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