Take A Rare Glimpse Inside The Navy's Massive Blue Ridge Class Command Ships

Inside what some would consider the most important vessels in the entire U.S. Navy and the nerve centers of the fleet.

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MC2 Cynthia Griggs—U.S. Navy

USS Blue Ridge (LLC-19), now the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy's operational fleet, has just has just emerged from an extended dry-dock maintenance and upgrade period at its home port in Yokosuka, Japan. During the 19 month overhaul the ship received a slew of changes, including structural and mechanical modifications, and a major upgrade to her main battery—a massive ecosystem of state-of-the-art computer networks and interfaces, and the most advanced communications system in the fleet. 

Namely the ship acquired the proprietary Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) system which will greatly enhance its capabilities, security, interoperability, and future adaptability. Overall the work will ensure that the ship remains viable for another two decades, by which time she will have been in active service for nearly 70 years. 

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The Blue Ridge class, which is made up of two ships, USS Blue Ridge and USS Mount Whitney, are in some ways the most antiquated of US Navy ships, but in other ways they are the most advanced. As a platform they are based around 1960s technology, but the computer systems and communications links they carry are leading-edge. 

The ships were designed in the 1960s from the keel up to be command and control vessels with a heavily reliance on computer systems and high-end communications. Originally their mission was to command wide-scale amphibious operations, but over the years, as joint warfighting doctrine evolved, they became capable of much more than that and their importance has increased because of it. 

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Today the ships are spread between the western and eastern hemispheres, where the Japan-based USS Blue Ridge acts as the flagship of the 7th Fleet and USS Mount Whitney, which is based in Gaeta, Italy, acts as the flagship for the 6th Fleet and as a command ship for the NATO alliance. 

The vessels are supposedly the most sophisticated Command, Control, Communications, Computer, and Intelligence (C4I) ships ever created, but the public really only sees their massive exteriors—measuring some 620 feet in length and displacing 18,400 tons—which are dotted with large satellite communications domes and antenna. 

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The question of what's inside these ships has actually come up in more than a dozen separate emails I have received over the years, so I thought it would be finally worth digging into photo archives to see if I could build some sort of overall picture of what the interior of these ships is like. 

Although images of the ships' mission areas were very limited, what we found gave the depiction of a unique shipboard environment made up of multiple briefing and collaboration areas, as well as real-time situational awareness and command and control centers. One thing was common throughout all of these sections—there are lots and lots of computer terminals. This really isn't surprising, but offers a little different atmosphere than the purpose-built proprietary consoles we are used to seeing in modern surface combatants' glowing Combat Information Centers (CICs). 

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Basically, these ships are something loosely akin to the Combined Air Operations Centers (CAOCs) that are used to integrate air wars, and the ground war below to some degree, over wide geographical areas. And like CAOCs, the Blue Ridge class has been adapted to fully support coalition operations, with representatives from countries involved being deployed aboard during those operations. But the big difference is that CAOCs are based on land, not on roving ships, and they aren't optimized for fighting in maritime and amphibious environments.

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The vessels, which are based on the Iwo Jima class hullform and can keep up with an Amphibious Strike Group, are also comparatively spacious, and there are generous accommodations for flag officers and other higher-ups. According to this image the flag officer's quarters even has a fireplace. But these are still fighting ships that would operate in the vicinity of a flotilla during combat, and are equipped with a pair of Phalanx close-in weapon systems, remote 25mm chain gun turrets, along with .50 caliber machine-gun stations for force protection. The ships also have decoy launchers and electronic warfare suites to help fend off anti-ship missile attacks. 

An MH-60S is usually deployed aboard as well for logistics and liaison duties, although there isn't a hangar. The ship can store a whopping 123,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Other features include fin-stabilizers for a smooth ride, kevlar armor, and the ability to carry a handful of small landing craft and boats.

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But once again, these ships are giant floating warfighting brains of sorts, and their mission is to provide command and control and the best information possible to commanders who will have to make the hard calls as a battle unfolds. They can also redistribute key information they receive via their satellite communications systems to the fleet. 

Considering that their C4I systems are so powerful, and increasingly so, you can see how these vessels could potentially play a new high-stakes combat role via cyber warfare in the future. 

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Commanders will have new weapons in their quiver to put to use during future conflicts, and it is very possible that they will be able to command the deployment of those weapons from these vessels, striking at the heart of the enemy's own C4I capabilities using cyber warheads instead of explosive ones.

With this in mind, these ships, and the networks they rely on, will also be increasingly targeted by the enemy using their own forms of electronic warfare and cyber attacks. This makes agile implementation of defensive countermeasures, or even kinetically killing the enemy's ability to deploy such attacks before they can occur, absolutely key. It is fairly logical to think that these half century old vessels, and the commanders that sail on them, are adapting to this changing combat reality.

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We come back to the question of what does it look like inside an old ship that is capable of carrying out such a modern mission? Especially one that accommodates 250 officers and 1200 enlisted crew (but usually the ships sail with about half that complement for peacetime operations), and up to 3,000 people in an emergency. We've put together this tour of sorts of the Blue Ridge class, including pictures from both ships' primary internal areas, to try an answer that question. Obviously there are areas in these ships that are classified, likely including the large server farms, intelligence exploitation areas, and other facilities that make them so capable. But still, what we could find is quite interesting. 

First off, we discovered a couple good quality video showing some areas inside the ship:

The heart of the ship mission-wise is a command and control facility called the Joint Operations Center. It is here that much of the filtered and critical information collected by the ship's C4I systems is displayed on large screens in a theater-type layout. This is likely where the flag officers would monitor major operations. 

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Mediterranean Sea (June 16, 2005) - Joint Operations Center watch standers review the latest battle assessment while participating in Combined Joint Task Force Exercise (CJTFEX) 04-2 aboard the command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20).

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Bay of Gaeta, Italy (Aug. 21, 2006) - Members of Joint Task Force (JTF) Lebanon attend the commander's update briefing in the Joint Operations Center aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20). U.S. European Command has been directed by the Department of Defense to assume authority for U.S. military support operations in the vicinity of Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean effective Aug. 23, 2006. Joint Task Force Lebanon will continue to assist the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and will be postured to support humanitarian relief operations.

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Bay of Gaeta, Italy (Aug. 21, 2006) - Members of Joint Task Force (JTF) Lebanon attend the commander's update briefing in the Joint Operations Center aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20). U.S. European Command has been directed by the Department of Defense to assume authority for U.S. military support operations in the vicinity of Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean effective Aug. 23, 2006. Joint Task Force Lebanon will continue to assist the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and will be postured to support humanitarian relief operations.

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Atlantic Ocean (Jan. 17, 2006) – USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) Commanding Officer Captain Ladd Wheeler, provides the Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf an overview of the ship's capabilities from the Joint Operation Center. President Johnson-Sirleaf visited Mount Whitney the day after her inauguration, to thank the crew for making the journey in support of her countries inaugural ceremonies. President Johnson-Sirleaf is the first woman to be elected as head of an African state.

There are also smaller command centers scattered throughout the ship, like this one that focuses specifically on air operations called the Tactical Air Control Center.

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Santa Rita, Guam (Apr. 22, 2003) -- Aboard USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), aircraft and ships are tracked on screen utilizing the Area Air Defense Coordinator. The Blue Ridge is one of many ships participating in Tandem Thrust ’03. Tandem Thrust ‘03 is a joint exercise conducted in the Marianas Islands. This exercise is a joint military exercise including forces from the United States, Canada and Australia.

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Members of a joint U.S.-Australian civil affairs team discuss the logistics of a Red Cross contingent delivering supplies and humanitarian aid to a simulated refugee camp as part of exercise Talisman Saber 2007. During TS07, amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge is the command and control center and provides personnel support. TS07 is a U.S. and Australian-led Joint Task Force exercise designed to demonstrate the U.S. and Australian commitment to our military alliance and regional security. Blue Ridge is forward deployed out of Yokosuka, Japan, and serves as the flagship for U.S. Seventh Fleet.

The operations elements are scattered around large rooms with individual computer workstations very similar to what could be found in a CAOC, with different focuses and representatives assigned to each station or clusters of stations. Foreign allies are also represented here as well when they are involved in an operation.

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MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Jan. 30, 2009) A multi-service planning team embarked aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) prepare their portion of the planning phase of Austere Challenge 2009, a joint evolution designed to exercise U.S. capability across the full range of military operations in the European theater.

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MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Jan. 30, 2009) A multi-service planning team embarked aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20) prepare their portion of the planning phase of Austere Challenge 2009, a joint evolution designed to exercise U.S. capability across the full range of military operations in the European theater.

A large briefing room with a video wall also exists. This area seems to be used for both internal briefings and to brief members of the press if they are deployed aboard the ship during major operations.

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Chief Yeoman Gabriel Sanchez teaches a Alcohol and Drug Abuse Managers (ADAMS) course on board the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). ADAMS is designed to inform supervisors about the dangers and effects of drugs and alcohol, and the prevention of alcohol and drug related incidents.

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English: The Commanding Officer of U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) Capt. Daniel Grieco, addresses a group of media from the Republic of the Philippines in the Fleet Conference room after the ship pulls into Manila for a port visit. While in port, Blue Ridge and embarked 7th Fleet staff sailors and Marines will strengthen ties between the two countries through community service events, combined military training and cultural exchanges.

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Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Doug Crowder speaks to reporters aboard amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) along with Australian army Major Gen. Richard Wilson. Crowder and Wilson, the two senior leaders of Talisman Saber 07 (TS07), held a press conference to discuss and answer questions about the bilateral exercise underway between the two countries. TS07 involves more than 30,000 troops and dozens of ships and aircraft.

Many other collaborative spaces seem to be scattered throughout the ship, including various boardroom-like environments. 

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MEDITERRANEAN SEA (March 21, 2011) Liaison officers from coalition countries meet with Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn staff members aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) to discus command and control of military operations. Odyssey Dawn is the U.S. Africa Command task force established to provide operational and tactical command and control of U.S. military forces supporting the international response to the unrest in Libya and enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973.

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SYDNEY, Australia (July 4, 2015) – Vice Adm. Robert L. Thomas, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, speaks with senior navy and army enlisted leaders from Australia, New Zealand and the U.S 7th Fleet during a senior enlisted “roundtable” aboard the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) before the start of the Australia-U.S. exercise Talisman Saber 2015. Talisman Saber is a biennial combined joint exercise designed to improve Australian and U.S. combat readiness and interoperability, maximize combined training opportunities and demonstrate U.S. resolve to support the security operations of a key ally. 

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Members of a joint U.S.-Australian civil affairs team discuss the logistics of a Red Cross contingent delivering supplies and humanitarian aid to a simulated refugee camp as part of exercise Talisman Saber 2007. During TS07, amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge is the command and control center and provides personnel support. TS07 is a U.S. and Australian-led Joint Task Force exercise designed to demonstrate the U.S. and Australian commitment to our military alliance and regional security. Blue Ridge is forward deployed out of Yokosuka, Japan, and serves as the flagship for U.S. Seventh Fleet.

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SYDNEY, Australia (July 3, 2015) – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, center, receives an introduction brief from Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, U.S. 7th Fleet commander, during a tour of the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) before the start of the Australia-U.S. exercise Talisman Saber 2015. Talisman Saber is a biennial combined joint exercise designed to improve Australian and U.S. combat readiness and interoperability, maximize combined training opportunities and demonstrate U.S. resolve to support the security operations of a key ally. 

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Swedish armed forces Maj. Ebba Mårtensson delivers a weather report to the upper chain of command onboard USS Mount Whitney in support of Baltic Operations exercise 2009. When Mårtensson is not supporting joint naval operations, she is the weather forecaster for two national TV channels, the Swedish equivalent to America's Public Broadcasting System. This is the 37th Iteration of BALTOPS and is intended to improve interoperability with partner countries by conducting realistic training at sea with the 12 participating nations. Mount Whitney, home ported in Gaeta, Italy, is the flagship for Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet and routinely operates throughout the U.S. Sixth Fleet area of responsibility with a hybrid crew of U.S. Sailors and Military Sealift Command civilian mariners.

Beyond the ship's mission areas, the bridge is something of a time capsule from earlier times. There is also a traditional Combat Information Center used to keep the vessel safe while performing its primary tasks and to integrate with the more heavily armed vessels in its vicinity. 

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SASEBO, Japan (Aug. 6, 2015) - Lee Helmsman, Seaman Joe Torres, attached to the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), monitors the ship's speed and course as it arrives in Sasebo. Blue Ridge is conducting a port visit in Sasebo while patrolling the 7th Fleet area of operations strengthening and fostering relationships within the Indo-Asia Pacific region.

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SINGAPORE - Capt. Kyle P. Higgins, commanding officer of the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge, conducts a ship tour with Indonesian Rear Adm. Darwanto S.H., Tentara Nasional, Indonesia Eastern Fleet and Singaporean Col. Chuen Hong Lew, commander, Republic of Singapore Fleet. Blue Ridge is conducting a port visit in Singapore to build multilateral partnerships, volunteer through community service projects and explore everything Singapore has to offer, strengthening relationships with the people.

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The big cheese's seat on the bridge of the USS Blue Ridge.

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Aboard USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) Aug. 30, 2003 -- Operations Specialist 3rd Class Ji Young An, from Frederick, Md., updates the bridge surface contact status board on the bridge of the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19).

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Operations specialist Petty Officer 3rd Class Glenn Mupas, assigned to the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge, changes the view on the camera to observe an approaching security boat while standing bridge status board watch as Blue Ridge pulls into Okinawa, Japan, during her routine spring patrol.

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PACIFIC OCEAN (Oct. 19, 2009) Cryptologic Technician (Technical) Seaman Jennifer Pastor stands watch at the AN/SLQ-32A(V) Surface Electronic Support/Electronic Attack (ES/EA) console in the Combat Information Center (CIC) aboard the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). The SLQ-32 or "slick thirty-two" is an anti-ship-missile-defense (ASMD) system. Blue Ridge is the flagship for Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet. 

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Petty Officer 3rd Class Eric Castillo, operations specialist, plots course markings on a digital dead reckoning tracer in the combat information center aboard the U.S. 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge. Blue Ridge serves under Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 7/Task Force 76, the Navy's only forward deployed amphibious force.

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Seaman Armando Ocampo, assigned to the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), monitors air traffic on an air search radar in the ships' combat information center.

Beyond its unique capabilities, USS Mount Whitney and USS Blue Ridge are a lot like any other Navy vessel, although they may be a bit more roomy in some areas. Here are some photos from day-to-day operations aboard the ships.

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Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey Bennett, information systems technician, left, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Camino, information systems technician, observe the proper configuration of a high-frequency radio aboard the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney. Mount Whitney is the U.S. 6th Fleet flagship homeported in Gaeta, Italy, and operates with a hybrid crew of U.S. sailors and Military Sealift Command civil service mariners.

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U.S. Navy Gunner's Mate 3rd Class James Vest fires a Mk 38 25 mm machine gun during a live-fire exercise aboard the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) in the South China Sea. Blue Ridge was on patrol in the South China Sea with embarked U.S. 7th Fleet staff.

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 Sailors and Marines assigned to the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge honor guard, stand ready to parade the colors as the ship arrives in Jakarta, Indonesia. These port visits represent an opportunity for Blue Ridge to serve as goodwill ambassadors of the U.S.; promoting peace and stability in the region and demonstrating the commitment to regional partnerships and fostering relations.

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 Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits the ship’s store of the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) during a tour before the start of the Australia-U.S. exercise Talisman Saber 2015. Talisman Saber is a biennial combined joint exercise designed to improve Australian and U.S. combat readiness and interoperability, maximize combined training opportunities and demonstrate U.S. resolve to support the security operations of a key ally.

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JAVA SEA (May 30, 2014) U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Charles Drew (T-AKE 10). Blue Ridge is on patrol in the Java Sea. 

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Machinist's Mate Fireman Ruben Aguilar and Machinist's Mate 3rd Class Jason Whitehead conduct a pressure check by reading gauges in the engine room aboard the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) during sea trials. Sea trials are conducted after a ship's repair availability to extend the life of the ship.

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At sea aboard USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) Apr. 5, 2003 -- Mess Management Specialist Seaman Danielle Webb, from Due West, S.C., prepares a taco lunch on the mess line in Mount Whitney's Enlisted Galley. Mount Whitney and her embarked staff are deployed to the Horn of Africa region, participating in Operation Enduring Freedom and the global war on terrorism. 

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BALTIC SEA (Sept. 17, 2010) A Lithuanian MI-8 (Hip) military utility helicopter lands aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) during deck landing qualification training as part of exercise Jackal Stone 2010 (JS10). JS10 is a 10-day special operations exercise intended to promote cooperation and interoperability between participating forces from Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and the United States.

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PACIFIC OCEAN - Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Alex Flores, attached to the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge, gets his hair cut by Ship's Serviceman 3rd Class Xavier Johnson. Blue Ridge is currently underway conducting unit level training to assess the crew on damage control, force protection and seamanship in preparation for upcoming patrols in the 7th Fleet area of operation.

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Small arms training on the fantail of USS Blue Ridge. 

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At sea aboard USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) Apr. 11, 2003 -- Chief Photographer’s Mate Eric Hainey, from Sioux City, Iowa, is spotted by Illustrator Draftsman 2nd Class Ernie Dwight, from Queens N.Y., during a weight lifting workout in one of Mount Whitney's gym facilities. Mount Whitney and her embarked staff are deployed to the Horn of Africa region, participating in Operation Enduring Freedom and the global war on terrorism. 

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Machinist's mates monitor gauges in the engine room aboard the amphibious command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) during sea trials. Sea trials are conducted after a ship's repair availability to extend the life of the ship.

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PACIFIC OCEAN Seaman Marlon Cook, assigned to the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge, carries a net in preparation for a vertical replenishment certification. Blue Ridge is currently underway conducting unit level training to assess the crew on damage control, force protection and seamanship in preparation for upcoming patrols in the 7th Fleet area of operation.

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 Senior Chief Master-at-Arms Michael Goodfellow trains U.S. Navy Academy Midshipmen and Australian Navy officers on proper weapon handling aboard U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). Blue Ridge currently on patrol in the Indo-Asia-Pacific with embarked 7th Fleet staff, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12 and Marines from Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team Pacific.

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Sailors attached to the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), engage a simulated fuel fire on the mess decks during a general quarters drill. Blue Ridge is patrolling within the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations following a six-month selective restricted availability maintenance period.

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At sea aboard USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) Apr. 9, 2003 -- Seaman Yolanda Munoz from Pharr, Texas, looks for a good book to read among the many available in the ship's library. Mount Whitney and her embarked staff are deployed to the Horn of Africa region, participating in Operation Enduring Freedom and the global war on terrorism. 

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Sailors attached to the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge, sit down for a special meal with Commanding Officer, Capt. Kyle P. Higgins. Everyday underway, Blue Ridge recognizes one Sailor as the 'Sea Warrior of the Day' and in celebration of those Sailors, the commanding officer invites them for a celebratory meal.

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SYDNEY, Australia (July 3, 2015) – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, center, tours medical facilities of the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) led by Lt. Cmdr. Omar Saeed, ship’s medical officer, before the start of the Australia-U.S. exercise Talisman Saber 2015. Talisman Saber is a biennial combined joint exercise designed to improve Australian and U.S. combat readiness and interoperability, maximize combined training opportunities and demonstrate U.S. resolve to support the security operations of a key ally. 

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Aboard USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) Dec. 31, 2002 -- A U.S. Navy Chaplain conducts religious services aboard ship. The Mount Whitney and her embarked Marines are deployed to the Horn of Africa region to conduct missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom

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Photographer’s Mate Airman Deanna Whitlock from Palmdale, California swabs the USS Mount Whitney (LCC/JCC 20) logo on the ceremonial quarterdeck. Mount Whitney and embarked staff are deployed conducting operations in Operation Enduring Freedom.

It's amazing to think that these vessels will serve for nearly seven decades, and who knows, they may even soldier on longer than that. Replacing them would likely be a very expensive proposition, even if an existing class, like the San Antonio class, or the upcoming LX(R) amphibious assault ship could be adapted for the mission. It seems that the class was built extremely tough, but their boiler-powered steam turbine propulsion is a relic of the past, and this could limit their use past their current planned lifespan.

In the meantime, during any major naval operation, yet alone a peer state conflict, rest assured that these ships will be standing off, acting as the neurological center of the fleet. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com