Aboard the Navy's high-tech pioneer, the USS Freedom

Brand new ship designed to operate in shallow waters and under combat displays multiple technological advancements (see video below)

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Besides the automated machinery plant, the ship's networks interface with modules that control more exotic components, such as unmanned vehicles that travel in the air, under the sea and on the surface. The networks also control decoy launching systems, an electronic surveillance system, a combat data system, a rolling airframe missile system, a 57mm gun, several radar systems and the ship's Voyage Management System.

The VMS takes data from GPS, radar and other inputs to display the ship's position on an electronic chart along with nearby landforms and surface vessels. It can also control the ship. "You can chart where you want to go, when you want to do it, what turns you want, and when and where. Set it to autopilot, and the ship will automatically drive to each track that you told it to go to," Johnson said. "It's pretty amazing. It drives by itself."

Where the action is

One of the best examples of minimal manning is apparent in the heart of the ship, called Mission Control Central (MCC). Public tours don't go through there, and the Navy is very sensitive about people bringing cameras in, even if they're turned off -- something Tisdale made sure of.

The compartment is chock-full of all kinds of displays, consoles, controls and other equipment.

If things were to get serious -- for example, several people have noted that this ship would be ideal for combating the naval pirates who are hijacking ships off the coast of Africa -- MCC is where the action would be. The station is usually manned by a crew of four, while on other ships, perhaps up to 20 people would be required to accomplish the same tasks.

"This is the heart of combat, I guess you could say," Johnson said, "where you track air targets, surface targets, all your air search radar and everything. All the sensor data comes from antennas topside down here to these consoles via our networks and displays what's going on outside of the ship -- if they're good guys, if they're bad guys, if they're ships, if they're airplanes. It will give exactly where they're at, who they are, if it's a cargo ship . . . it gives you all that information from here."

Mission Control Central
The Mission Control Central component of the on-shore training facility is the actual size of MCC on the ship itself. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

And if bad guys are detected, one person in MCC can quickly plot a firing solution for the 57mm cannon at one console, for example, and immediately move to another to direct fire. Again, on other ships, multiple people are required for the same function. The cannon can use programmable ammunition set to explode near a target or penetrate the vessel and then explode -- another first for the Navy -- at a range of up to seven miles. "So you definitely don't want to be on the other end of that one," Tisdale said. MCC is also where missile launches are controlled.

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