The Navy's newest America-class amphibious assault ship, the future USS Tripoli, is set for commissioning in Pensacola next summer, although the date has not been finalized. Members of the local commissioning committee and Pensacola Navy League recently drove over to Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi for a first look at the new ship.
The Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Tripoli (LHA 7) is the third U.S. Navy ship named Tripoli in honor of the Battle of Derna in 1805, a decisive victory led by a detachment of U.S. Marines.
Its commissioning ceremony will be the fifth held at NAS Pensacola dating back to USS Mitscher in 1994.
A sixth commissioning ceremony organized by the local group was conducted in Mobile.
The Navy awarded a nearly $2.4 billion contract to Huntington Ingalls for design and construction of the aviation-centric amphibious assault ship in May 2012. Nearing completion, the vessel underwent a series of sea trials this summer and fall to assess its operational readiness.
Right now, though, the future USS Tripoli is in dry dock at the Ingalls Shipyard.
For the Pensacola group that has come to see the ship this means a close view of the huge port side propeller and the hull.
We take a construction elevator up to the flight deck.
“You basically covered just shy of three football fields, 845 feet,” said Captain Kevin Meyers, the ship’s commanding officer, who serves as guide for our short tour. He briefly pauses to acknowledge, jokingly, that this will be a “recorded” tour.
“I’m on record now for the radio,” the captain said. “All the Florida radio stations are the best. That’s what I hear.”
Then, he continued with details - fit for radio - about his vessel, which has a top speed of over 22 knots (or 25 mph), powered in part by two marine gas turbine engines and two 5,000 horse power auxiliary propulsion motors.
“So, we’re about 45,000 tons sitting up on the blocks right now, and going down the port side,” said Capt. Meyers in reference to the fact that the ship has been hoisted out of the water for finishing touches.
“Like most amphibious helicopter assault ships, these are now capable of carrying the Joint Strike Fighter, as well as every Marine Corps helicopter in the inventory, and the Osprey, and then we’ll also have a search and rescue detachment of the Navy SH-60 helicopters.”
Tripoli, which has a crew of about 1,000 Navy and can carry about 1,800 Marines, will operate like a small carrier, featuring aircraft with vertical and/or short take-off and landing capabilities.
The captain points up to the main aircraft control tower and notes the vast amount of equipment on the ship.
“It is a massive command and control capability, either for controlling aircraft, broadcasting systems, managing global satellite internet, and then a lot of our capability of collecting intelligence as we sail around,” Meyers said.
“On this ship, our primary mission is flight ops,” begins Electronics Technician 1st Class Kamal Marie. He points to a box that reads “radiation hazard” painted in red. “That’s part of 41 radar. That basically is a landing aid that helps the aircraft.”
ET1 Marie explains how the radar system helps the pilots get lined up for landing.
“That let’s them know that they’re not going to hit the ship, they’re not going to miss it. That let’s them know if they keep going they’re going to land on the ship perfectly. That’s for them,” said Marie of the radar instrumentation aboard the aircraft.
“We also have something, the big one right next to it is the 35 radar. That’s basically the same thing, but that’s what we use to track them. In case the 41 (radar) is off, we can let them know, ‘Hey go to the right, go up, go down.’”
“A real difference between this and an aircraft carrier is they (LHA 7 Tripoli) are designed to operate aircraft blacked out,” added retired Rear Adm. Don Quinn, chair of the commissioning committee and former commander of the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC).
This ability to go dark is one of Tripoli’s distinctive features.
“So, all their lights are shut down. They go to night vision goggles. Because the amphib(s) operate so close to shore, it makes them less of a target,” Adm. Quinn said.
In reference to the unique capability, Capt. Meyers added, “If I want to make my aircraft carrier friends feel a little bad, I like to tell them that I can steam around a mile or two off the coast and I don’t need 25 destroyers, cruisers, and everybody else to protect me. I’ll take care of it myself with a few marines and a sniper rifle.”
The captain does have a bit more firepower at his disposal. The ship’s armament includes two Rolling Airframe Missile launchers, two Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile launchers and seven twin .50 Caliber Browning Machine Guns.
The tour continues. Now that we’re done on the flight deck, the captain leads the group down a deck or two. To get to our next stop, we navigate a couple of ladder wells and narrow passageways.
The ship is a maze of rooms and spaces for everything, including equipment, general quarters (work stations), private sleeping quarters, lounges, recreation areas, meeting rooms, and dining (or mess).
As we file in, Cpt. Meyers hopes we haven’t lost anybody.
“Someone’s still looking at the propeller down there,” said Meyers.
In response, a member of the tour group jokes, “I was dropping peanuts along the way, so we find our way back.”
For a quiet place to continue talking about the ship, the captain has led us to the wardroom, which not so long ago was one of numerous open, unmarked spaces.
“If you were here two, two-and-a-half years ago, there were no frame numbers. There were no labels. In some cases, there were no doors. You would just walk into an empty area,” said Meyers, before detailing the impressive way the dozen or so craftsmen in the shipyard pull the new construction together.
“You’ll see a whole bunch of people just running around with cans of spray paint, different colors,” Meyers said of the fabrication markers. “They’ll come in and just put an X or they’ll put a circle, or they’ll put an arrow, or they’ll put a line, they’ll put three dots; and it means something to the people who’ll come in behind them and put a foundation down.”
This is an indication that every aspect of the ship has been carefully measured, from the spot for each bolt and bracket to the location of bulkheads and ventilation ducting.
At this point, the ship’s construction is complete. But, the future USS Tripoli will remain in dry dock through at least the end of the month for what’s known as the “fit and finish” phase.
In our next installment, we’ll learn a little more about the ship, its crew and operations.