The crew of the guided missile destroyer Stockdale has stayed busy these past couple weeks conducting a live fire exercise and anti-piracy training even as Navy leaders trying to balance shrinking budgets with readiness concerns.
Navy leadership has told Congress at the multiple budget hearings on Capitol Hill how the cuts brought on by sequestration threaten readiness levels as service brass must choose between cuts to operations, personnel and modernization budgets.
The Stockdale is deployed to the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility with a range of threats to include Iran and Syria to go along with the terrorist groups that reside in Northern Africa. The Navy has made their training a priority to ensure the crew’s readiness.
However, while recent tensions with countries such as Iran and piracy threats to oil and commercial shipping in the Gulf region are indeed part of the overall threat calculus, they do not specifically drive scenarios included in the recently completed live-fire training exercises conducted on March 22, said Lt. Marissa Myatt, U.S. 5th Fleet spokeswoman.
“U.S. Navy ships will train to various threats. The underlying goal of these exercises remains that of proficiency and readiness,” Myatt said.
The live-fire exercises on board the Stockdale not only gave ship members an opportunity to refine their electronics and weaponry skills on board, but also fortified their sense of experience and readiness, said Myatt.
Piracy is another leading threat. A U.S. Coast Guard Advanced Interdiction Team 2 embarked the Stockdale on March 25 to train the Stockdale’s visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team.
It’s likely the Coast Guard and Navy would work together in the event of a seizure or at sea. Therefore, the two teams conducted maritime law enforcement operations sharpen their join skills, Navy officials said.
As a guided missile destroyer, the USS Stockdale (DDG 106) is equipped with substantial radar capability, vertical launch systems able to fire missiles, precision-guided BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles as well as smaller munitions such as the Phalanx Close-In-Weapons-System (CIWS) and the five-inch 5-inch/54-caliber MK 45 guns. The USS Stockdale (DDG 106) also carries several SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters.
"We do maintenance on these systems nearly every day so actually getting to see them shoot is very exciting and rewarding," said Fire Controlman Seaman Brian Crosby.
Although the ship’s larger munitions such as its cruise missiles are typically not fired as part of these exercises, some of the weapons often used include the Phalanx CIWS, .50 cal machine guns, 25mm remote controlled guns, M240 machine guns and small arms such as a 9mm handgun and M16 rifle, Navy officials explained.
A live-fire gunnery exercise takes a significant amount of preparation and energy for successful execution, Myatt added. In fact, electronics on-board the ship such as surface radar give the ship an ability to scan beyond the ranges where the human eye can see and help establish a safe, effective environment for the exercise.
“Since the ship is using live rounds, safety is the top priority during the event. Gunner's mates and fire controlmen must conduct extensive operational checks on the gun one day prior to the live-fire event to ensure system integrity and capability. Once the operational checks are satisfactory, live rounds will be loaded into the gun,” she said.
Some of the exercises involve shooting at pre-positioned inflatable “dummy” targets, Navy officials explained.
"When it comes time to actually shoot the gun, we will either place a simulated target in our radar system, or we will place a real, perishable target in the water," said Lt. Jerry Reyna, Stockdale's weapons officer. "We have big red inflatable targets called 'Killer Tomatoes' which provide the best training. We inflate them, launch them off the back of the ship and then drive out to a desired range before shooting at them. Engaging an actual target is the best way to verify the accuracy of our guns and train the crew.”
Overall, the monthly gunnery exercises also give sailors the opportunity to train and mentor one another when it comes to manning weapons and equipment, said Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Chetan Patel.
One analyst said Naval live-fire exercises bring a hands-on, “on-the-scene” value not achievable through computer simulation training.
“Ultimately you want to get people experience running the systems and seeing the results. Live fire is about people and about the experience. We can all talk about the value of simulators, but there is still nothing to replace a field exercise and actually going through the whole drill and launching something,” said Daniel Goure,a vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank.
The 5th Fleet, part of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, is headquartered in Bahrain and encompasses a broad area of responsibility, ranging from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.