MAYPORT, Fla. -- To support the growing cadre of littoral combat ship (LCS) crews being stationed on the U.S. East Coast, the Navy has installed several new virtual trainers to help instruct Sailors in their homeport location while a formal training center is constructed on base.
The inaugural simulators and computer-based courses are stepping-stones to establishing an LCS Training Facility (LTF) at Naval Station Mayport. Like its counterpart in San Diego, LTF Mayport is intended to provide crews with a fully-immersive virtual learning environment that emulates what they will encounter aboard their new ships.
Two simulators and a virtual reality lab (VRL) recently began operations in existing buildings at Mayport. Installation of these interim trainers was made possible with seed money from the LCS Fleet Introduction and Sustainment Program Office (PMS 505), the LCS class in-service program management office within Littoral Combat Ships Program Executive Office (PEO LCS).
"Until the Mayport trainers came online, LCS crews that were stationed in Mayport flew to San Diego to take courses in the training facility there," said Robin Coady, program manager of PMS 505 at Naval Sea Systems Command. "With execution year funding, we were able to modify four existing spaces on base to expedite hosting the virtual trainers and simulators in Mayport to help the Navy avoid the travel expense and crew time out of homeport by reducing the need for cross-country travel to receive this same training."
The 18-seat VRL commenced its first class in early August with the LCS Engineering Plant Technician (EPT) course. The 18-week class comprises 626 individual lessons that range from ship familiarization, propulsion generation and common machinery maintenance to waterjets and watch challenges. Seated in front of three-screen workstations, sailors wear headsets to communicate with their instructors as they control avatars to accomplish tasks and procedures just as they would on board a real warship.
"It's a self-paced course, and we're keeping them moving forward," said Lt. Cmdr. Carey Rentz, LCS engineering training instructor.
Hull Maintenance Technician 1st Class Marc Brandes of LCS Crew 116 spent one month on board USS Detroit (LCS 7) while it was in drydock. As one of 18 sailors in the EPT class, he was completing a lesson in which he had to trace every fire main valve on the ship. "To come in here and see everything on the trainer is really kind of neat," he said. "I'm impressed by the level of detail in virtual reality."
Sailors assigned to other surface ship classes typically learn the material by shadowing a mentor on board their respective ships. To receive hands-on experience in an immersive virtual ship environment is a paradigm shift for most of these Sailors.
"They're wrench-turners, not gamers, so they're a little out of their comfort zone. But the training is very valuable," said LCS course manager Chief Warrant Officer 3 Noel Genao, who has been in the Navy for 24 years. "This type of training is the best type of training I've seen," he added.
Down the hall from the engineering plant students, a small class of junior officers of the deck is learning the art of ship handling and navigation. The eight-week course involves three weeks in a classroom setting and five weeks on a bridge simulator, said LCS instructor and retired Navy captain Mark Sakaguchi of Surface Warfare Officers School Mayport.
"This used to be on-the-job training," Sakaguchi noted. With the simulator in place, "we're training muscle memory." By the end of the course, the junior officers of the deck will be able to sit on the bridge and drive the ship with confidence.
Chief Boatswain's Mate Ryan Beaton of LCS Crew 112 said he was enjoying the course and seeking more in-depth understanding of the LCS ship class and better knowledge of the engineering plant in addition to learning how to work off the hip of the officer of the deck. He noted that his class had toured the bridge simulator and had a chance to drive the ship. "It was awesome. You can't get better visualization without being out there," he said. "The sim was very spot-on for what we'll be doing hands on."
LCS Squadron 2 crews are using the bridge part task trainer for extra practice time, or "stick time," to help keep their skills fresh while they are in port, said Lt. Caroline Stanton, navigation instructor for the Center for Surface Combat Systems in Mayport. "They can conduct exercises without the danger and costs of being underway," she said. Popular scenarios include pierwork in Mayport and other fleet concentration areas as well as transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
In an adjacent building, an LCS Launch Handling and Recovery System (LHRS) crane simulator is set up for deck personnel to practice moving equipment, including Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats and CONEX boxes, inside the Freedom variant of the littoral combat ship class. Sailors carry a real-world operator console to control a virtual ship's crane on a large screen display.
Within a refurbished area of the building where the VRL and bridge part task trainers are housed, construction is underway for an LCS Integrated Tactical Trainer (ITT), a full-scale simulation based on exact replicas of the Freedom variant bridge and bridge wings -- complete with .50 cal. trainers, plus the ship's mission control center. Designed for integrated crew training, qualification and certification, the simulator is expected to be online beginning in June 2018.
The ITT will be a permanent fixture in Mayport's existing building, unlike the temporary installations of the VRL, bridge part task trainer and the LHRS simulator, all of which will be moved to LTF Mayport after its construction is completed.
LTF Mayport is being built in two phases. The first phase, expected to be finished in April 2018, will comprise five 24-seat virtual reality labs, a Freedom-variant mission bay trainer and the bridge part task trainer and LHRS crane simulator currently housed in existing buildings. Phase II, which will include 10 virtual reality labs, two Freedom ITTs and another bridge part task trainer, is expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2021.
The LCS training courses will be taught by instructors from Center for Surface Combat Systems (CSCS), Surface Warfare Officers School and the Center for Information Warfare Training. The facility will be managed by CSCS.
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