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Awesome sea duty: LCS crews advance fast and rack up quals

But high rewards require a breakneck pace

Jul. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Sailors from the littoral combat ship Independence use the intergrated trainer at the Littoral Combat Ship Training Facility at Naval Station San Diego. Because the LCS operates with a small crew, sailors must arrive fully qualified.
Sailors from the littoral combat ship Independence use the intergrated trainer at the Littoral Combat Ship Training Facility at Naval Station San Diego. Because the LCS operates with a small crew, sailors must arrive fully qualified. (Mark D. Faram / Staff)
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Getting on LCS

Enlisted sailors can look for billets on the Career Information System/Interactive Detailing. Those seeking billets also need to get the approval of the Sea Special Programs detailers, which requires special screening. More information is available at Click on ‘Enlisted,’ then ‘Enlisted Detailing’ and ‘Sea Special Programs,’ and finally ‘LCS.’
To nail down an LCS billet is tougher for officers, who are assigned through the normal detailing process. Surface warfare officers interested in joining an LCS crew are encouraged to contact their detailer.

Culinary Specialist 1st Class (SW) Shannon Drosdak isn't an ordinary Navy cook, and her job isn't just in the galley.

Culinary Specialist 1st Class (SW) Shannon Drosdak isn't an ordinary Navy cook, and her job isn't just in the galley.

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NAVAL STATION SAN DIEGO — Culinary Specialist 1st Class (SW) Shannon Drosdak isn’t an ordinary Navy cook, and her job isn’t just in the galley.

A member of a littoral combat ship Independence crew since 2011, serving food is one part of her job — the rest is pure sailor work.

“On LCS, you’re not just your rate, you do everything, and I mean everything,” she said.

That’s how it is for all sailors assigned to either type of the minimally manned LCS. When on watch, many do the work that multiple ratings handle on traditional Navy ships and everyone performs critical shipboard functions.

“On LCS, everyone is critical to the mission,” she said. “When we go to sea and anchor detail, I’m back aft, handling lines. And when we go to flight quarters, I’m part of the firefighting team, working the plug and the list goes on — we’re tight-knit and help each other out. Even the [commanding officer] does his own dishes.”

Drosdak is part of a bow-wave of a new brand of sailor. They’re sometimes referred to as “hybrid sailors” or “super sailors,” and the name fits. Those titles come from extensive cross-training and watch station quals required to get a position on one of these ships.

They work hard — some near exhaustion. But those who can hack it can reap big rewards for their time and energy spent on the cutting edge of the Navy fleet.

Career benefits include:

■ Logging extended training that can net up to six new Navy enlisted classifications — giving you an edge come advancement time.

■ Earning shipboard qualifications above your paygrade.

■ Above-average advancements for petty officers and chiefs.

Lifestyle-wise, there are benefits, too, including:

■ Predictable four-month deployment schedules.

■ Better living conditions onboard ship, such as plush quarters with few roommates. There are no traditional berthing areas as on other ships; everyone is in staterooms. At most, a sailor will have to share a living space and head with three additional shipmates.

■ Homeport options of San Diego and Jacksonville, Fla., with stints to Bahrain and Singapore.

Still, those perks come at a cost, officials say. If you’re not a hard charger, perhaps an LCS crew is not for you. Sources familiar with studies done by the Navy over the past two years, warn that the optimal manning construct of the LCS program puts sailors at risk of burning out.

It takes up to a year and a half to train sailors for some of these jobs, and the Navy needs hundreds of volunteers starting now. Tens of thousands of sailors are eligible.

The crew for each type is 50 people — eight officers and 42 enlisted in 14 ratings. The ships will also carry an aviation detachment of up to 23 people and mission module packages that require another 15 to 19 people to operate. The Navy is also beginning to recruit people for the mission packages, but details on those programs are less firm.

The plan is to build 52 of the two classes of LCS, with 24 slated to join the fleet by the end of the decade. Those same plans call for three rotating crews for every two ships, with one crew “off hull” at all times.

Multiple NECs and quals

LCS is the place to be if you want to progress in your career at a pace not seen in the regular surface Navy, said Command Master Chief (SW/FMF) Christopher Kotz, part of the “blue” crew on the Freedom.

“The LCS program provides the opportunity to become a highly trained sailor with multiple skill sets,” he said. “LCS sailors have been commonly called ‘hybrid sailors’ due to the amount of cross-training they receive.”

Many ratings in the LCS program have training pipelines of up to a year that net them between four and six NECs along the way, in their ratings and in related ones.

“In one tour on LCS, you can get more NECs than most sailors get in a whole career,” said Electronics Technician 1st Class (SW) Paul Hoffman, who has also qualified in NECs that normally only information systems technicians and interior communications electricians earn in the “legacy” fleet.

As an ET, he can work toward becoming the combat systems officer of the watch and potentially qualify as the engineering officer of the watch. In port, he can qualify as the command duty officer, as well.

It’s like that for most ratings on an LCS. For example, Kotz said, a fire controlman first class, because of the position he or she fills on the ship, will qualify as an anti-terrorism force protection training supervisor and defensive systems operator.

Those two LCS positions encompass jobs normally done by six different sailors on legacy ships. Those legacy jobs are combat systems coordinator, surface warfare coordinator, anti-air warfare coordinator, global command and control systems maritime operator and electronic warfare coordinator.

In addition, the Navy now gives additional NECs to identify LCS sailors by position and type of ship they’ve qualified on, something recently approved by the Navy Manpower Analysis Center in Millington, Tenn. While not the case now, these NECs could be targeted for bonuses.

Navy officials changed the rules for LCS sailors regarding selective re-enlistment bonuses, broadening the eligible ratings to reflect that these sailors are doing more and learning more. For example, to get a bonus as a network administrator, a regular fleet sailor must be in the information systems technician rating. But if an LCS ET or FC nets themselves that NEC and he qualifies for bonus money the next time he re-enlists, he can collect.

Regardless of rating, LCS sailors also learn diverse skills such as small boat operations, flight operations, underway replenishment and sea and anchor details.

It’s in these roles, Kotz said, that “technical expertise and leadership experience is gained in a faster and more dynamic way.”

“It is not uncommon for a first class petty officer to be leading an evolution which involves multiple chiefs, junior officers, and fellow first classes,” Kotz said. “We have chief petty officers that lead shipboard evolutions outside of their traditional departmental lane.”

Faster advancements

The benefits aren’t lost on LCS sailors who spoke to Navy Times.

“It’s provided me with a tremendous baseline of knowledge and experience that I’d never have gotten staying on regular surface ships,” said Electrician’s Mate 1st Class (SW) Don Barron.

This adds up, Kotz said, to a valuable sailor for the Navy and that gives that sailor an advantage when competing for advancement.

“We’re averaging between 8 to 10 percentage points higher than the legacy fleet when it comes to making chief petty officer,” said Command Master Chief (SW/AW) Anthony Decker, the top enlisted sailor at the Littoral Combat Ship Squadron in San Diego until he retired last month. “We’re also advancing higher in the petty officer ranks, as well, and that’s mainly due to the higher level of knowledge our sailors get during the training pipeline and when they’re onboard the ship.”

Selection boards to E-7 and higher often look for ways to break ties between two seemingly equal sailors, Decker said, and an LCS sailor who has qualified in multiple watch stations, some well above their paygrade in the traditional Navy, will stand out from the crowd.

Predictable deployment plans

Because LCSs are operated by multiple rotating crews, officials say this will result in sailors being able to better plan their lives.

Right now, all three LCSs in operation (the Independence, Freedom and Fort Worth) and the fourth that’s finishing up construction (the Coronado) each have two crews rotating four months on and off the hull.

But starting next summer, for the Freedom variant, officials plan to start the “3-2-1” plan. This plan involves one crew on hull, one crew off and the third on deployment. This switch will correspond with the first deployment of the Fort Worth.

When the Independence and Coronado, both twin-hull designed ships, make the switch to “3-2-1” has yet to be determined.

Eventually, all LCS sailors will count on a rotation of four months off hull, four more training up stateside on one ship and four more months deployed before starting the rotation again.

Homestead in San Diego

Those who thrive on LCS life can submit for multiple tours within the community, providing the coveted stability of moving somewhere and staying there.

Navy officials say there are no plans to require LCS sailors to complete multiple tours in the community. This practice, called “closed-loop NEC detailing,” was once thought necessary to build a “critical mass” of LCS sailors in the Navy, officials said.

“Closed-loop detailing was debated at the highest levels and decided against,” Decker said. “So despite the rumors out there, there’s no current plans to make this a closed loop community.”

Instead, with LCS enlisted shipboard billets available for paygrades E-4 through E-8, officials hope to encourage multiple LCS tours rather than mandate them.

One way to entice sailors is offering two of the Navy’s most sought-after fleet concentration areas — San Diego and Jacksonville. While plans are underway to forward-deploy ships to Bahrain and Singapore, those crews will not be there permanently.

At present, the only duty station is Naval Station San Diego. In 2016, LCS-9, the Little Rock, will be the first at Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville. After that, the numbers of LCSs at both locations will grow steadily until 2025, when the Navy hopes to have all 52 ships built.

And according to Lt. Savanna Steffen, manpower planner for the LCS squadron in San Diego, they’re already slating crews for ships up to LCS 10. In other words, you could start planning for a move to Jax.

At both locations, there is a real possibility of “homesteading,” and moving from sea to shore in LCS-related billets at either location will be possible.

“There will be maintenance billets ashore for LCS and we are still working through some options on how best to staff them whether part of dedicated LCS teams or part of [regional maintenance centers],” a Navy official said.

Besides maintenance billets, there’s the possibility of logistics and training billets.

“The sailors get some geographic stability and career-enhancing shore duty while the program continues to see dividends from the training and operational investment we’ve made in our people,” the official said.

The downside

So you’ve read all the positive aspects of LCS. Here comes the bad.

If you’re eager to get out to sea on one of these ships, you’ll have to first face a fair amount of training — as much as a year for some ratings.

Once onboard, the whole crew, mostly composed of E-4s and above, will have to chip in on even the most menial tasks. Everyone cleans and takes part in shipboard evolutions such as fire party, flight operations and underway replenishment.

Studies of crew fatigue conducted over the past two years compared fatigue levels between LCS crews and those of guided-missile cruisers during a fleet exercise. Fatigue among LCS crews during low-tempo operations was found to be comparable to a cruiser’s crew fatigue levels during high-tempo operations, according to a Navy source. This fatigue became evident in as few as three days of operations.

Those studies generated much debate among the Navy’s leadership about LCS crew size, which has steadily increased from 40 people to 50. And studies continue, sources said, with the addition of junior sailors and officers to help out. Crews work in three shifts, with six hours on watch and 12 hours off. Although that might sound great on the surface, your sleep could get interrupted easily if the ship does an underway replenishment or goes to flight quarters during your off-watch hours.

“It takes nearly all hands to do an underway replenishment,” said Barron, who has been in the Navy 15 years.

“If you’re a first class who likes being the supervisor and hang around the shop directing others,” this isn’t the place for you, he said.

“When you’re on the ship, it’s high-tempo and you have to develop good time management and prioritization skills to survive, and that goes for planning when you’ll get sleep, too, as there’s not much down time at sea on an LCS.”

It’s sailors like Barron, who can adopt a this-sucks-but-we-love-it attitude, who succeed on LCS. It’s an attitude similar to that of frigate sailors, whose aging ships continually break down. But like frigate sailors, those on LCS get their job satisfaction simply by keeping things going and keeping up with the pace.

“When you’re on hull, it’s intensive whether at sea or in port. There’s always a lot to do,” he said. “That’s the focus — and your wife will be missing you during those four months.”

Those who don’t adapt to that pace can easily burn out, he said, but a majority of those who make it to the ship succeed. He added that the tight-knit nature of the crew comes from helping your shipmate when the workload gets too much.

“You can’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it,” he said. “That’s important, and you need to be willing to respond and help others, as well. It’s just how it works out here.”

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