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USS Coronado ready for commissioning

The red carpet is rolled out and ready for the commissioning Saturday of the U.S. Navy’s newest littoral combat ship, the USS Coronado. The Coronado, the fourth LCS and second of the Independence variant, is stationed at Naval Air Station North Island for the ceremony, which is expected to draw 5,000 visitors, but will be moved Monday to its homeport at Naval Base San Diego.

The LCS program, which began in 2002 with the USS Freedom and USS Independence, delivered in 2008 and 2009 respectively, signals a refocusing of the Navy’s move to more adaptable ships. These littoral ships are a “fast, agile, focused-mission platform designed for operation in near-shore environments yet capable of open-ocean operation,” according to the Navy.

There has been controversy about the transition from traditional ships and concern over the LCS’ admitted lack of survivability, but the Coronado’s Commanding Officer Shawn Johnston said the benefits of this ship class are real and necessary.

“A fast, agile, networked, mission-focused ship,” Johnston said Thursday aboard the Coronado. “So, fast — yes, it can go in excess of 40 knots, or 45 miles per hour. Networked — it can link with other ships, which is nothing new to the U.S. Navy. And so the agile part and the littoral part is where we are a little bit different. So we’re in shore, in close … so we can get a little bit closer to shore in shallow draft. And we have the ability to work with different mission payloads on board to support different missions.”

Adaptability is key. LCS vessels are designed to facilitate the use of three mission modules — the surface warfare mission module which is onboard the Coronado, the mine warfare mission module which is on the USS Independence, and an anti-submarine warfare module in the final stages of development, which will be tested by the USS Freedom — as well as any new mission modules that arise as threats and technology change.

One of the biggest changes from traditional ships, particularly from the sailors’ perspectives, is the minimal manning component. Where a typical destroyer ship would have a crew of about 200 sailors, LCS ships have a core crew of only 40, with a capacity for about 80, as each mission module brings with it a crew of 19 sailors, and a possible aviation unit with 23 more military personnel.

Senior Chief James Richards, one of the core crew on Coronado, said the difference between the littoral ships and others he’s been on is “almost night and day.”

“On my last ship I had a 40-man department, and here the whole crew is 40, so it’s a big difference,” Richards said. “I went from, like I said, a 40-man crew, and now my department is eight people. There’s a little bit more camaraderie with a smaller crew, which you’ve got to have. And then everybody here wears multi-hats — you don’t have just one person doing one thing; that person can do numerous things throughout the ship, and you have to get trained and qualified to do that.”

BMC Kurt Bartholomai, said “it can be a little arduous without having the same amount of folks to do” the same amount of work, but said the benefit is that a larger percentage of the crew is able to do more tasks. He said on a previous ship he was one of a few sailors certified as a search and rescue swimmer but onboard an LCS, more crew members would be certified.

Another advantage to the LCS program is cost. Littoral ships cost about $400 million to build, compared to $1.8 billion for a destroyer. The Navy can build about four littoral ships for the price of a single destroyer, and each LCS vessel can do multiple jobs with the changeable mission modules, compared to a traditional ship’s single focus.

Johnston said littoral ships are perfectly suited for theater security operation missions and antipiracy tasks, and are designed to replace primarily three classes of warship: frigates, coastal patrol craft and minesweepers.

A new LCS will be delivered every six months until the fleet of 32 is complete. The Coronado and other Independence variant ships are built by Austal in Mobile, Ala. The Freedom variants are built in Wisconsin by Marinette Marine Corp.

The USS Coronado is the third ship bearing that name. Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, will deliver the commissioning ceremony's principal address. Susan Ring Keith, a longtime resident of Coronado, will serve as sponsor of the ship. Her mother, Eleanor Ring, was sponsor of the previous USS Coronado (AGF 11).

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