San Diego Union Tribune

March 30, 2004

Navy Sea Swap test leaves ship 'in really good shape'
16-month tour saw 3 separate crews

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON Cmdr. Roy Kitchener is heading home to San Diego, sailing a ship that has been deployed more than 16 months with a crew that has been away six months.

Kitchener and his sailors used to think of themselves as the crew of the guided-missile destroyer John Paul Jones. But they will dock Sunday in San Diego aboard the guided-missile destroyer Higgins.

They are completing a Navy experiment, called Sea Swap, which involved the crews of three ships that had deployments in the Persian Gulf region aboard the same vessel the Higgins.

The unusual procedure allowed the Navy to get the equivalent of four operational tours in the region with one ship and three crews, a possible answer to growing concerns about over-extending sailors and vessels in the prolonged war against terrorism.

"I think it works . . . in the sense that you gain presence on station," Kitchener said in a conference call yesterday from Hawaii.

When Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, initiated the Sea Swap concept two years ago there was considerable concern among traditionalists that the Navy would lose the strong sense of pride a crew develops in preparing its ship for a deployment, then taking it halfway around the world and back.

There also were worries over how a complex warship would hold up to extended deployment without normal home-port maintenance periods.

Kitchener said neither of those fears was realized.

"We're bringing back a ship that's in really good shape, with a great sense of pride in the crew for making it that way," he said.

Kitchener said he had worried about losing the pride of ownership when his crew left the John Paul Jones at the pier in San Diego and flew to the Persian Gulf to take over the Higgins.

"But I learned that with a good crew that you've worked with, you can do anything," he said.

The Sea Swap experiment with the Higgins began when it sailed from San Diego late in 2002 with its own crew to start a normal deployment.

After six months, the Higgins crew was replaced in the region by what had been the crew of the Benfold, a similar destroyer, which flew in from San Diego. Six months later, "team Benfold" was relieved in the Persian Gulf by Kitchener's crew.

By avoiding two of the long transits from San Diego to the Persian Gulf, the Higgins was able to be on station in the Central Command area for a total of 416 days, about 116 days more than would have been provided by three ships on normal deployments, the Navy said.

"Do I think it will work in the future? Absolutely," Kitchener said.

The Higgins was only half of the Sea Swap experiment. The older Hawaii-based destroyer Fletcher has been deployed in the Persian Gulf for nearly two years, with the crews from three other Spruance-class destroyers operating it. Fletcher will return to San Diego in June to be decommissioned.