Off the Coast of Virginia, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) and its embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW)-8 are conducting the first-ever, fully integrated carrier strike group operations for a Ford-class carrier, under the leadership and operational control of Carrier Strike Group (CSG)-12.
While underway, Air and Missile Defense Warfare Commander Capt. Corey Keniston and his staff are making the most of the first-of-its-kind opportunity to integrate with the Ford crew and embarked staff during the ship’s independent steaming event (ISE) 13—a key milestone more than halfway through Ford’s 18-month Post-Delivery Test and Trials phase of operations.
“During typical strike group operations, the air defense commander remains on the cruiser escort and is the only warfare commander who is not on the carrier," said Keniston, a native of Brenham, Texas. "This ISE is providing a unique opportunity to be physically onboard the carrier and see all the other things that go on within the strike group.
“It’s been interesting to learn what amazing capabilities the Ford-class ship brings to the fight," he added. "I’m particularly impressed with the radar system that’s on board, and I think it’s a game-changer for the surveillance and identification challenge that the air defense commander faces because now I have even more credible sensors that I can use to build the entire air picture for the strike group commander to make decisions from."
Keniston’s embarked staff includes Lt. Samuel Fikes, Gettysburg’s systems test officer, from Lubbock, Texas, who was previously stationed onboard Ford from 2013-2016. Fikes said he relished the opportunity to return to his former platform and to see the operational side of the ship from an entirely different perspective.
“I was here for three years during the pre-commissioning phase of Ford, and I never had the chance to get underway with her the first time I was here,” said Fikes. “Getting to come back as part of the air defense team and supporting the carrier and getting underway and seeing the operational side of the ship has been an outstanding experience.”
Gettysburg serves as an air defense platform for CSG-12, and its’ role is to coordinate air defense assets across the strike group to ensure no manned aircraft or cruise missile can harm the carrier.
The unique experience of having all major facets of the strike group in one place, at the same time, has provided the air and missile defense cell operators a wealth of knowledge and learning opportunities they normally wouldn’t get when working from their respective platforms, Fikes said.
“Being embarked on Ford for this ISE, we’re getting to have face-to-face conversations with the people responsible for the other warfare domains, as opposed to just hearing a voice on a radio,” said Fikes. “We’re having some very detailed, in-depth conversations with pilots and others involved in executing air defense; it’s good for us to develop relationships with the squadrons, and it’s good for them because they’re able to talk to us face-to-face, and they normally would not have that opportunity. This integration is a fantastic way to build that foundation in a real-time environment.”
The integration has helped the entire strike group team come together as a single combat unit for the very first time, something the air and missile defense cell has seized upon as a positive learning experience, Keniston said.
“The hardest thing about strike group operations is there are a finite number of resources, and there could be an infinite number of threats that you need to consider and plan for,” said Keniston. “You have to learn to work with the other warfare commanders to manage that finite amount of resources while meeting the priorities of the strike group commander. Between air defense, strike missions, undersea warfare, surface warfare and other warfare commander’s requirements, you have to balance the resources to employ them in the best way possible to meet the strike group’s mission.”
Seeing all the different facets of strike group operations in one place has provided other members of the air and missile defense cell an opportunity to see a side of the planning and development phase during which they would never otherwise be present.
“This is my first tour on a cruiser, so it’s been a great opportunity for me to see the integration piece, especially being on a platform that is a warfare commander,” said Lt. Veronica Hoecherl, Gettysburg’s navigator, from Del Ray Beach, Florida. “Seeing all the planning and coordination that has to occur to make an event like this happen has been incredibly helpful and has been a rewarding experience for me.”
“It’s been interesting to develop this all from scratch for a new class of carrier like Ford. This is all different from how we would strategize and execute on a Nimitz-class carrier, as far as capabilities are concerned, because the systems are different on this platform and ISE 13 is giving us a chance to prove some of the concepts we’ve been discussing,” said Fikes.
During ISE 13, CSG-12 assets are conducting unit-level training, maritime strike exercises, an air defense exercise, and other larger force exercises.
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