CLEVELAND Longer than a football field, yet fast as a Jet Ski, the Navy's newest warship is in town for a visit.
Navy officials say the USS Freedom, with its nimble navigation and quick-change weaponry, represents the future of aquatic warfare.
The 3,100-ton, 377-foot warship traveled more than 50 mph when it steamed into the Port of Cleveland this week. It resembles no warship on the water today, with a matte-aluminum superstructure that looks like a large piece of origami.
It is the first of the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ships vessels designed to carry the fight right up to an enemy's shoreline. At speed, it skims the water, said the Freedom's executive officer, Commander Kris Doyle. "You hardly feel it."
The Freedom is making her way through the Great Lakes, up the St. Lawrence and then on to a year of testing and evaluation in Virginia. Along the way the ship is stopping at about a dozen U.S. and Canadian cities. It was scheduled to remain in Cleveland through Saturday.
Commissioned last week at Milwaukee's Veteran's Park, the Freedom went heavily over budget but industry experts aren't concerned, saying brand-new technologies generally hit unexpected snags that can be avoided in subsequent builds. The Navy wants to build 54 more ships like the Freedom.
Traditional warships have been adapted for new kinds of warfare, but that usually has required extensive, costly retrofitting.
But the Freedom class can quickly change from minesweepers to sub chasers to a launch platform for remotely piloted aircraft and boats.
There is no wheel, binnacle, rudder or propeller. Control is through joysticks.
Power comes from two diesel engines the size of railroad locomotives and two gas turbines of the sort that power airliners. Using either system, or both in tandem, water is pumped out of four water jets at the rate of 12 million gallons a minute, making the vessel into a giant Jet Ski.
Her captain, Commander Donald Gabrielson, said the Freedom also is remarkable for the speed in which it was built. Ship-development programs usually take 20 years from conception to completion.
"Five years ago, this ship was just a rough sketch," he said.
The fighting heart of the Freedom is composed of three large empty chambers called reconfigurable space 1, reconfigurable space 2, and the waterborne mission space in the stern. The first two receive the large mission modules that allow the Freedom to shape-shift what Doyle calls the plug-and-play ability. The stern chamber is for small manned and unmanned watercraft that could launch from the stern or starboard side.
But for all of its starship flourishes, there are enough details on board to remind that this is a Navy warship: From the deckline to the water, it remains haze gray. The Freedom's watertight doors, the companionways and hatches, draped fire hoses, and even the Aldis signal lamps could be found on Navy ships throughout much of the 20th century.
The food also remains great, which according to Doyle is a long-standing point of pride on all Navy and Coast Guard vessels. But there is one concession to the reduced work force.
"Everyone eats out of the same galley, and everyone busses his own table and washes his own tray, including the captain," Doyle said.
When she becomes the Freedom's captain next spring, she'll step right into that new tradition.
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