Yesterday, my family and I experienced something very special: a private tour of the USS Shoup, an Arleigh Burke class of Aegis guided missile destroyer. As soon as we stepped on the ship, the Executive Officer met us, greeted us by name, and took us on an hour long tour of the ship, from stem to stern and from top to bottom.
If you’re wondering at this point why we got this VIP treatment, I have two words: Navy League. I joined the Navy League a couple of months ago because it is an organization that supports the Navy (you can read its mission statement here) and, in turn, is supported by the Navy. That latter fact means that, if someone on a visiting ship has the time and the willingness, an interested Navy League member (and her family) can get precisely the type of tour we got. And all that just for appreciating the Navy and paying what amounts to a few dollars per month. Even Mr. Bookworm, normally a rather cynical type, expressed himself blown away, both by the ship and by the graciousness extended to us.
So, that’s the set-up. Let me tell you about our tour. I’m probably going to mess up on the technical details, or at least gloss over them, so please go gently with me if I do.
As I noted at the start, the XO, Lt. Cmdr. Ramirez, greeted us by name as we boarded the ship, which was just a really nice thing to do. From the start, it made us feel welcome, rather than like an imposition. Our first stop was the missile launching site on the front of the ship (fore deck?). To appreciate what we saw, you need to understand (at least as much as I understand) the ship’s mission.
The ship’s purpose is to “conduct simultaneous warfare operations in multi-threat environments to include air, surface, and subsurface targets.” (I copied that from the ship’s website.) In the old days, people like me — lay people with no technical, specialized knowledge — would have called the Shoup a battleship, but that’s clearly the wrong phrase now. The ship isn’t intended to go into battle, in the way the old ships did at the Battle of Midway or any other great naval engagements, where they were firing directly at each other across an expanse of blue sea. The whole point of these modern destroyers is to take down the enemy before they get close. Using radar, sonar and human intelligence, the Shoup is able to identify land, sea and air targets at distances up to 100 miles, and then destroy them before they can close in. Although she does have some conventional weapons (or, at least, semi-conventional because even one of them probably has close to the fire power of all the weapons on a WWII era ship), that’s not her mission.
What you see on the front, top deck of the ship (please pardon my abysmally non-nautical language) is 32 square hatches. Each of those hatches covers a missile that is ready to launch. Some are for air and some, like the Tomahawk, are for surface targets. The ship has an exceptionally sophisticated radar system that is able to identify these targets at a distance and guide the computer system (with HUMINTEL backing it up), to lock onto the targets and fire. My son was impressed. My daughter was fascinated by the non-skid material on the deck.
Our next stop was the bridge, which is a combination of analog and digital technology, with a bit of the old-fashioned stuff (such as a steering wheel and paper charts) thrown in for good measure. Indeed, the whole ship was this interesting amalgam of the old and new. I’d assumed that, since it is a fairly new ship, it would look more like the Starship Enterprise than the USS Kidd. It doesn’t. It hews much more closely, inside and out, to the latter, rather than the former. There are still squawking com boxes everywhere; bundles of wires run down the interior hallways; the ship’s specs, down in the engineering room, are still printed on paper; etc. It makes sense, of course, because computers can fail, especially in stormy seas, and the old systems need to be there for back-up, if for nothing else. The ship also has some old-fashioned customs, including one going back to the days of John Paul Jones: You don’t talk about politics, women or ship’s business during meals. (At least, I think the last item is correct. I was getting an earful from my children at that moment, and might have missed something. It might be “battle” rather than “ship’s business.”)
From the bridge, we went down to the Combat Information Center (“CIC”), which really looks like something you see in a movie. (Speaking of which, even if you don’t ever get the chance to see the Shoup in real life, you can see it in the movies, because it was used in Transformers, a movie that I guess we’ll have to rent now.) There are computer monitors everywhere, all pouring in information about possible threats to the ship, on land, sea or air. In addition to the visual data, the people manning the stations have headsets on, with different information being fed into their left and right ears. As best as I could understand, this room is the brains of the battle, with the people there relying on their computer systems, as well as HUMINTEL coming in from outside of the CIC (both from the bridge and from off site sources, such as helicopters).
Our next major destination was the engineering room (my name for it, since I missed the official name). People like me, accustomed to having all my energy needs provided by others, forget that a huge ship like this has to control all of its energy creation and use. It takes on the gasoline, but then it’s up to the engineers to turn some of that gasoline into electricity, and to control the fuel usage for maximum efficiency. The systems are monitored 24 hours a day, both by computer and (yup, again) by humans. Indeed, some of the systems have to have their oil checked manually every hour, a little detail that impressed me no end.
On the way to the engineering room, Lt. Cmdr. Ramirez explained to us that the ship is set up to withstand biological warfare. The doors from the ship’s exterior to its interior are all double doors with a reverse vacuum. So, one opens one door and steps into a chamber that pushes air outward. Only after that door closes can you open the second door and actually step inside the ship. I’m blanking on the technical name right now, but the ship also has a room for treating people who have been exposed to hazardous or chemical materials, where they got stripped down and showered off. (Someone help me out here.)
Our last big stop on the tour was the helicopter landing pad. It’s quite an interesting process, because the pilot can’t simply drop the helicopter on deck. In rough seas, doing so might result in its tipping over or falling off altogether. Instead, two other pilots, one looking down on the deck and another in a room that has windows at the deck’s ground level, guide him onto a landing pad that has a clamp that grabs a probe that the pilot drops from the helicopter as he lands. Very cool.
And that’s the girly view of the technical side of a modern destroyer. Impressive as it all was — and it was very impressive — what struck me most, from start to finish, was the human element. To begin with, it’s hard to imagine a more charming, gracious or interesting host than Lt. Cmdr. Ramirez. We were quite honored that he took time out of his busy schedule to show us around, and appreciative of the fact that he didn’t make us feel rushed. Did you catch my mention of his busy schedule? That wasn’t just a rhetorical device. An Executive Officer’s responsibilities are awe inspiring. It is he, not the captain, who is in charge of every single detail of the ship, both human and mechanical. He has to know every system from top to bottom, every job description, and every person. In other words, with regard to that last, he is also responsible for the human element — making sure that the men and women serving under his command are as happy and efficient as they can possibly be. He’s not only a resource, he’s also the man who schedules everything: every drill, in every area. I got tired just listening to his responsibilities. Mind you, Lt. Cmdr. Ramirez wasn’t complaining; he was explaining. If it were me, I would be complaining — but, then again, as a complainer, I’d never have the temperament to take on a task such as that, which requires brains, organization, efficiency, and people skills. Whew!
It’s not as if the other people on the ship are slouches. The captain, of course, is ultimately responsible for the whole enterprise. But, after having worked his own way up as an Executive Officer, he’s mercifully relieved of all the detail work. Lt. Cmdr. Ramirez also explained about the intense training the people on the ship undergo before they take up their responsibilities, as well as the fact that they’re not gently dropped into the shallow end, the way things are in the civilian world. Instead, officers and enlisted men/women alike, when they board the ship, are instantly thrown into their responsibilities. This goes a long way to explaining the competency that so attracts me about the military.
It’s also a hard life. If I understood correctly (and this was another thing where the kids distracted me), life on the ship is six hours on, six hours off — all the time. In addition, if you’re in your off time when a drill is called, tough luck. Whether you were sleeping, eating or resting, you’re on again. I have to admit that this aspect bewildered me a bit, since it seemed to me that it creates very tired people, who don’t function at optimal efficiency. Perhaps one of you can tell me (a) whether I misunderstood this part or (b) if I didn’t misunderstand, why the Navy does it this way.
Although we didn’t see the crew’s quarters, I understand that they’re small, windowless, and completely lacking in privacy. I imagine that they get even less comfortable in stormy weather or in hot climates. As someone who really enjoys her creature comforts, I have to admire people who are willing to live like that.
And that is that. It was a fascinating and enjoyable tour from start to finish. For those of you living in port cities, I urge you to join the Navy League so you, too, can have this type of experience. And for those of you living inland, you might want to join anyway, ’cause it’s clearly a great organization.
UPDATE: By the way, I hope that my praising Lt. Cmdr. Ramirez didn’t make it sound as if he, not the Captain, is ultimately responsible for the ship. I just got caught up in his work because it reminds me of my own responsibilities (about which I complain all the time), only on a larger scale. As a Mom, I’m responsible for every detail of household management: I keep all systems running, I manage every schedule, and I’m responsible for the emotional well-being of my little crew. I’m not a very detail oriented person, so these are hard tasks for me, and I’m mightily impressed when I see someone do my microcosm of a job on a macro scale. The Captain, of course, is ultimately responsible for everything, which is a huge intellectual and psychic burden, but he’s mercifully relieved (after having been an Executive Officer himself) of the minutiae of the day to day details of running the ship.