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December 5, 2013 / iDriveWarships

Initiative of a 21st Century Sailor

Navy SEALs depart USS Howard (DDG 83) to conduct VBSS

By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Coover

When Boatswains Mate Seaman Megan Barrious woke up she didn’t know what to expect.

It wasn’t that she didn’t have an idea what her day was supposed to be like. Barrious knew she’d be navigating USS Howard (DDG 83) though an exercise simulating the ship’s transit through a narrow strait, which in the real world means ships are vulnerable to threats that don’t exist in the open ocean. She knew she’d be steering Howard behind and ahead of other U.S. Navy vessels and that the tight formations would require quick maneuvering and heightened awareness. She knew that much. She’d just never done it before.

So when her alarm went off at 4 a.m., Barrious rolled out of her rack and dressed in her blue coveralls and black leather boots for the work day. Born into an Air Force family, Barrious grew up mostly in Idaho and Utah before joining the Navy. She likes her job as a boatswains mate—likes the challenge, loves being outside, and working with her hands.

“The Navy’s always been there for me,” she says, and then points to her heart. “Right here.”

And her favorite part of her job is when she gets to work behind the helm. Though every Sailor plays a role in accomplishing the Navy’s mission, very few Sailors can claim they literally drive a warship. Barrious is one who can.

This Tuesday morning, Barrious was in the pilothouse by 5:15 a.m., and a few minutes into the start of the straits transit exercise, she was already comfortable. She smiled easily. She called back orders to the conning officer quickly, and soon the pilothouse was alive with sunlight, sound and movement.

What Barrious didn’t know, though—what another Sailor had to tell her—was the small role she was playing in the ongoing process of integrating the Navy fleet (including ships like Howard) with Naval Special Warfare (NSW). While the shape of the integration between the fleet and NSW is decided at the Navy’s highest levels, it’s Sailors like Barrious who help put it into practice.

As Barrious worked the helm, shifting Howard’s rudder according to instructions from her superiors, Naval Aircrewman (Mechanical) 2nd Class Chris Harvey, who is assigned to a West Coast-based NSW unit, stood on the starboard side of the bridge in a tactical vest, operating an altogether different type of machinery. Harvey was tasked with piloting Scan Eagle, a type of unmanned aerial system (UAS) frequently used by NSW to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions on land. Today, this interoperability exercise would bring the technology to ships at sea.

Scan Eagle requires a large catapult in order to launch, and most Navy ships currently lack such a setup. With the mobile kit, however, Scan Eagle can launch from land and be flown over an embarked UAS operator, who can then take control and pilot the system according to a ship’s intelligence collection plan. Harvey, playing the role of that operator, was the first to test the system.

It didn’t come without challenges, but with every flight, the NSW team was learning how to improve Scan Eagle’s ability to supplement a ship’s already considerable ISR capabilities.

Cmdr. David Zook, Howard’s commanding officer, noticed immediately.

“The intel, queuing, the oversight—those were all tremendous enhancements to my inherent capabilities on board,” he said.

Lt. Cmdr. James Celani, a UAS troop commander with a West Coast-based NSW unit, explained that NSW can bring SEALs and surface warfare combatant-craft crewmen (SWCC) aboard Navy ships for maritime operations, but that the special warfare community also offers a variety of other options to surface commanders.

“NSW is a total force multiplier,” he said. “There’s the full range, from tactical takedowns to intelligence to recovering data.”

In the case of Scan Eagle, a Sailor like Barrious could drive a warship, a Sailor such as Harvey could control the movements of the UAS, and a ship’s commanding officer would be able to have control of his ship the way he or she always has—with the added benefit of the increased situational awareness provided by the NSW team. Similarly, NSW benefits from fleet integration by gaining an afloat-forward staging base and the robust communication abilities provided by a Navy ship—both of which SEAL and SWCC teams can use to perform the specialized missions at which they excel.

Indeed, this latter integration was on display hours later after the sun had set. Using Howard’s rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs), SEAL and SWCC operators departed the ship to practice a visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) exercise in which the men would take control of a simulated-hostile craft. While Howard has a VBSS team as well, the unit is only trained to search ships and boats that permit peaceful boardings. SEALs are able to take down ships in which the boarding is opposed. It’s an asset a ship like Howard could certainly employ.

As the SEALs and SWCCs waited to load into the RHIBs, Howard’s deck department prepared to lower them into the water. When the sun rose that morning, Barrious was integrated with NSW, as Scan Eagle helped Howard navigate through the straits transit exercise. Long after darkness fell, more than 12 hours later, she stood on the deck as NSW operators prepared to disembark, part of another NSW mission. The diversity of her experiences that day seemed to demonstrate the enhanced capabilities that NSW’s integration with the Navy fleet brings to both entities.

With the bellow of an order, Barrious’ team took control of the lines to which the RHIBs were tethered. They lowered the small boats into the water, and then waited for operators to climb aboard and steer off into the night.

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