Sailors serve aboard USS Desert Ship
There may not be ocean-front property in Arizona, but there is a ship in the middle of the desert in New Mexico. It's made of pure concrete and never leaves port, but this landlocked ship (LLS) provides launch facilities simulating shipboard conditions for Navy surface-to-air weapons testing.
Built in 1957, USS Desert Ship (LLS-1), located at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, is a crucial part of the Navy's fleet. The land-based testing facility provides a level of rigor, control and flexibility in the testing of Navy weapons that is not achievable at sea on surface combatants.
Serving as the leading petty officer for the Desert Ship is Fire Controlman 1st Class James R. Hays from Dimmitt, Texas. Although the Desert Ship wasn't his first choice, he has found much value in being a sea Sailor permanently on dry dock in the desert.
"I'm in training to be the fire control officer(FCO) of the Desert Ship," said Hays, who is one of only about 30 Sailors stationed at White Sands. "That means a lot to me because in the past it has been a chief or senior chief who holds that position. I am pretty sure I would be the first E-6 to qualify for that position."
As an FCO in training, Hays is responsible for planning the mission, developing the test schedule, ensuring the right people are in the right places and making sure the process building up to the mission is on track. Once the day comes, Hays becomes the orchestrator to ensure proper timing of the firing team.
As part of the Tri-Service National Range Test Facility, the Desert Ship makes it possible to test a variety of network-centric and battle-space management scenarios. The White Sands Missile Range is fully instrumented to provide high-quality radar, optical, telemetry, meteorology, and scenario control over the entire extent of the range.
"I was fortunate enough to transfer here during a mission week and I jumped right into it," said Hays. "It was very impressive to see all the different civilians interacting with the military and the coordination that was involved and just the scale of everything. It was really a unique experience."
Another unique experience was watching a live fire from start to finish.
"I've been here a year and have seen four or five missile launches," said Hays. On my first ship we did one live fire, and on my second ship we did two. So I've seen more live fires in one year at the Desert Ship than in five years on a surface ship. And I played a much smaller role in everything back then. Here, I'm integrated in most of what goes on."
The range has systems capable of producing great visual images of what goes on. Although those images and all the data and analysis collected are mainly for the program director and developers, it is a sight Hays doesn't get tired of. Not only that, but Hays and his shipmates are also able to provide valuable feedback to the developers who may then use that feedback to make improvements.
"It's possible that when we return to the fleet in a few years, that we will be working with some of the weapons we are testing now," said Hays. "The possibility exists that when I get back out to the fleet I may see some of my suggestions play out in equipment I'm working with in the future."
But none of these perks were advertised when Hays was picking orders.
"The billet description just said something about working with the Navy's newest weapon systems and interacting with contractors and weapons development companies," said Hays. "I really had no idea what I was getting into. But it was close to my home in Texas, so I figured it was worth putting on my list."
And Hays is glad he did.
"When I tell people I'm an FC, they say 'oh, you put out fires?' said Hays." "And I say, 'no, I make fires,' and they don't get it until I explain that we operate weapons systems. So here at Desert Ship, it's a dream come true. I am truly getting to be a technician and an operator."
The Desert Ship runs a standard operation, but it's anything but simple. A company or developer comes with an idea. They have a system, they have research they've gathered, and they want to use Desert Ship to prove that the system will work.
The Desert ship has specific items set up the way they are on a fleet ship so that the Sailor interaction is simulated the best it can be. However, besides a few rooms of the ship resembling those you'd find on any USS in the fleet, and the front of the building resembling the bow of a ship, there is not much that makes it a ship; unless the hearts of its Sailors count.
"It's an homage," said Hays. "It's important for us to keep our ties to the fleet and the sea."
Hays said the biggest reward to work onboard Desert Ship is meeting the people that he's worked with, both civilian and military.
"Feeling like you are a part of something that is meaningful and special and that's going to do good - Navy wide," said Hays. "Being an integral piece of the development of cutting edge technology; working behind the scenes on things that out in the fleet we don't really know about."
And one more thing that Hays can't help but mention.
"For me, I missed the golden age of space exploration, but as a kid I always wanted to be an astronaut," said Hays. "I knew all the space missions - Mercury, Gemini, Apollo - all the astronauts and everything, so being out here at White Sands, it was the birth place of a lot of that, the Desert Ship is five miles away from where a lot of the first testing happened and for me, to be surrounded by that much history, while making so much new history - that means a lot."