Life at sea with the ‘Ghetto Navy’

The Navy's old frigates will leave the fleet faster than LCS can replace them, but at this point, there's nothing for it.

The life of a frigate sailor in the U.S. Navy doesn’t look much like what you see in the recruiting commercials.

As described by Navy Times’ senior writer Mark D. Faram, the crew of the frigate USS Elrod struggles constantly with breakdowns, old equipment and the limitations of a ship deliberately left out of combat relevance in the 21st century.

Plus sailors’ accommodations are cramped. Their clothes come back damp and wrinkled from the central laundry. Sometimes they shower without hot water for weeks.

The frigates, in short, are the self-described “Ghetto Navy,” the part of the surface force that makes the rest of the surface force — which has had its own maintenance, training and readiness problems — look good. But in the true spirit of the service, the crew has to look on the bright side. Everyone, starting with the ships’ chiefs, treats her or his time aboard as an experience that, as Calvin’s father might have put it, “builds character.”

Wrote Faram:

“That’s what frigate sailors do,” said Senior Chief Gunner’s Mate (SW/AW) Asa Worcester, the ship’s command senior chief. “That’s not a bitch, that’s a fact that we live with every day ‘cause the mission still has to get done.” This is Worcester’s second tour on Elrod and third on a frigate. He made chief onboard Elrod and is proud to be back as the ship’s top enlisted sailor.“I feel there’s something special about these ships and the type of sailor it produces,” he said. “Grow up in this environment and you’ll be a better sailor for it — our sailors don’t just survive, they thrive.

That sentiment is echoed up and down the ranks. Life is tough onboard the 453-foot-long, 45-foot-wide ship. The gear is old and has a tendency to break. But still, Worcester said, the mission gets done because of the crew.

“We’ve got old machinery that doesn’t always work. In fact, we still have electronic gear in here that uses vacuum tubes. You know how hard that is to fix?” [GSMC (SW) James] Richards said. Even worse, he said, is the lack of spare parts. Many of the companies that provided the gear in the 1970s and 1980s are now out of business, causing Elrod and the other frigates to scrounge for parts and often make their own.

 “And that’s where our sailors benefit,” Richards said. “Sailors learn their jobs best by doing them, by tearing down gear and rebuilding it — and this is a real hands-on environment for them to learn.”

Nothing accelerates your life makes you a global force for good like scrounging parts for obsolete equipment so your ship can pull into a sleepy port to show the local coast guardsmen how to pull-start an outboard motor. Ah, but not to worry — the figs may not be long for this world, but soon the much-discussed littoral combat ships — which are not frigates! except when they are! — are on their way to take over. Right?

Explained Faram:

Many of the 30 “figs” that have been discarded by the fleet are now serving in the Bahraini, Egyptian, Pakistani, Polish and Turkish navies. The remaining 21 are likely headed for the same fate in the coming years as the Navy places its faith in the smaller, faster littoral combat ship to perform traditional frigate missions.

Three were put down this fiscal year and six will go in 2013. Seven will depart in 2014 and 2015. The remaining three will go at a slower pace, with two leaving in 2017 and the last, the Ingraham, in 2019. The problem is the frigates are going away faster than the Navy can build the LCS to replace them. That delay has caused many observers to call on the Navy to cover the gap by extending the life of the remaining frigates, but officials are sticking to the schedule, saying the ships are too worn-out to make it worthwhile.

There will be 31 fewer ships to do the same number of missions in 2015 than there were in 2009,” retired Navy Capt. Rick Hoffman, who commanded the frigate DeWert and later the cruiser Hue City, wrote in a 2009 paper. “Decommissioning the FFGs prior to LCS arriving in the fleet in sufficient numbers to cover the mission set seems to introduce significant risk.” The end result, he said, will be the Navy doesn’t have the ships to cover the missions they’re doing today, and some things will have to give. Officials have hinted that counter-drug and nation-building work in Central and South America will be one of those things.

Which revives our longtime question about whether those missions were ever that important, or whether they were just make-work for a class of ships the Navy had already decided to put out to pasture.

At any rate, the Navy is stuck. There’s nothing to be done. The frigates are too old and fatigued to preserve any longer; LCS is too far behind to come online at the rates the Navy would need to fill the gap. Eventually, the brass expects to field at least 55 LCSes — though Norman Polmar has bet you a whole dollar that won’t happen — but in the meantime, commanders have no choice but to squeeze all the good they can from the “Ghetto Navy.”