A glimpse of the Navy’s future is resting gently today along Buffalo’s waterfront. The soon-to-be USS Little Rock is docked there, awaiting its commissioning on Saturday as its World War II-era namesake keeps watch nearby.
The new Little Rock is a modern version of a cruiser, packing enormous power in a small package. It has enough bells, whistles and computer power that a different manufacturer might have dubbed it an iShip. What it is, though, is a modern and sophisticated littoral combat ship – that is, one capable of plying waters as shallow as 13½ feet. The Navy’s larger ships need 30 feet of water to operate, a requirement that puts many coastal areas off limits to them.
That restriction is especially troublesome in Southeast Asia, an area in which the Navy is especially interested. America’s big warships can use fewer than 50 ports there. Littoral combat ships can make use of more than 1,000 ports in a region that includes more than 50,000 islands. That will allow it to navigate closer to shore and take on illicit trafficking as well as anti-piracy operations.
The new Little Rock floats nicely – and it should, at a cost of $440 million – but other than that, the slightly ungainly vessel bears little resemblance to its namesake cruiser that serves today as a museum. The retired USS Little Rock, moored in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park at Canalside, bristles with big guns and harkens to a time when the world was engaged in a desperate war.
Little Rock 2.0 is a different creature. It may look a little like a giant floating delivery truck, but under the hood is a humming, high-tech beast that, as one naval officer put it, is more like a different sort of truck.
“What’s the great thing about a pickup?” asked Capt. Shawn Johnston, who oversees the fleet of littoral combat ships in Mayport, Fla. “You can add what you want to the bed of the truck, and it’s the same with this ship,” he said. “You can change the technology as the threat evolves.” It’s a military version of “plug and play.”
Designed to be modular, the new Little Rock can be configured for surface warfare, for hunting enemy submarines or for eliminating mines. Only one mission can be performed at a time, but the ship’s weapons systems can be changed within 96 hours and, in some cases, in only a day.
That’s accomplished via the ship’s reconfigurable zones – large, open spaces that accommodate the different systems. They can be changed at sea as the hardware, held in steel cargo containers, is lowered into the ship and into place via a freight elevator and a supply of cranes. Once secured, the system is plugged into the ship’s computers.
The vessel also carries a heavily armed helicopter, two inflatable boats and unmanned underwater craft. It can hit a top speed of almost 52 mph, about 40 percent faster than the decommissioned Little Rock and among the fastest ships in the Navy.
It moves without propellers or rudders. Instead, it is powered by four water jets, two external ones that swivel to steer the ship and two interior ones that work as boosters.
It is, for sure, a different ship for a different time. The crew of its World War II parent could hardly have imagined such a ship. With Saturday’s ceremony, it will become the first Navy ship to be commissioned alongside its namesake predecessor, and also the first to be commissioned in Buffalo.
The ship will have a crew of about 72 officers and sailors and will be stationed in Mayport, Fla. For now, though, it’s docked at Canalside, awaiting its close-up and service in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world.
It’s an honor for Buffalo to host the Little Rock’s commissioning and, with the strains of “Anchors Aweigh” already vibrating in the ether, we wish the ship and its crew safe sailing in waters that remain, in every way, peaceful.