SSP students on the deck of the USS James E. Williams DDG-95, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
By: Liana Mitlyng Day, Reporter
Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval base in the world[i], and is home to the headquarters of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet as well as Fleet Forces Command that manages and supports global naval operations. Situated in the southeastern corner of Virginia, the naval base faces Newport News, the township responsible for construction of all US aircraft carriers; Naval Station Norfolk also overlooks the site of the historical Monitor v. Merrimack battle of the American Civil War. On a crisp, sunny Saturday on November 17, Professor John Gordon, US Navy Commander (and 2009 SSP alum) Michael Curcio, and forty Georgetown Security Studies Students took a winding bus trip down to Naval Station Norfolk to meet some US Navy crew members and tour a few of the ships.
On the three-hour early morning trip to the base, Dr. Gordon and Commander Curcio gave the group a brief background on the base itself, on life and practices on the base, and some pointers for the day. Warnings abounded: use the head (restroom) on a ship at your own risk; hand sanitizer is your friend; if you’re wearing high heels, good luck; and under no circumstances could anyone take photos of any submarines. After a quick lunch at the Navy Exchange, the group jumped into the first tour: a 1,092-foot aircraft carrier.
The USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) is a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and the last of its kind. Only ten Nimitz-class carriers were constructed, preceded by the Kitty Hawk-class and Enterprise-class carriers, and succeeded by the current model, the Gerald R. Ford-class carriers. The 100,000 ton Nimitz-class each have two reactors, can house roughly 75 aircraft of various types, and when all personnel are on board are home to about 5,500 sailors. Crewmembers assured us that the reactors have numerous safety mechanisms to avoid catastrophe, and Commander Curcio even gave a quick primer on nuclear reactor physics to one group, admitting that it’s ultimately “a fancy way of boiling water.”
The ship is named after the 41st President, who was a naval aviator during World War II. Like all other carriers, the USS Bush has a “namesake” room with information on the former President Bush’s life and accomplishments, as well as the construction of the ship itself. In addition to the namesake room, the tour spanned from the flight deck to the hangar bay, into the bridge (the ship’s control room), and down into the bowels of the ship to see the mess hall and ship store. Carrier crewmembers wear different colored shirts denoting their functional role on the ship, and Commander Curcio explained them in detail. For example, red shirts are members of the ship’s firefighting crew, who contend with fires on the top deck. The ship even has a fire truck the size of a golf cart. “When the red shirts are bored, you’re having a good day,” the Commander added.
The flight deck itself was awe-inspiring, and the stuff of dreams for fans of Top Gun. It could only have been made more impressive had planes been actively taking off and landing. Particularly striking was how small the deck really was when imagining maneuvering a plane to land on the surface. Dr. Gordon explained that landing on a flight deck is very difficult, and only possible due to the plane’s tailhook and the four arresting wires that are stretched across the deck. The pilot must catch one of the wires in order to slow the plane enough for landing; if the pilot misses all four wires, they must lift off and circle back to try again.
Just before we boarded the carrier the group received a fantastic surprise: only two ship tours had been planned (the Bush and the destroyer James E. Williams), but the group received an unexpected invitation to go on a third ship by its commanding officer, who ran into our tour group as we waited to board the Bush. So, following the Bush, we stepped right across the dock, and boarded the adjacent guided missile cruiser USS San Jacinto (CG-56), affectionately referred to as the “San Jac.” This Ticonderoga-class cruiser was the oldest ship we saw that day, built in the 1980s, but updates were obvious throughout the deck and the bridge. In the officer’s dining hall and meeting room (the ‘wardroom’), several of the crewmembers discussed life on board. Dr. Gordon asked about the male to female ratio of the crew, and of the Navy as a whole. The crew explained that generally, it varies from ship to ship, and depends largely on the resources and construction of each individual ship. The crew noted the San Jac is limited to approximately 20% female crew by the construction of the ship. Gender-specific facilities are required in the Navy, and there are few restrooms on that ship to contend with a large female population. Another officer noted that other ships come closer to parity.
One of the most impressive features on the deck of the San Jac was the Aegis Weapon System. The Aegis is a “centralized, automated, command-and-control system and weapons control system” that facilitates the guided missiles on board the ship.[ii] From the exterior, the Aegis is visible in two distinct ways: big, white hexagonal arrays on the exterior of the superstructure that sit just below the bay windows of the bridge; and a large bed of square-shaped launch tubes on the ship’s deck, both on the bow and stern. The hexagons on the superstructure are the external component of the phased array AN/SPY-1 radar system, which constitute the heart of the Aegis system by searching for, tracking, and engaging targets. The launch tubes on the deck hold land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles or the Standard air defense missile. Both are fired by the ship’s command system.
The group ended the day on the USS James E. Williams DDG-95, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. There were many commonalities between the USS Williams (about 9,000 tons) and the San Jac (around 12,000 tons), including relative size, construction, and equipment on deck. Dr. Gordon explained that during World War I and World War II, US Navy cruisers were much larger than the destroyers, and over time they’ve been whittled down for maneuverability and speed. The USS Williams was also equipped with the Aegis System, as well as the rapid-fire Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS), a distinctive piece of weaponry that we’d seen throughout the day.
The most significant difference between the cruiser and destroyer seemed to be the role each plays in a carrier strike group. Dr. Gordon described that the surface ships in a strike group typically consist of one aircraft carrier, one cruiser, and two or more destroyers. The cruiser and the destroyers act in defensive roles to protect the carrier and the carrier air wing, and the cruiser directs the destroyer movements to some extent. The cruiser will normally be the central control point for managing the air defense of the entire carrier strike group. The cruiser has a slightly faster top speed, while the destroyer has a quicker ability to accelerate, but the differences appear nuanced from a civilian perspective.
The unanimous star of the day was the Phalanx CIWS, which was mounted on all three ships as well as many of the other ships in port. Distinguished by its cylindrical dome, the “R2-D2” autocannon is a key defense mechanism for cruisers and destroyers alike. The CIWS fires a volley of shells at very high speeds to shoot down approaching anti-ship missiles, and on the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the Arleigh-Burke destroyers, it is incorporated into the Aegis System. According to Dr. Gordon, the CIWS proved so successful on naval ships that the US military decided to take the apparatus and mount it at some bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to shoot down incoming rockets. “How loud is it?” I asked our crewmember guide on the USS Williams. He paused, considering, and said that he had always worn protective earmuffs while it was firing, so he couldn’t be sure. Dr. Gordon laughed, and added knowingly, “It’s VERY loud.”
SSP students are extremely fortunate to have access to Georgetown and SSP partnerships, and the Norfolk Ship Trip was a clear example of that. The trip was an incomparable opportunity for students with or without a significant military background to experience the feel of the ships and the base, learn about current naval practices, and meet countless wonderful crewmembers. A huge thanks must be given to Dr. Gordon and Commander Curcio, who took every opportunity they could to provide as many opportunities as possible to the students. If you missed the trip this year, look alive for the next one.
[i] US Department of the Navy, “Naval Station Norfolk,” CNIC Naval Station Norfolk, https://www.cnic.navy.mil/regions/cnrma/installations/ns_norfolk.html, (2018).
[ii] US Department of the Navy, “Aegis Weapon System,” United States Navy Fact File, https://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=2100&tid=200&ct=2, (2017).