Navy Refines Littoral Combat Ship Shore Training

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The eyes of a half-dozen crew of Littoral Combat Ship USS Jackson (LCS-6) were staring at computer displays, tracking contacts and consulting manuals in the warship’s dimmed pilot house as the bridge watch team guided the ship through foggy waters. However, Jackson wasn’t at sea. The gold crew members of […]

Sailors stand a simulated watch on the bridge of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Integrated Tactical Trainer (ITT)-2B at the Littoral Training Facility on Naval Base San Diego, March 5, 2020. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The eyes of a half-dozen crew of Littoral Combat Ship USS Jackson (LCS-6) were staring at computer displays, tracking contacts and consulting manuals in the warship’s dimmed pilot house as the bridge watch team guided the ship through foggy waters.

However, Jackson wasn’t at sea. The gold crew members of the San Diego-based LCS were working on their individual and team watch-standing skills in the integrated tactical trainer at LCS Training Center Pacific ahead of a navigation assessment. Other Jackson gold crew sailors worked on their Personnel Qualifications Standards and Train-to-Qualify requirements in virtual labs.

Crews enter the immersive trainers to work through simulated scenarios in a realistic, full-scale simulation, where they can fail without fear and unlimited do-overs.

“This is orientation. This is knowledge,” Capt. Dustin Lonero, the commanding officer of LCS Training Facility Pacific told USNI News. “So when they get to their ships, they are ready to integrate it at a much quicker pace.”

That’s particularly important for the LCS community, whose blue/gold crews rotate to their forward-deployed hull every four to five months and must be ready to hit the ground running and operate their ship. With few ships typically available for at-sea training at their home station, the LTF serves a key role to provide that needed training and certification for both individual sailors and crew of off-hull ships.

“Each sailor is valuable,” Lonero said. “You can’t afford to have a sailor who’s not up to speed.”

The simulated training systems, with integrated ship navigation and combat systems, are known as Surface Training Advanced Virtual Environment-LCS. LTF-Pacific has three full-sized spaces that replicate the pilothouse, with bridge wings and 180-degree window screens that enable high-res external imagery that can mimic the swells and movements of a ship underway. Consoles and stations – including for the officer-of-the-deck (OOD), junior officer-of-the-deck (JOOD) and readiness control officer (RCO) and interior communications – are exactly as they are in the real ships.

“Everything here is the exact same model you’ll see on ship,” Lt. Cmdr. George Bank, the LTF-Pacific’s executive officer, said during a recent tour.

About 80 military personnel along with 12 civilian workers and 30 contractors work at LTF-Pacific, plus an additional 30 contractors who provide maintenance as needed, officials said. An East Coast counterpart, LTF-Atlantic, was established in September 2022 in Mayport, Fla., for the LCS-1 USS Freedom fleet of ships. The LTF provides Train-to-Qualify courses that teach sailors new to LCS about its systems and train them to be watchstanders and Train-to-Certify courses for crew certification.

U.S. Marines with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), land an AH-1Z Viper on USS Jackson (LCS-6) during exercise Steel Knight 23, in the Pacific Ocean, Dec. 10, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

The LCS community has minimally-manned crews by design, with hybrid sailors taking on multiple responsibilities compared to surface warfare crews on other warships. Crews on deploying hulls rotate overseas to their ships, so foundational work to build and sharpen LCS-specific skills happens ashore, mostly in simulation trainers.

Sailors training at the LTF get oriented to their hull’s systems and equipment before stepping aboard, and “they can integrate with the crew quickly,” Lonero said. That’s important, he noted, amid manning gaps that don’t leave much time for that orientation once sailors get to their hulls.

Lonero took command on Nov. 1, when the LTF was established and renamed in a Navy realignment of Surface Combat Systems Training Command. The name change from Center for Surface Combat Systems and realignment define the command’s critical mission of training surface warfighters, according to the Navy.

Upgrades Ahead

Naval Academy Midshipmen navigate a simulated Independence-variant Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in the Integrated Tactical Trainer (ITT) of the LCS Training Facility on board Naval Base San Diego on Aug. 2, 2021. US Navy Photo

The $46.6 million LTF Pacific, which opened in 2017 in a renovated warehouse near the waterfront, has three integrated immersive trainers, three bridge trainers, a mission bay trainer and virtual reality labs where smaller groups of students learn the intricacies of their rate, watch duties and tasks. It provides both basic phase certification and sustainment training for crews that are off-hull or preparing to get underway for training certification or large-scale exercises.

The Alpha integrated trainer is down while it gets long-term upgrades and software updates until April, and Bravo trainer will follow in June, Lonero said.

“The big one that we have our eye on is the Lethality and Survivability upgrades,” he said.

Alpha trainer is funded for the L&S upgrades, which include more consoles and software upgrades and a new combat systems suite, starting in Fiscal Year 2024. Bravo and Charlie trainers also will be upgraded, but there’s no time frame yet.

“We are just trying to match the fleet so we can just service the legacy ships and service L&S ships as well,” he said. “We are looking at numbers and we’re kind of reading the tea leaves to see when the transitions are occurring so we can adjust our timelines accordingly.”

Consoles and computer suites will change, said Mike Mershon, director of LCS Training Facility Pacific.

“For LCS-2, it’s almost a complete gut job of the combat systems part. The bridge will be the same. The watch stations are going to be in the same space, but it’s a whole new combat systems. They’re standardizing it.”

“Just like any ship in the Navy, they’re constantly getting the new and the better,” Mershon said.

If the Navy moves ahead with changing LCS mission packages from surface to mine warfare, “then we’ll match the transition as well,” Lonero added. The facility already provides a mine countermeasures capstone course for minemen, “and eventually we’ll start doing MCM certification.”

“I think the Navy is still trying to come up with what they want to see on the certification and sustainment of an MCM mission package ship. So we are just trying to lean forward and we’re just trying to build our own,” and they plan to provide a proposal to Afloat Training Group, he added. “By next year, I think, hopefully that’s ironed out.”

Risks and Training Ashore

Sailors simulate the navigation of a littoral combat ship, inside the Integrated Tactical Team Trainer 2 at the Center for Surface Combat Systems’ LCS Training Facility (LTF), April 6, 2021. US Navy Photo

Simulated training lets crews train and work on crew coordination when they cannot get to sea. They can push the limits without the risk if underway, officials say.

“Anybody can be a great watchstander in (Southern California operating area) when the weather is great, when there’s no traffic. But how do you handle things when there’s some pressure on you, there’s a lot of traffic, the weather’s bad? How do you make decisions then?” Lonero said. “This gives a window for a CO to look through to see how the watchstanders handle those situations.”

Simulation trainers can push crews and bridge watch teams through stressful events. It’s a balance to provide enough challenges for the crew to learn, even to fail, and provide enough leeway “to control the ship as they see fit,” he said. “This is a good place to test that.”

“All those extra hours that you get in – whether it’s in BRM or crew cert or just coming in for stick time – is really valuable. It’s hard to get that out in SOCAL,” he added. “You don’t get close to what you’re seeing when you’re on deployment in the South China Sea, with two [PLA Navy] shadows and a ton of traffic and your radar is going down, or something like that. There are some situations that are tough to prepare for, but if you’re going through some of the scenarios that we have here, you’re going to have a leg up.”

That means replicating missions in real-world waters, where crews have to manage congested channels, tricky ports, rough weather and the peering eyes – and sometimes dangerous maneuvering – of foreign ships and patrol boats. Among the missions that LCS crews are asking for more lately are escort and freedom-of-navigation operations, the latter a particularly dicey mission in the South China Sea.

Filling Training Needs

The littoral combat ship USS Jackson (LCS-6) sits pierside in San Diego, Calif. US Navy Photo

Unlike deploying warships that get time to train underway heading west from San Diego on deployment, the rotational nature of LCS crews that fly to their overseas port means they have to hit the ground running.

“It’s not your typical warm-up,” Lonero said. Other ships deploying from the West Coast have time to train before they reach Guam, “and it slowly starts picking up in the Philippines.” But for LCS crews, he said, it’s “boom, and you’re dealing with actual Chinese ships on your first underway.”

“So the more training that you can get so you’re ready to respond for that, the better.”

Lonero, whose career includes four Persian Gulf deployments on a frigate and cruiser, has skippered crews on three littoral combat ships – USS Gabby Giffords (LCS-10), USS Coronado (LCS-4) and, most recently, USS Montgomery (LCS-8). One year, he recalled, he flew to Singapore to meet up with his ship.

“We had about five days to turn over, and then it was turn-and-burn,” he said. “There’s no workup. It’s right away into heavy traffic, dealing with the Chinese (ships), operating with a ship we haven’t done in months.”

“It’s just a lot to handle,” he added. “So, you need this, I think, if we’re going to operate this model. This is crucial” for initial training. There’s no time to waste. A junior OOD reporting aboard after completing their capstone course might get two weeks of familiarization aboard and get qualified and stand a watch, he said. “You need to get them on that watchbill in weeks,” not months.

“They may not be fully qualified watchstanders yet because they’re a couple of weeks onboard,” Mershon said. But COs “know what they’re getting from students that we output.”

The simulation trainers are well utilized, with training going into the late night, officials said. “It’s a balancing act to see who we can train and when,” Lonero said, noting “we do get a lot of requests for specialized training we try to meet.”

He said that he didn’t realize the training opportunities at the LTF until he took command. So he’s working some initiatives to spread the word across the waterfront and this year hopes to kick off a “road show” to brief about LTF and educate skippers and crews about what the facility offers.

“If you want additional stick time, other than what’s available to you, you can sign up for a sustainment course,” he said. “I want to make sure all of that is communicated very explicitly to the COs so they understand what the LTF is capable of.”

Hands-on Focus

The trainer at the Mariner Skills Training Center in San Diego, Calif., is meant to help new officers learn basic navigation, seamanship and shiphandling skills ahead of reporting to ships and serving as a junior officer of the deck. USNI News photo.

In one of the virtual reality labs, information systems technicians and electronics technicians worked through guided and unguided instruction on Day 25 of a 35-day Combat Systems Operator course. Seated at individual banks of monitors, students used avatars and waded into virtual environments as if they were aboard ship. With thick, red operating manuals in hand, they worked through the lesson plans to learn the various combat systems equipment, “from start-up to shut down,” said Electronics Technician 1st Class Anthony Reever, an instructor. The gaming-like control systems “are very intuitive.”

“This entire course is at your own pace,” Reever said. But “it’s encouraged for the students to interact with each other.”

Over in the expansive mission bay, a small group of sailors gathered outside a metal container as an instructor went over a mine warfare system. The space replicates the LCS mission bay and supports several courses, including Deck Operations and the Material Handling Equipment course. Here, sailors learn to operate forklifts to move around small metal containers, operate the boat skid for rigid-hull inflatable boats, and use a large Mobicon container handler to lift and move large containers around the large bay, said Chief Boatswain’s Mate Kendrick Taylor, an instructor. Students also get hands on the systems to operate the large stern door.

The LTF includes state-of-the-art briefing rooms where ship crews can gather for “hot washes” with instructors and review training scenarios and their watchstanders and individual performance. That can be very helpful, “as everybody has a different memory of what occurred,” Lonero said. “Here, you have the tape of what exactly happened. It makes for an effective debrief.”

It also provides each CO with detailed performance information on individual sailors, which can help in crafting watch bill sections and identifying those for leadership roles. “A lot of times, it could be different than what I saw myself,” Lonero said. “Here, seeing how teams work together… and getting feedback on the performance of the leadership, I think it’s an eye-opener.”

Littoral Combat Ship Crew Adopts to ‘Human Performance’ Training to Make Better Sailors

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – After completing a leadership course before taking command of a Littoral Combat Ship crew, Cmdr. Edison Rush knew that other sailors could benefit from what he learned about human performance, starting with his own crew. Rush, who in April took command of USS Manchester (LCS-14) Blue crew, workshop into […]

Alyssa Olsen, a yoga instructor from O2X Human Performance workshop, leads sailors from the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Manchester (LCS-14) Blue Crew during a yoga session as part of a Crew Readiness, Endurance, and Watchstanding (CREW) study at Naval Station San Diego on Oct. 19, 2021. US Navy Photo

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO, Calif. – After completing a leadership course before taking command of a Littoral Combat Ship crew, Cmdr. Edison Rush knew that other sailors could benefit from what he learned about human performance, starting with his own crew.

Rush, who in April took command of USS Manchester (LCS-14) Blue crew, workshop into sleep, nutrition, stress, mental performance and resiliency while attending the prospective commander, executive officer course at Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, R.I.

The workshop is taught by O2X, a “human performance training” firm co-founded by three former Navy SEALs. O2X has a two-year contract with Naval Surface Forces to provide the workshops at SWO School. The Scituate, Mass.,-based company works with 250 specialists with a wide range of expertise, including combat conditioning, nutrition, sleep science, performance psychology and yoga.

“They have an interesting mantra: Eat-sweat-thrive,” Rush said of O2X. “It correlates to, are you doing the nutrition right? Or can you adapt so that you’re getting what you need to fuel your body properly to be able to perform?”

Rush realized that what he learned during those workshop sessions and performance assessments could benefit others, including his own ship crew’s health and readiness. “How do you get that holistic wellness – the holistic readiness – moving in the right direction?” he said.

So for two days in mid-October, Manchester‘s Blue Crew gathered at the naval base for two days of classroom instructions and guided discussions and workouts, all focused on physical and mental wellness.

The seminar “is a building-block” toward Rush’s goals for the Blue crew, which amid the two-day course were preparing for the physical fitness assessment, their first in 18 months. His goals include developing good, healthy practices and “the health that’s really going to carry them throughout their lives,” he said.

Later this month, Manchester‘s Gold crew, which is wrapping up a shipyard maintenance period in San Diego, will attend the same two-day workshop.

“Some of the major themes we wanted the crew to take forward from the O2X Workshops was a baseline for good sleep hygiene, understanding how to more effectively manage personal fatigue, and better ways to look at their nutrition in a holistic manner,” Rush told USNI News last week. “In the follow-up conversations with the crew members that participated, those points are some of the major points resonating.”

“We focused throughout the workshop on providing opportunities for individual engagement with the sleep, nutrition and injury prevention subject matter experts,” he said, “and the ability to learn practical steps for the crew members to improve their sleep and readiness scores since establishing their baselines with the monitoring devices provided by the CREW study.”

Volunteers from both Manchester’s Blue and Gold crews are participating in the Crew Readiness, Endurance and Watchstanding study into fatigue, health and performance by the Naval Health Research Center team that’s tracking and studying several Surface Force ship crews. As part of that research, certain sleep and activity data is being collected from volunteers among a half-dozen ship crews that are wearing a sleep-tracking ring and wrist-worn sensors band, and syncing their data via an app on their smartphones.

The Independence variant littoral combat ships USS Independence (LCS 2), left, USS Manchester (LCS 14), center, and USS Tulsa (LCS 16), right, sail in formation in the eastern Pacific on Feb, 27, 2019. US Navy photo.

The workshops are part of what Rush and other leaders say is an important investment by the Navy’s surface forces in the broader health and performance of the fleet’s sailors. “It starts [with] one command at a time… to show them what right looks like. This is our command investing in you,” he said, noting he hopes sailors buy into the bigger picture of improving their individual and collective health and performance.

More so in recent years, the Navy has put a greater priority on a ship crew’s health and wellness. That’s been largely driven by the aftermath of the separate fatal 2017 collisions involving the destroyers USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56). Investigations blamed errors by the ships’ crews, revealed leaders failure and inadequate training and also found crews were overtaxed, fatigued and stressed.

Since then, a comprehensive review by the Navy led to expanded training for the fleet, and Naval Surface Forces issued changes to schedule duty watch sections and ship schedules that are more in line with the body’s natural circadian rhythm, especially when ships are operating at sea. There’s growing interest across the fleet – including human performance training that have been added to SWO leadership courses – focused on nutrition, fitness, stress and mental wellness on sailors that, ultimately, also impacts individual and crew operational readiness.

“What they’re doing at SWOS is trickling down, because we’re hearing about it from some of the XOs now and the COs interested in sharing that knowledge with their crews,” said Rachel Markwald, an NHRC research physiologist in San Diego who has been visiting ships for the ongoing CREW study. The ships include USS Essex (LHD-2), USS Higgins (DDG-76 ), USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS Mobile (LCS-26) for the study’s first phase, which will conclude with a comprehensive report to Naval Surface Forces.

Safety in the yards

Alyssa Olsen, a yoga instructor from O2X Human Performance workshop, leads sailors from the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Manchester (LCS-14) during a yoga session On Oct. 19, 2021. US Navy Photo

Rush said his recent year commanding a minesweeper in the Middle East made him realize that “if the right environment and climate is not set up, you’re going to have spurts of mental health concerns, you’re going to have spurts of injury,” mostly driven by fatigue’s toll on the crew and risking the crew’s overall success.

The mantra of O2X – be one percent better every day – reinforces a sailor’s ability to make small, incremental changes “that can have huge impacts,” he said. “It’s reinvigorating and really re-energizing the crew right before we go back into taking USS Manchester out of the shipyard.”

The Blue Crew is preparing to return to the ship and shift gears for training ahead of a scheduled deployment. While it’s a busy time, the ship’s two crew commanders carved out time for O2X’s two-day workshops so sailors could focus fully on the sessions.

Shipyard, like shipboard, environments pose risks of injuries like sprains and falls that could knock someone out of commission. That’s a high cost for a small ship like an LCS. “You only have 70 personnel. Every sailor counts,” he said. “Every sailor matters… and you can’t lose one (or) it’s going to put [a] load on others.”

Aviation Machinist Mate 2nd Class Samantha Stluka, left, and Aviation Electrician 2nd Class Wyatt Cutchen, both assigned to the “Wildcards” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23, perform maintenance on a MQ-8B unmanned helicopter on the flight deck of the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10), May 14, 2020. US Navy photo.

The workshop included conditioning and injury prevention, whether from off-duty play or on-the-job work, and conditioning like dynamic workouts, warm-ups and stretching, along with exercises for the more limited environment aboard a ship that won’t add more risk of injury. “We’re dealing with a very highly industrial period where it’s very taxing on the sailor,” Rush said. “We wanted to make sure we’re getting the full picture of what is their readiness, because you’ve got to be careful about endurance.”

Blue Crew sailors learned ways to get into better shape and prevent injuries from Rachel Oden, O2X’s injury prevention specialist and a retired Navy physical therapist. “You can’t control [that] your ship is in the yard, but you can control how you prepare for that environment,” said Oden, as sailors stretched during an outdoor yoga session along the waterfront at Bainbridge Park.

Oden said that to get the point across to sailors, she drew parallels with the importance of maintaining shipboard equipment. If something breaks down, “they start trouble-shooting,” she said, “so if your body starts breaking down, you need to start troubleshooting and figure out why. And work on the correction of the why.”

“What happens if you get hurt, at work or at recreation?” she added. “It takes you off primary duty, which means your shipmate has to take up the slack. So it’s kind of being a team player in that aspect as well.”

Tools for Good Habits

A notional schedule that allows watch standers to stand their watches, work during the day, and still get sufficient uninterrupted sleep at night. US Navy graphic.

Manchester leaders hope the sessions spur sailors to develop the right habits to reduce fatigue, ease stress, promote good nutrition and improve mental focus and work performance. “It’s trying to give them more tools in the tool bag,” Rush said. “You have to normalize the conversation.”

That includes honest talk about sleep, naps and healthier food choices. “We need to start saying that sleep is a tactical measure,” he said. “How do we deal when our bodies are not in a circadian rhythm? What are good habits that we can develop to ensure that we’re not all fatigued… and how do you inform those choices for sailors?”

“The end-state is how do we create the right mental health as well?” he added. That includes giving sailors “the confidence and trust that if they need to get help, we’re going to support them getting that.”

Cmdr. Ralph Lufkin, the Blue Crew executive officer, said “it’s not just leadership. We really are thinking about it as a team” in how they structure watches and mealtimes more in line with circadian rhythms.

Moreover, Lufkin said, it’s important for the crew to understand “the ‘why’ behind it. If the entire crew knows that, then it makes it a lot more effective, with everyone realizing what we’re there to accomplish.”

For the workshop, Manchester’s crew got the book, Human Performance for Tactical Athletes, that expands on the workshop sessions and tracked their physical performance using a smartphone app. Everyone got a one-year subscription – fully paid by the ship’s command, Rush said – and were encouraged to keep tracking their progress.

“We don’t want them to forget this in one week,” said Ramone Resop, an independent duty corpsman who recently retired from the Navy and is O2X’s West Coast business development manager.

“Prioritizing sleep. It’s difficult with our ship’s schedule and duty and everything we do, but there is a way,” Resop told sailors during a session on mental performance. Sailors also need to recognize the often-missed signs of stress. For him, he said, it was a cracked molar from clenching his jaw, “the eye-opener the dentist brought to my attention.”

“When you know your warning signs, you can do something to change it,” Neva Barno, a O2X mental performance specialist, told them. Along with imagery and visualization, breathing and meditation help calm nerves, slow down the heart rate, ease anxiety and clear one’s focus. “Low and slow,” Barno said while leading them though a breathing drill.
“It’s supposed to be relaxing.”

Such breathing drills should be done daily, anywhere. Consider it “a reset button,” she said.

Improving Performance

Mineman 2nd Class Santiago Lopez, a native of Bronx, N.Y., conducts a fuel oil quality test aboard Independence-class littoral combat ship USS Manchester (LCS-14) on Feb. 25, 2021. US Navy Photo

Even before they attended the workshop, some Manchester sailors volunteering in the CREW study were making small changes to their exercise or eating habits.

“I was running at night, and my sleep was kind of messed up. I figured if I run more in the morning, I’d sleep better,” Logistics Specialist 1st Class Scott Buraus told USNI News. The switch to morning runs “has a positive impact. You also feel better, too. I feel like just more energy and not as sleepy throughout the day.”

The O2X workshop reinforced the importance of sleep and rest to Buraus, the watchbill coordinator for his duty section. “If I see someone is looking tired, I could maybe change the watch they have, maybe swap it out with somebody so they can get some rest,” he said. And the addition of high-intensity exercise into their regular PT sessions “I think will be very beneficial.”

“I think this is pretty cool to do as a crew before we go back on hull,” he added.

Engineman 1st Class Petty Officer Oscar Quiroz is in the midst of intermittent fasting as he works to drop weight to meet the Navy’s weight and body fat standards, and he was motivated as he listened to instructors talk about nutrition, sleep and stress relief. “I love that they’re not ‘death by PowerPoint.” They actually go in-depth,” Quiroz said.

Recently, he began running with a first-class petty officer group, reaching up to three miles daily before illness knocked him down, but he’s intent on resuming it. “I’m more concerned about losing the fat, because I’m going to gain weight because of the muscle,” he said.

The workshop’s sessions will help him be a better sailor, Quiroz said. “I’m hoping I take a thing or two from here, learn it, put it into my life.”

He said he’s more mindful of how he’s doing. “Anything to help me better myself, I’ll take it,” he said. “This actually shows, too, that the Navy cares,” he added. I think doing little things like this – trying to help the sailor, help change them – says that we actually care about you and we want you to be better.”