A screen shot from a San Diego TV station shows where a drone struck the cruiser Chancellorsville in November. (Courtesy of NBC 7)
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The drone that struck the cruiser Chancellorsville crippled a key computer center integral to the ship’s cutting-edge combat systems, damage that will take months and tens of millions of dollars to fix, according to new details from surface fleet officials.
The rare drone mishap, which occurred off Point Mugu, Calif., in mid-November, left a roughly 3-foot-wide hole in the cruiser’s hull. New details and interviews with two sources close to the crew suggest the impact was even more severe inside the ship — a near-miss that could have ended in sailor casualties.
The damage centers on “computer central,” a compartment extending most of the ship’s width that houses many of the servers and signal processors for the cruiser’s radar and combat systems. The drone tore into this space and slammed into the far end, igniting a small jet fuel fire, according to two former Chancellorsville crewmen. The lone watchstander in computer central received minor hand burns while responding to the fire with a hose team, the sources said.
Surface fleet officials confirmed the type and scale of the cruiser’s damage but declined to disclose details about what caused the mishap or the crew’s efforts afterward, while safety and command investigations into the incident continue.
“The computer room on the port side of USS Chancellorsville was heavily damaged by the impact of the test target at the Point Mugu range Nov. 16,” said Lt. Rick Chernitzer, a Naval Surface Force Pacific spokesman. “The preliminary estimated cost to repair the ship is approximately $30 million.”
Chernitzer added that the repairs are scheduled to begin in January and are expected to take six months.
Two former sailors spoke to Navy Times on condition of anonymity while the investigation continues. Between them, they have spoken with more than a dozen current crew members regarding the incident and provided Navy Times documented communications. Attempts to reach current crew members were unsuccessful.
Sailors said the toll could have been many times worse had the impact been a bit higher: Computer central is directly below the ship’s combat information center — a space that, on Nov. 16, was full of sailors, officers and observers overseeing the radar tracking exercise.
“If the drone had been seven feet higher,” it could have wounded or killed dozens, estimated one former crew member. “There was a ton of people in combat watching this — the crew, plus contractors.”
This former sailor, who left the Navy this year, said the fire controlman second class on watch in computer central immediately responded to the downed drone, which had struck the starboard side bulkhead and started a fire. The drone’s turbine was still running as it spewed jet fuel.
“It was running — it was still on fire — and he’s in there, so he jumps out and goes back in to fight the fire with the rest of the team,” said the former crew member. “He was the number one nozzleman,” he added, a position responsible for directing the fire hose’s spray.
The ship shuddered from the drone’s impact, like the thud when the 5-inch deck gun fires, crew members told him.
The cruiser’s Aegis weapons system had been outfitted with Baseline 9, the latest air defense suite, and was going through a routine radar tracking exercise as part of its Combat Systems Ship Qualification Trials. The exercise is designed to calibrate the radar and targeting systems with a telemetry drone that typically gets no closer than a half-mile away. It is unusual to fire at these expensive target drones. The range and ship are on a radiotelephone net to coordinate the exercise.
The Navy has used the subsonic BQM-74E “Chukar III” drone for more than four decades. At 12 feet long, it looks like a mini-Tomahawk cruise missile. Test flights are directed by controllers with Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, which oversees the sea testing range that includes San Nicolas Island.
The cruiser’s CIC was told roughly four seconds before impact that controllers with Point Mugu had lost contact with the drone, and many crew members believe the drone went “rogue” — either failing to respond to remote control or deviating from its preprogrammed route. These are the two operating modes for the BQM-74E, according to missile designer Northrop Grumman.
“They were trying to raise [Point Mugu range control] on the net or something and they couldn’t get them, so they didn’t know where the drone was,” said the second former crew member, who said he was in touch with a half-dozen Chancellorsville shipmates. “There was just a breakdown in communications ... and the ship had no time to react.”
Chernitzer declined to address the leading causes for the mishap, citing the ongoing investigations. Officials suspended drone operations a week later with the Chukar III and BQM-34S “Firebee,” which uses the same guidance system.
Chancellorsville was not slated to deploy in 2014, and officials are still examining how the lengthy pierside repairs will affect the ship’s schedule, said 3rd Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Lenaya Rotklein in an email.
“Chancellorsville was slated to conduct Combat System Ship Qualification Trials throughout 2014, and the impact to their CSSQT is still being assessed,” Rotklein said.