Navy Tests Amphibious Ships for Domestic Response

SAN FRANCISCO -- The U.S. Navy teamed with civilian authorities to test how its ships could help provide humanitarian relief following a domestic emergency such as an earthquake, officials said.

As part of the 35th annual Fleet Week held this week in the city, the sea service conducted exercises that included driving emergency vehicles such as utility trucks onto the USS Somerset (LPD-25), the newest San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock in the fleet.

While the ship is normally used for transporting several hundred Marines and equipment -- one Navy public affairs officer described it as "a big bus for Marines" -- it can also be used to ferry cargo and supplies after a natural disaster, according to Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander of Third Fleet, which is headquartered at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego.

"We brought up on our amphib a lot of equipment that we would have on scene in a disaster-relief scenario," she said on Friday during an interview with Military.com. "We set up a humanitarian assistance village with some of that equipment so both the first responders and the community can see some of the capabilities that we have."

When asked what kind of learning lessons the exercise afforded, Tyson said the officials realized that certain preparations need to be made before loading civilian vehicles aboard the ship.

"Specifically, we found out that in the normal operating configuration, you can't just drive a PG&E truck onto our landing craft, so we had to do a little shoring up, put some wood down, so we could drive the truck on board," she said. "Just knowing that ahead of time, it's like, 'OK, we can do this, we need to ballast down a little bit more, know tide situation.' That's what it's all about, It's practical experience, and then when you really have to work together, you know that stuff and you don't heave to learn the hard way."

Commissioned in 2014, the Somerset is the ninth and most recent operational ship in her class.

The vessel is named after Somerset County, Pennsylvania, to honor the victims of United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Passengers aboard the plane are credited with helping to prevent the terrorist from reaching their intended target, the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The ship includes memorials to the victims, including their names listed on the ramp to the well deck, 40 stars on a flag on the flight deck to honor each of the victims, and even a small museum with short biographies of them.

Measuring 684 feet long and 105 feet wide, the ship is designed to carry a maximum of seven small rotorcraft such as the MH-60R/S Sea Hawk or Knighthawk, UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra, including four on the flight deck and three in the hangar bay. Alternatively, it can carry up to two bigger rotorcraft on the flight deck, such as the CH-53 Sea Stallion or the MV-22 Osprey. Unlike the big-deck amphibs, it can't accommodate jump jets such as the AV-8B Harrier or F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

The vessel is equipped with defensive weapons, including a pair of Rolling Airframe Missile launchers and a pair of 30mm machine guns. It has a medical facility that includes two surgery rooms, a pharmacy, lab and x-ray room. It also has capacity for numerous tanks, howitzers, amphibious assault vehicles, trucks and small boats.

The Navy plans to buy a dozen of the San Antonio-class ships at a total cost of almost $20.7 billion, according to Pentagon budget documents. The Defense Department's proposed spending plan for fiscal 2016, which began Oct. 1, includes almost $670 million in remaining funding for LPD-28, the 12th and final ship of the class. The vessels are built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.

Below is the video of our interview with the captain of the Somerset, Capt. Leonard Reed. (If it doesn't appear, you can watch it here.)

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