The Navy’s first expeditionary mobile base, USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) got underway from Naval Station Norfolk to perform airborne countermine deployment training, June 13-16.
Puller’s hybrid crew of U.S. Navy Sailors and civil service mariners (CIVMARs) worked in concert with Sailors attached to the «Blackhawks» of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 15 to hone mine elimination capabilities.
«This underway was the first opportunity to merge the Puller’s full mission deck which included small boat operations, countermine sled launches and flight operations», said Lieutenant Commander Matthew Muehlbauer, Puller’s military crew officer-in-charge. «The underway was our first opportunity to simultaneously launch aircraft, small boats and anti-mine sleds».
«We got underway to train in preparation for a future Initial Operational Test and Evaluation», said Bryan Stoots, Puller’s chief mate. «We performed a mock Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM) mission, which included deployment of countermine assets from the ship’s AMCM inventory».
The training battery during the four-day underway consisted of deploying and recovering two types of mine countermeasures from the deck of Puller.
One mine countermeasure deployed was a Mark 105 magnetic sled, which creates a magnetic field to destroy mines as it is towed behind a helicopter.
The second type of countermeasure system used during the training battery was the Magnetic Orange Pipe (MOP). This system is a shallow-water mine countermeasure which also uses magnetism to negate mine threats.
The deployment of each countermeasure was broken down into multiple phases. Puller’s deck department Sailors and CIVMARs first launched three Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs), manned by HM-15 Sailors. These boats were used to guide and maneuver the magnetic sled and MOP. The countermeasure devices were moved into position for towing. The sled was attached to one of HM-15’s MH-53 Sea Dragon helicopters and towed through simulated mine target area.
«Prior to this underway, we developed these capabilities independently», said Muehlbauer. «We tested and qualified the crew to handle small boats and crafts. On the flight deck, we qualified the crew to launch and recover different types of aircraft».
After the designated target area was cleared, the mine countermeasures and the RHIBs were brought back aboard Puller.
«The Puller is designed to support anti-mine countermeasure mission sets», said Muehlbauer. «We are able to embark up to four MH-53 helicopters capable of towing different types of countermine equipment, such as different types of minehunting sleds or mine-finding sonars through the water».
«To support these anti-mine operations we are able to launch and recover small boats and different mine neutralization assets», added Muehlbauer. «This platform can be adapted very quickly to deploy the mine countermeasure assets required based on a particular situation».
Stoots explained his role as chief mate and the CIVMARs’ responsibilities during Puller’s underway.
«The chief mate is similar to an executive officer on a Navy combatant ship», said Stoots. «The position includes being the deck department head, ensuring safe navigation of the ship and leadership in the deck department. As the chief mate, I was responsible for the safety on deck and supervised the entire operation on deck in regards to launching rigid-hull inflatable boats, the mine countermeasure sled and Magnetic Orange Pole».
While Puller’s crew was busy with mine countermeasure training evolutions, there were many critical tasks being performed behind the scenes by Puller’s CIVMARs.
«The main function of the deck department is navigation of the ship», said Stoots. «At all times while we are underway, there is a licensed mate on the bridge. We have a helmsman, lookout, and rover on duty. The helmsman steers the ship and takes direction from the mate. The rover keeps the ship safe and ensures there are no fires, flooding, or injured personnel».
«The lookout is maintaining a proper lookout», continued Stoots. «Other aspects of the deck department include having the boatswain on scene and they manage the deck responsibilities such as operating the cranes, winches, and supervise the movement of cargo and equipment».
There were approximately 40 CIVMARs aboard during the underway.
«I felt like the mine countermeasure training evolution was very successful», said Stoots. «We were uncertain about certain elements of the evolution. This was the first time these types of mine countermeasures were deployed from a ship’s deck while using a ship’s crane to deploy the equipment instead of a ship’s well deck, which is the norm. There was a lot of anticipation to see how the deployment of this equipment would work from Puller and I felt like it went very well».
«The Puller has 100 Sailors in its crew», said Muehlbauer. «The military crew is in charge of the aviation department, mission deck operations, launch and recovery of small boats and any other deployed mission assets, and ship’s force protection. The Sailors also manage C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence), and are capable of providing galley services for approximately 250 military personnel».
«The Puller’s military crew supports the CIVMARs in the deck department with tasks such as line handling, logistic tasks include crane operations, and moving material on and off the ship», added Muehlbauer. «The military crew is made up of four officers and nine chief petty officers. The majority of our junior enlisted Sailors are aviation boatswain’s mates equipment, fuel, handling, information systems technicians, damage controlmen and aviation structural mechanics. To round it out, we have about 30 Sailors who work in the supply department».
«This underway was our first big integrated training event and it went very well», said Muehlbauer. «The training from this underway will lead us into our final testing and evaluation period later this year when we will certify the full capabilities of the Puller and crew».
Puller’s crew is categorized as a hybrid as its members are both active-duty Sailors and CIVMARs. The success of the ship is dependent on a strong working relationship between the two distinctive cultures.
«A successful hybrid crew is definitely a team effort; I like to refer to the crew as ‘Team Puller,’» said Stoots. «We are one ship and one crew, and work together on every aspect of every evolution. The military crew supports the CIVMARs on deck operation, and likewise we support the military crew on operations such as mine countermeasures».
«Early on there were times when we struggled with the crew interactions between the Sailors and CIVMARs», said Muehlbauer. «When the military crew arrived on the Puller, the mariners had already been on board for over a year. So when the military detachment arrived, we were very much the ‘new kids on the block.’ It took a little while to build trust, credibility, and rapport with the mariners».
«The ship’s master and I worked together to lay down initial ground rules for the crew, but most of the real ‘gelling’ for the crew took place on the deck plates», continued Muehlbauer. «The more we placed Sailors and CIVMARs in situations where they had to work together, the better they understand each other’s skillsets and how each does business. This was how we really started to build our team spirit. We put the right people in the right place and it worked very well for us. The formation of a successful hybrid crew for Puller was not dictated from the top, but was more of a grassroots effort which has proven to be very effective».
«Over the course of the last six months, the crew has gotten to the point where the Sailors and CIVMARs are able to predict how each is going to react or think during a variety of situations», said Muehlbauer. «The positive development of our hybrid crew has allowed Puller to maintain its very strict timeline and will ensure we are ready to deploy next year. I believe the Puller brings great capabilities to the Navy. This platform allows the Navy to sustain an expeditionary presence longer and will free up combatant ships to undertake missions which they are better suited for».
The future for USNS Lewis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) includes testing and evaluation. The vessel is also going to spend some time in the shipyard for upgrades and modifications prior to being permanently deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility in 2017.
«The Puller is going to receive an upgrade which will enable Special Operations Forces (SOF) to utilize the ship for operations», concluded Muehlbauer. «The Puller will be able to support maritime interdictions, operations potentially in-country, and different adaptive military packages to perform different types of SOF contingencies throughout the world».
In addition to countermine training evolutions, Puller’s crew performed vertical replenishment training with the Afloat Training Group, practiced flight deck firefighting techniques, and trained to counter the threat of a small boat attack.