Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Recently I had the opportunity and honor of spending a day aboard one of America's newest warships, the Arleigh-Burke Class guided missle destroyer, USS Spruance DDG111, named after the famous Admiral Spruance of WWII Battle of Midway (and more) fame.  There were several factors that led to my selection by the Navy to visit the ship including my work in the USCG Auxiliary, but the book Humble Heroes no doubt was the major reason.  Below is a 7 part series that I wrote regarding my fascinating day aboard the Spruance, originally appearing in, an online technology publisher.

The Spruance is a much different ship than the Nashville was of course, 70 years of technology and design evolution make a dramatic impact on a warship (or a car, airplane, radio, etc). As powerful as the Nashville was, the Spruance has almost infinitely more firepower and less than one-third of the number of sailors, many of them women.  At almost the same tonnage, the Spruance is nearly 100 feet shorter and much more maneuverable.  The Nashville men had to take "Navy" showers, often with seawater, the Spruance crew can take "Hotel" showers with fresh water, made daily by the ship itself.  The technology and electronics would have stunned and amazed the Nashville crew.  But they would have had more in common with the Spruance sailors than you might expect.  

The Nashville crew would have recognized the tightly stacked crew bunks albeit without any "hotracking" necessary.  They would have recognized the pitch and roll, the often narrow walkways, steep ladders, staggered sleeping hours and constant maintenance.  My sense is they would have adjusted and felt at home in this new navy in quick manner.  As it was, some of the Nashville crew were with me in a sense.  I carried in my bag the Humble Heroes book to present to the Captain, my Nashville hat and a collection far more significant.  In my small leather notebook, tucked carefully into a pocket, were photos of my dad George Bustin, Patrick Carigan, Don Hill, Bob Bonnell, Fred Clinton Hewell Jr., Joe Venaglia and more.  On that day, in some form I leave to you to decide, they were all youthful sailors and Marines again, together, shipmates at sea.

PART 1: How Did I Get Here?

How did I get here?  I am standing on the rolling, wet, steel deck of a state of the art billion dollar war machine loaded with more advanced technology than most of us in the high tech industry will ever get close to, at least knowingly.  I am the ‘media tech’ representative so to speak of a team of seven recognized leaders selected to participate in the Navy’s “Leaders to Sea” program.  The program embarks influential business, community and government opinion leaders to underway US Navy surface ships via a Navy Seahawk helicopter.  It is a highly valued and sought after nomination and I am more than thrilled and honored to be selected.  Other participants have backgrounds in systems engineering, economic development, public policy, real estate and winemaking.  An eclectic, accomplished and engaging group with curious minds and a sense of adventure.

The selection process can take from three months to three years starting from the time of nomination (thank you Dennis Hall of Avere Group and Susan Etlinger of Altimeter) to vetting by the Navy and finally selection and embarkation to a ship at sea.  Besides the “leader” qualification there were others:  we had to be physically able to spend the day going up and down steep ladders both inside and outside the ship as we pitched about in the sea, be reasonably comfortable with confined spaces, not have any serious medical conditions, wear appropriate shoes and clothing and carry nothing more than a small bag for personal effects such as a camera.  Additionally, we had to sign a waiver.  I did and no, I didn’t read it.

As an entrepreneur with a few successful startups in my past, a writer, historian and sailor, I was particularly interested in the technology of the ship not only in terms of weapons and propulsion but also in terms of crew living conditions and internet access.  The Spruance was a new ship, in fact the newest destroyer in the navy, commissioned October 1, 2011.  A new state of the art ship is like a startup in many ways, albeit a billion dollar startup.  Everything is new, technology is cutting edge, systems are constantly being tested and the highly trained people that make it all happen do multiple jobs under pressure with intermittent and irregular sleeping hours.

I wanted to learn about the technology of the ship and was curious as to how much information the captain and crew would share with us, how much access we would have to that technology and simply, what could we photograph and what was forbidden.  

The weather in San Diego was, by Southern California standards, just short of miserable for several days before our embark.  It rained, it was cool, it was windy, and it rained again and again.  I said to the doorman at my downtown San Diego hotel “I’ve never seen weather this bad in San Diego” and he replied “Neither have I sir”.  The night before the scheduled embark, I was concerned the event would be cancelled due to weather, but the forecast was for partially clearing skies.  Our point of embarkation would be the Naval Air Station (NAS) on Coronado Island in San Diego Bay and I needed to be at the designated parking lot on the other side of Coronado no later than 6:15AM.  No problem.

PART 2: Embark and Landing at Sea

I arrived at the parking lot at 5:40AM and within ten minutes five others did the same.  Within moments a navy Master Chief in the new navy camouflage uniform approached us and had us drive our cars past a Marine guarded gate into a secure area.  Soon, we were in a van to the headquarters of the US Navy Naval Surface Forces, Pacific where we had an orientation meeting and group photo.  Quickly we were back into the van and within minutes arrive at NAS on the other side of the island.

We entered a nondescript one story building where we anxiously looked out to the tarmac at a row of Seahawk helicopters, wondering which would be our ride.  In less than five minutes one taxied to within fifty yards of the building and a pilot and crewman climbed out of the aircraft and came into the building to speak with us.  What we got was a professional, routine, concise and clear pre-underway checklist of things to do, not do and expect.  What we felt was anything but routine.  None of us had ever flown on a helicopter and we were about to take off and fly about 100 miles due west into the Pacific and land on the small flight deck of a destroyer underway.  We were issued helmets, life jackets and airsickness bags.  Part of our orientation was what to do in case of a water landing, more specifically, what to do when the helicopter turns upside down (the craft is top loaded due to the weight of the engine) and fills with water.  While my brain listened intently to the instructions regarding finding an orientation point to hang on to, releasing the seat belt, opening the door or window and exiting to float to the surface, my mind was envisioning very dark and disturbing thoughts.  

We had the opportunity to take a few photos and then, in single file, walked out to board the helicopter.  I was lucky, I had the coveted ‘gunner’s seat’, an outward facing seat right behind the pilot with my own window.  In fact, I was told to enter the helicopter by climbing through that window.  The real fun was about to begin.  The Seahawk is the Navy version of the more famous Blackhawk helicopter.  It has a twin turboshaft engine, generally has a crew of 3-4 and can carry an additional 6 or more passengers.  This is a versatile workhorse, capable of flying over 500 miles, carrying a myriad of weapons from torpedoes (yes, torpedoes!), missiles and machine guns.  I didn’t ask about gas mileage but at 17,000 pounds loaded, it probably is something less than a Prius.

It was loud but in an exhilarating way. We slowly lifted off the ground without any sensation of movement, continued to gain altitude and the helicopter’s nose dipped just a little as we headed out to sea.  I expected more vibration and bouncing but the ride was quite smooth and comfortable in the unsettled weather, albeit a little chilly.
About 40 minutes into the trip we started to descend, closer and closer to the white caps on the water.  It was only during the last 10 seconds that I saw what we were landing on, a pitching and rolling flight deck of a ship making about 14 knots.  Once the flight crew had us literally chained to the flight deck, we were led off the helicopter, across the edge of the deck, into the hanger and then into the Ward Room where the Captain, Executive Officer and Master Chief greeted us with smiles and hot, strong coffee.  

The Captain gave us a thorough orientation of the day’s activities and encouraged us to ask any questions at any time to any person on any topic.  You can’t expect more than that and our group started with questions covering all topics including technology, weapons, and even internet access.  All questions were promptly and enthusiastically answered.  This Navy of ours is a very open, transparent and engaging organization.  Not a single question went unanswered, not a single request unfulfilled.

The weather outside had taken a turn towards the decidedly uncomfortable and when the Ensign assigned to conduct our tour said we could stay inside rather than venture out, the group answered that we didn’t care about getting wet, we wanted to go out on deck, and so we did.  

PART 3: Civilians On Deck, and Everywhere Else

As we began our tour we were clearly reminded of what we were told before we entered the ship but had all but forgotten; the interior of the ship is pressurized, like an aircraft.  You open a hatch, enter a small area that will hold at most 8 or 9 people, in some cases only 2-3, close the hatch behind you and then open the other hatch to enter or exit the interior.  Why?  It prevents a very large, thick, heavy steel door from giving you a major body slam and breaking multiple parts of your body, likely starting with your nose.  The difference in pressure, although it is only 2 PSI, is enough to do that.  We all quickly became experts in hatch protocol.

The interior is pressurized as a defense against chemical, biological or nuclear agents.  In fact, the exterior structure of the ship is covered in sprinklers, giving her the ability to completely wash herself down with sea water and then fresh water in the event of any such type of attack.  Like all great plans, inventions and intentions, there are unintended consequences and the pressurization of the ship is no exception.  An unplanned but very positive effect of the pressurization is that every time those hatches are used to exit the interior, minute particles of dust and dirt get blown out.  The result is an exceptionally clean ship, complimenting the work of the crew in that area.  

We left the interior and followed the Ensign to the forward deck.  Walking out on deck, the first thing that you notice is the wind, most of it generated by the speed of the ship.  Second, you notice that walking towards the bow is decidedly uphill.  We gathered around the 5” gun near the bow. The size refers to the diameter of the projectile.  The gun fires 6 different types of ammunition (multiple surface to air and surface to surface shells) and is fully automated.  Going to the bow, you step around the chains of not one, but two anchors.  The main anchor is 4,000 pounds and it is not the anchor itself that holds the ship, it is the anchor chain which weighs even more.  The second anchor is the “hurricane” anchor, it weighs 5,000 pounds and is angled off the port side due to the Coriolis effect (clockwise movement) of hurricanes in the northern hemisphere.  

With a little rain and wind battering us, we then proceed down the port side of the ship to amidships, climb up a ladder, walk towards the stern, go up another ladder and get an overview from the Ensign of the machinery just above our heads, more accurately the machine gun above our heads.  And not just any machine gun.  Sometimes affectionately referred to as “R2D2” due to a distinctive shape, the CIWS Gatling gun is an automated anti-missile weapon capable of firing 75 rounds of 20mm armor piercing rounds a second.  Yes, 75 a second...4,500 rounds a minute.  

The weather continues unabated and we neither much notice nor care.  We traverse back down the ladders, into the outer walkway of the ship, through one of the two helicopter hangers and then back out, this time onto the flight deck, the one we landed on that morning.  Besides a gray sea with our beautiful teal blue wake cutting through it, we see the 2 sets of MK46 Triple Torpedo Tube Launchers, defense against enemy submarines.  There is a lot of firepower on this destroyer and we haven’t even seen the real cool stuff yet, but we have seen it’s home, multiple rows of missile tubes fore and aft abound.  And we can’t wait to see what we can do with those.

PART 4: Deep Below Deck, Propulsion and Power

We requested a tour of the engine room and in true Navy fashion, they agreed and then offered a pre-emptive apology if any of us felt uncomfortable since some find it claustrophobic.  Engine room is of course, a misnomer.  The four engines and connected technology cover several rooms and levels of decks, as clean and spotless as a hospital operating room.  Amid multi-story steel grid walkways, an unending labyrinth of fuel and fluids pipes, color coded valves, instrument panels, and noise (we are wearing hearing protection) we see in an enclosed steel container with a viewing window, of all things, a jet engine?  Indeed, a jet engine and not just any jet engine.   A Rolls Royce jet engine, almost gold in color, it appears like an extraterrestrial alien power source.  The engines are gas turbine engines, essentially jet engines and each enclosed in their own container that not only keeps it pristine clean, but would contain any fire that might occur.  In fact, much of the entire multi-level engine has it’s components enclosed for just that purpose.  It is a safety design that could mean the difference between a devastating, fatal (to both crew and ship) fire and a fire that damages but a single engine component.  

There are two very large, long shafts that we have been walking above, below and next to, noticing the warning signs.  These are the two propeller shafts, the pieces of equipment that transfer the energy of the engines to the propellers that drive (technically, pull) the ship through the water.  You see no oil, no fluids, no blemishes of any type on them.  All you see is a white, rapidly spinning shaft, slightly angled down and passing through a bulkhead, operating silently.

There is something missing in this enormous, multi-story piece of Borg technology driving the 9,200 ton Spruance through seas at a top speed of 32 knots (officially but bet your stock options it does much more).  It is people.  Save for our group and the Ensign, there are no people here, none.  The Engineering group and all of their pervasive monitoring equipment (leave a hatch partially open anywhere on the ship and Engineering knows it immediately) is in a different part of the ship.  Yes, the crew does spend time in the engine room but it is not a necessity on a constant basis.

As we have seen all about the ship, we see here in the engine section, a number of small red cases bolted about the bulkheads, stenciled EBD.  These are Emergency Breathing Devices.  In the event of flooding these devices can provide a few moments of life-saving air to the crew, giving them more time to hopefully escape any flooded compartment.  

After being deep into the bowels of the ship we make out way topside again where we noticed the seas had become a little more dynamic in the past hour, something we did not feel at all being so near the bottom of the ship.  Next, we will make our way several stories up for yet another unique experience.

PART 5: At The Helm, Seriously?

“Captain on the Bridge!” shouted a sailor as the Captain and our Ensign took us to the Bridge of the ship, high above the deck.  If the engine compartment was the muscle of the ship, this was the Mind... on a case of Red Bull.  All communications and information flowed through the Bridge, loaded with tons of cutting edge technology; radar, sonar, satellite communications, weather systems, weapons systems, propulsion systems, classified detection systems worthy of science fiction, and more.  All ship functions could be controlled from the Bridge with redundant locations deeper within the beast in the event the bridge and its personnel are damaged or destroyed.  At first I did not notice, but there were quite a few women on the bridge of this warship, young women, well-educated, highly trained, confident, commanding people.  In today’s Navy, 20% of the personnel are women.  I suspect that percentage may well increase in the near future.  

“Who wants to take the helm?” the Captain asked us.  Seriously?  The helm?  Drive this billion dollar ship?  There was no shortage of hands going up and I got my opportunity.  I grabbed the sports car sized wheel and awaited a command.  The Helmsman stood close to my left, a tall, good looking sailor no more than 23 years old, both of us looking at a screen showing course, speed, true and magnetic north, true wind, apparent wind and some other data I did not comprehend.  We were not looking out the bridge, past the bow to the sea, others did that for us.  My eyes instead were focused on the array of constantly changing digital information displayed before me.

Pointing to a young Lieutenant about 10 feet in front of me the Helmsman said “Sir, she would give you a command and you will need to acknowledge the command”.

“Got it” I replied, both hands steady on the helm, my eyes reading the instruments, a smile forming on my disbelieving face, noting we were doing 14 knots on a Lee Helm.  We were about to do a man overboard drill, a rapid series of maneuvers where we go hard and fast, crossing back over our own wake, and then come to a full stop to save the poor soul in the water.  It must be done in under 8 minutes or the probability of rescue and survival diminishes precipitously.  

Suddenly the Lieutenant shouts out “Hard right rudder!” and I reply “Hard right rudder, aye!” as I make the sharp, almost violent turn to starboard.  My Helmsman says “Now, hard right rudder means...” and I interrupt him with “035 degrees correct?”.  He brightens with a huge smile and says “Yes, very good sir, keep going!” and I do.

Next the Lieutenant shouts out “Come to course Two Seven Zero!” and I reply “Two Seven Zero, Aye!” as I turn hard to the new course and just as we reach 260 degrees I start to straighten the wheel out so that we ease right onto 270 degrees without oversteering (my Coast Guard Auxiliary Coxswain training is coming in handy).  My man is now smiling almost to the point of laughter and says “Very nice sir, you know this!”.  Steering the ship is easy, she is amazingly responsive, far more so than the average family sedan.  I cannot discern any lag or hesitation between my changing course and the bow pointing in the new direction. She is instantaneously responsive.

As we approach the target crew are shouting out information, “4 minutes!”, “5 minutes!”, “1,000 yards!”, “700 yards!”.  It is a symphony of commands and information.  What happens next surprises me.  “Full reverse!” shouts the Lieutenant.  We are near full speed and the order has been given to go into full reverse?  My first thought is you have to go to neutral, slow and then reverse but no, not with this technology.  The ship goes to full reverse, we begin to slow immediately and we come to a full stop, dead in the water, right on target in less than 3 ship lengths, 1,500 feet.  Impressive.  As it turns out, the engine never really goes into reverse.  The ship stops or runs in reverse because the propellers are angled and feathered to do so, the engine, the shafts do not reverse themselves.  Now that is impressive technology.

I didn’t think anything on the Spruance could be cooler than steering her, but we were about to experience an hour that would come close.

PART 6: Star Trek  (CIC)

As we had walked about the deck forward and aft, we noticed row after row of hatches and assumed these were missile silos.  We assumed correctly.  The Spruance carries multiple types of missiles for multiple types of targets.  Total inventory?  That would be 96 missiles, officially.  An incredible amount of destructive firepower against hostile submarines, surface ships, aircraft, missiles and land based targets.

One of our group boldly asked “So do we get to shoot any weapons, maybe a missile?” only half in hopeful jest.  We all laughed since we shared that same absurd thought.

“No, I can’t let you do that unfortunately although I would if I could” replied our Ensign.  I believed him.  “But we are going to do the next best thing.  First, let’s go back to the Wardroom where you can leave your cameras because where we are going there are no cameras gentlemen”.  This would be the first and only time we were restricted in any manner whatsoever.  

The Combat Information Center (CIC) is located deep within the ship.  If the Bridge is the Mind of the ship, the CIC is the Brain.  Reference the movie “Battleship” (which featured destroyers identical to the Spruance) and you have some idea of the space.  The CIC is what a hard core geek man cave might look like if such a geek had the Pentagon’s budget. In reality, it was more like Star Trek in it’s sophistication.  Amid near darkness and brightly lit colorful computer screens, blinking lights, low ceilings, people with headsets looking intently at scores of computer screens and a sense of isolation, we were given our instructions and handed off to individual crew for our assignments.  The drill scenario was that we were in the Persian Gulf and under attack by air, sea and sub-surface forces.  I had air defense duty and was assisted by a Lieutenant with 18 years of navy service, a man who proudly had advanced through the enlisted ranks to become a Lieutenant.  He loved the navy and his job, his enthusiasm as palpable as our excitement.

Our group sat at assigned consoles and received hands-on training and assignments, some to fire torpedoes at enemy submarines, others missiles at ships and others still,  missiles or R2D2 at enemy missiles that breached the defensive perimeter. I did the same and suddenly felt overwhelmed by the variety and number of incoming bad guys (bogies).  

I targeted an incoming aircraft and then heard a hearty “Yes!” shouted out to my right as one of my group fired a missile at my target and got a quick kill.  As I identified targets and sent the orders to engage, other group members were taking those orders and firing their weapons.  It was like a movie, lots of colored triangles moving towards us from all corners of the screen, information as to type of weapon, speed, warhead, etc. coded under each symbol.

“How many bogies can the system track simultaneously?” I asked the Lieutenant.
“Track?  An indefinite number” he smiled.
“OK, how many missiles can I order to be fired at once” I asked.
“That is classified, but you see all those bogies on your screen?” he asked.
“Yes sir” I said.
“We can simultaneously have a missile in the air for each one of them, plus more”  he explained proudly.  There must have been at least 30 to 40 incoming bogies on my screen.

The system was programmed to send one missile and then quickly, another for each target selected. The system then either confirms a kill or orders up two more missiles.  While all of it was automated, it was under human control and the crew had the final say on each action.

Time and space were compressed. It seemed like 15 minutes but in reality, an hour.  When we finished we all momentarily looked at each other thinking, ‘did we just do that’?  Smiles all around, from us and our gracious hosts.  We felt we were in on a secret, somehow we were in the club.  We drove the ship, we fired the missiles, we were satiated with navy coolness, what more could there be?  That would be a first class meal in the Ward Room followed by more weapons and real uncertainty about going home as planned.

PART 7: Food, Guns and Taco Tuesday

Lunch was in the Wardroom, attended by both officers and enlisted crew, one placed between each of us for easy conversation.  I had the privilege of sitting next to the Executive Officer (XO) who was next to the Captain at the head of the long table.  The food was as good as the outstanding service: prime rib, fresh wrapped asparagus, roasted potatoes, hot rolls, cake drizzled with a chocolate sauce.

“Captain” I said, “Do you eat this well every day?”
“We do” he replied, “the presentation isn’t always this fancy, but we do eat well”.
“Except today is normally ‘Taco Tuesday’ so the crew is wondering why they have prime rib today” said the XO. “They are probably wondering what we are going to ask them to do” he smiled.
“Yes, the last time we changed the regular menu we had a last minute run to San Francisco for Fleet Week” said the Captain.

At the end of lunch I presented the Captain with my book (Humble Heroes, How The USS Nashville CL43 Fought WWII) for the ship’s library.  Genuinely appreciative, he thanked me and took notice of my personalized note to the crew using the ship’s motto, “Launch the attack!”, the orders that Admiral Spruance issued during the Battle of Midway in WWII.  The Ward Room displays the Admiral’s dress uniform and a copy of the orders.

After our meal we toured more of the ship including one of the helicopter hangers that had become a makeshift gym for the crew, including weights and what was a source of amusement for us, treadmills.  Why the amusement?  One dedicated sailor was running at a good pace on a treadmill but as the ship rolled substantially from side to side, the sailor was in turn running decidedly downhill and uphill with each roll.  I imagine it was an acquired skill to stay upright.

Our tour for the day ended in the original helicopter hanger where we started.  Here we were shown yet more weapons, in this case, of the close range and hand held variety.  Displayed on the deck before us was an array of guns including the tried and true .50 caliber mounted machine gun, assault rifles, a shotgun and a handgun.  One might think that after seeing high technology weapons of some seriously massive destruction, we would not be enamored by these close range standards.  One would be wrong.  A proud young female sailor talked about the capabilities of each weapon, told us when they would be used (when docking generally) and literally handed them to us for the tactile experience.  We were all grown men, all successful adults, and we were like kids discovering their first Luke Skywalker Lightsaber.

The seas were getting rougher, the wind kicking up, the ship noticeably pitching and rolling more as we awaited our ride home, a SeaHawk helicopter like the one we arrived on that morning.  However, there was real uncertainty regarding landing on the small deck in such sea conditions.  We were told that in the event it was too dangerous, they had already made accommodations for us to stay the night in the crew quarters.  Looking at each other, we burst into smiles and agreed we would welcome such an opportunity.  But the pilot did indeed land on that moving deck, perfectly as it was and soon we were on our way back to San Diego.  It is safe to say we all gave our day a great deal of thought upon our return.  The weapons technology was impressive but no more so than the design and functioning of the ship itself.  Most impressive was of course the officers and crew, highly trained, seriously focused, dedicated men and women.  From a distance, the untrained eye would not discern this ship from any other they have seen in the past 50 years, a haze gray ship with a large superstructure, a couple of smokestacks and a big gun on the bow.  But in reality, this ship, from design to engineering, from weapons to environmental sensitivity, is much closer to a spacecraft than a Vietnam Era warship.  And somehow, as much as we saw, I strongly suspect there were even cooler, more advanced technologies at work, unseen by us and perhaps most of the crew.  One wonders.  Go Navy!

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