Shaping C5ISR for the Fleet: The Case of USS Mount Whitney

In a recent interview with Col. Bradley Weisz, 2nd Expeditionary Strike Group Deputy Commander, we had a chance to discuss the role of the USS Mount Whitney and its sister ship in the fleet.  These ships provide unique C5ISR capability to the fleet and to the combatant commanders as a whole.  They are key coalition assets as well in operations.

SLD: Recently you were in the Mediterranean Sea in support of a USEUCOM led exercise called BALTOPS 2012, you were on board the USS MOUNT WHITNEY, and there are two of these types of ships the Navy has; could you describe the two ships and their functions.

Col Weisz: Yes, the US Navy currently has two Fleet Flagships, the USS BLUE RIDGE (known as LCC 19), which is forward deployed, forward based out in Japan and the Western Pacific, and the USS MOUNT WHITNEY (known as LCC 20) which is forward deployed, forward based out in Italy and the Mediterranean Sea.

The team aboard the USS Mt. Whitney. Credit: USN

Both are USN Fleet Flagships as well as Joint Command Ships; although they were originally built as Command Ships for the Amphibious Task Force Commander (CATF), Landing Force Commander (CLF) and Air Control Group Commander (CACG) to support large-scale amphibious operations.

The USS BLUE RIDGE is the Seventh Fleet Flagship (C7F), and the USS MOUNT WHITNEY is Sixth Fleet Flagship (C6F).

Both ships have superior command and control (C2) systems, C5I capabilities and operational and planning spaces that are second to none; no other ship in the US Navy inventory even comes close to their current capabilities.  They can transmit and receive large chunks of data and information unlike any other ship out there.  The Joint Operations Center (JOC) and Joint Intelligence Center (JIC) that are on board these ships are simply the best the Navy has to offer.

They also have a small flight deck on board with a TACAN approach capability; no hanger; no well deck; can carry enough food for about 90 days and can make approximately 100,000 gallons of fresh water daily.  They really are that capable; that good.

Just wish we had more of them.

In regards to personnel and manning, the USS MOUNT WHITNEY has about 300 personnel on board and assigned to it; about 150 US Navy Sailors and about 150 MSC (Military Sealift Command) Civilian Mariners, whereas the USS BLUE RIDGE, forward based out in the USPACOM AOR, has about 630 US Navy Sailors on board and assigned to it; however, no MSC Civilian Mariners assigned to it.

SLD: The two ships themselves are quite old right?

Col Weisz: They sure are; both ships are over 40 years old, commissioned back in the early 1970s.

The USS BLUE RIDGE was commissioned on 14 November 1970 at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and the USS MOUNT WHITNEY was commissioned on 16 January 1971 at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Portsmouth).

Recently the US Navy was given some additional monies and funds to keep the two ships going for another 20 years, but you are right, the ships are over forty years old.

However, they are still darn good; still doing the job!

SLD:And this shows the value of an amphibious ship, a good form factor of decent size amphibious ship, and how it can evolve over time.  That’s clearly one implication of how the ships evolved.

The amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) test of the ship's salt water countermeasure wash down system. Mount Whitney is the U.S. 6th Fleet flagship homeported in Gaeta, Italy, and operates with a hybrid crew of U.S. sailors and Military Sealift Command civil service mariners. Credit: USN

Col Weisz: Yes, it sure does.

Both ships are good size at around 620 feet (length) and 108 feet (beam) while displacing approximately 18,400 tons (with a full load).  To be able to go from an amphibious command ship (LCC) to a fleet flagship and as more recently employed as a Joint Command Ship (JCC) or Joint Task Force (JTF) Flagship, requires significant C2 and C5I capabilities and redundancies.

The current C2 systems and C5I capabilities (HF/UHF/VHF/SHF /EHF) that are resident and afloat with the BLUE RIDGE and MOUNT WHITNEY are the best we have.

If you are bringing a fleet staff on board, a Combined Force Maritime Component Command (CFMCC) staff on board or a JTF staff on board, especially for large-scale contingencies, whether it be humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, non-combatant evacuations or major combat operations, you need space and a fairly good amount of it.

Both the BLUE RIDGE and MOUNT WHITNEY offer robust and capable operational and planning spaces; perhaps one of their greatest features as a Flagship.

You can easily move throughout the ships, and go from one operational and planning space to the next; very few limitations.

SLD: And clearly these ships reflect the kind of modern approach to command and control, which is based on team efforts, planning and engagement during 24/7 operations.  So could you talk about the importance of the space in which to operate either on the U.S. side or on U.S. allied side?

Col Weisz: Yes, the USS MOUNT WHITNEY has supported several key and highly visible operations over the last ten years.

In November 2002, the MOUNT WHITNEY deployed from the East Coast of the United States and established an operational location off the Coast of Djibouti in support of CJTF Horn of Africa (HOA).  Led by MajGen Sattler (II MEF), CJTF HOA was established on board the MOUNT WHITNEY with many coalition countries and partner nations providing personnel, staff augments, subject matter experts and liaison officers.  Ultimately, CJTF HOA planned, coordinated and executed numerous operations throughout the Horn of Africa and Northern Africa for well over seven months from the operational and planning spaces on board the MOUNT WHITNEY.

The MOUNT WHITNEY was also utilized in the Mediterranean during 2011 when CJTF ODYSSEY DAWN (CJTF OD) stood-up in support of Coalition action against Muammar Gaddafi and Libyan forces loyal to him.  ADM Locklear (COMNAVEUR/COMNAVAF) was designated the CJTF Commander and deployed his staff on board the MOUNT WHITNEY.  VADM Harris (C6F) was designated the CFMCC Commander and also established his headquarters on board the MOUNT WHITNEY.

Again, many coalition countries and partner nations provided personnel, staff augments, subject matter experts and liaison officers on board the MOUNT WHITNEY in support of CJTF OD.  Due to the outstanding C2, C5I, operational and planning spaces on board the MOUNT WHITNEY, tactical command and control of ODYSSEY DAWN could be successfully established on board the MOUNT WHITNEY from the beginning of planning and coordination through hostilities and operations.

SLD: And if we look back to the conversations, we have had before about BOLD ALLIGATOR and Expeditionary Strike Groups, obviously ships like these could be a centerpiece to a hub for an Expeditionary Strike Group.

With distributed operations, we might see more of in the future where you need a ship to do that kind of command and control functionality, but you are enabling some flexibility in the operation of the distributed ops.

Col Weisz: Yes, both the BLUE RIDGE and MOUNT WHITNEY offer a great capability for enabling and supporting distributed operations.  In fact, I don’t know of any other ship in the US Navy inventory, if it had a Fleet staff, CFMCC staff or JTF staff embarked on it that could do it any better than these two ships.

These ships give you the ability to fuse all that critical information and intelligence and disseminate it to your distributed forces rapidly.  C2 can be easily maintained with all of your distributed forces; remote distances do not hinder you.

SLD: Now in terms of the workspace, there is no well deck on the ship, it is really workspace.  The workspace in, or obviously the various sensors, and communication links and all that sort of thing, but it is a non-well deck ship.

Col Weisz: Yes, you are exactly right.  There is no well deck on the USS BLUE RIDGE and USS MOUNT WHITNEY like the one you would see on an Amphibious Assault Ship (LHD/LHA), Amphibious Transport Dock (LPD) or Dock Landing Ship (LSD).

Because of no well deck and a small flight deck, the BLUE RIDGE and MOUNT WHITNEY offer robust and capable operational and planning spaces as well as significant C2 and C5I capabilities.  That is the trade-off!

SLD: Could one evolve the LPD 17 into replacements for both the BLUE RIDGE and MOUNT WHITNEY?

Col Weisz: I think that would be a great recommendation and something to look at in the future.

The US Navy is currently slated to receive a total of twelve (12) x SAN ANTONIO Class ships (LPD 17) in support of the USN/USMC (Blue/Green) amphibious mission; routinely employed, forward deployed ARG/MEUs and ESG/MEBs.  These twelve amphibious warships are critical to the current Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) tasks and mission sets that they are given by the Combatant Commanders.

Once these twelve LPDs are received and fully operational in the fleet, it would be great if we were able to have additional LPD 17 ships to serve as replacements for the BLUE RIDGE and MOUNT WHITNEY; again, over 40 years old now.

You take out the well deck; utilize that area for operational and planning spaces, and I think you would have one great C2 ship.

SLD: In an ideal world, would it be better to have more than just the two in this function?

Col Weisz:  If you had more of these types of ships throughout all the numbered fleets and have them available to all of the Combatant Commanders, I think that would add significant capability to the DoD; especially in an era of continuous engagement by all of our Combatant Commanders; it (staying involved with our partner nations and Coalition friends) just is not going to go away.

In fact, engagement is the name of the game these days.

Additionally, we do not always believe in the future that we are going to have immediate access in the certain countries or regions.  Therefore, the basics such as over-flight rights, host-nation basing and bed-down privileges, and all those kind of things get restricted or even denied.

It is great to be able to park a C2 ship (platform) off the coast of a certain country or region and be able to immediately begin planning and coordination for follow-on operations.  You are already on scene, you are there, you are coordinating, you are executing, and you are getting ready to conduct operations. I think that is a great capability.

SLD: And the point of having a sea based, command capability like this, and be a very supplemental and complimentary to air operation centers we might have deployed to shore, and/or allies might have deployed shore.  For example, the UAE is evolving a very good air operations center.  One could compliment that with such a sea-based command ship capability.

Col Weisz: Exactly, the sea-basing C2 capability is an enabling opportunity for the joint force as a whole.

Sea-based C2 enables you to effectively and efficiently tie-in with those land-based combined air and space operations center (CAOCs) and tactical air command centers (TACC); ensuring your operations are fully coordinated and integrated.

In certain scenarios and situations, this also gives you the option to establish some of the land based capabilities afloat for a certain or limited amount of time until land-based capabilities are established or needed ashore.

The side bay window of a MH-60S Knight Hawk helicopter assigned to the Dragon Whales of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 28, shows an aerial view of USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) during a routine underway. Mount Whitney is the U.S. 6th Fleet flagship homeported in Gaeta, Italy, and operates with a hybrid crew of U.S. Sailors and Military Sealift Command civil service mariners. Credit: USN

SLD: Your last point is an important one. Redundancy is crucial and allows for modularity and distributed capabilities as well.  You can begin to think of diversifying some of the C5I throughout the fleet as a distributed asset and re-think the role of the command ship in such a context.

You can think of a hub concept rather than a hierarchy.

Does that make sense?

Col Weisz: Sure does, sea-based C2 provides that critical capability and needed redundancy.

In earlier interviews with Col. Weisz we discussed Bold Alligator.  We first discussed preparations for Bold Alligator 2012.  We then discussed lessons learned from Bold Alligator 2012.  We put together a composite look at the key participants look at lessons learned as well.  We then later discussed with Col. Weisz how to look at the amphibious fleet in terms of engagement operations.

And earlier to this we sat down with one of the builders of LPD 17 to discuss the ship and its capabilities.  And during the visit to the LPD-24, we interviewed the prospective commander of the ship.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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