughout U.S. 7th Fleet gives me confidence in the future of these ships and their ability to serve our Navy with distinction in the decades to come.
During my initial years as a LCS Sailor, the speed of delivery combined with typical challenges of a new ship design presented some real difficulties for the first crews and Freedom veterans certainly have plenty of sea stories to tell about keeping the lights on and the engines running. Through it all, Sailor ingenuity and hard work consistently won the day. It was their can-do attitude that kept the first LCS moving forward, building experience and learning lessons that would improve Freedom and follow on ships of the class. There is likely no other ship class in the Fleet where a Sailor’s feedback can result in rapid changes to ship design, procedures or outfitting in the way we address those issues with our LCS crews. By rapidly putting the first LCS hulls in the hands of Sailors, the pace of change and improvement has been substantive and the most pressing lessons learned from Freedom have been visibly applied with Fort Worth. As a result, LCS is making a real operational impact here in the Asia-Pacific.
As we operate forward aboard Fort Worth, I am completely fulfilled as my team focuses on the employment of weapons systems, engagement with foreign partners, and fostering innovation with our surface warfare (SUW) mission package. Instead of working toward basic program milestones, our Sailors are now focused on tactical employment and innovation of every element in a LCS – and it is loads of fun! We have fantastic capabilities in our SUW mission package and every Sailor is energized as we simultaneously demonstrate an impressive combination of shipboard speed and maneuver, manned and unmanned aviation systems, and a cadre of Sailors in the SUW Mission Detachment that are completely entrenched in the “Warfighting First” mindset. With the ship advancing its operations, our partners in the Asia-Pacific region are taking notice. During a recent CARAT exercise in the Philippines, Fort Worth put on an impressive display of simultaneous aviation and boat operations with its 11M RHIB and embarked MH-60R helicopter, demonstrating a level of complexity that some may have thought impossible in a ship with such a small crew. In a combined gunnery exercise with the Philippine Navy, Fort Worth annihilated the test target with direct hits from a 10-round salvo of 57mm gunfire – putting an exclamation point on the live fire event that was the buzz of the closing ceremony the following day
While we continue to improve LCS’ performance characteristics and build upon its operational employment, I believe our biggest achievement is the development of proficient, rotational crews. In the past ten years, we’ve evolved from a single crew, to Blue/Gold Crew rotations, and are now executing a 3:2:1 rotation of three crews sharing two ships, one ship of which is forward deployed. For a small crew to be effective, qualified talent must be ready to operate the ship from day one and it is essential that our crews demonstrate the ability to train ashore in a way that allows them to operate at sea with proficiency. Our crew training systems are vastly improved from their first iterations and LCS Sailors arrive having completed their PQS and under instruction performance items in a shore-based curriculum of classroom training, simulator experience and “school ship” exercises. We are just dipping our toes in the water with training systems that foster the “Train-to-Qualify” concept, but it is working well in ways that few would have imagined ten years ago and we are delivering Sailors who are ready to stand the watch their first day aboard ship.
The Surface Navy has come a long way with LCS. Ten years after I first started as a Plankowner in Freedom, I have reinvigorated enthusiasm for the future of our LCS fleet after bearing witness to the progress made in Fort Worth. LCS platforms have unique capabilities and modular mission payloads that set them apart from the rest of our surface force and there is amazing potential in the mission systems that are being fielded now in the currently deployed SUW Mission Package. What’s more, the size and composition of our ship’s basic components matches up nicely with our partners here in 7th Fleet. We have the ability to engage at a level that is more accessible to many of the navies operating in the Asia-Pacific and the participation of Fort Worth in the 2015 series of CARAT exercises is being well received by our friends in the region. With even greater advances in performance already in the works for future Freedom-variant ships like the future USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), USS Detroit (LCS 7), and USS Little Rock (LCS 9), as well as with some amazing technology in the next mission package systems that are being deployed soon, it is easy to get excited about the next chapter in the LCS story. Sign me up for another ten years!