Story by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin Murphy
Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate

Aboard Stennis there are three hunters, run by a group of skilled technicians, who patiently sit in their mounts, searching the seas, ready to track and destroy enemy air threats.

Phalanx Close-In-Weapons-Systems (CIWS), defense weapons systems maintained by fire controlmen, are on stand by ready to protect Stennis from potential enemy aircraft and incoming missile threats.

“It is one of the ship’s last defense mechanisms,” said Fire Controlman 2nd Class (SW/AW) Erin DeVries. “It is a ridiculously big gun. It has its own radars and if you threw an apple at the ship hard enough the CIWS would find and destroy it.”

When CIWS is activated it can either be in air-ready phalanx manual or air-ready phalanx automatic. In both modes, the CIWS is searching for targets. The only difference is, when the gun recommends fire, in manual the operator pushes the fire button to shoot and in automatic mode the gun fires on its own.

While activated CIWS uses a search antenna to detect a target up to five nautical miles away. After the prey has been detected and tracked, CIWS aims its 20mm six-barrel gun and fires at a range of one nautical mile.

A CIWS holds up to 1,550 20mm tungsten rounds and fires at a speed of 4,500 rounds per minute.

CIWS rounds travel from the drum to the shooting gun and the shells from the fired rounds are recycled back into the drum to balance the weight of the system.

CIWS can be operated from two stations, the local control panel (LCP) or the remote control panel (RCP). The LCP is located in the CIWS mount and the RCP, which controls all three guns, is operated in the combat direction center.

Fire controlmen conduct pre-aim calibration (PAC) fires to ensure controls, the gun and radars are synchronized.

“During a PAC fire we shoot 100 round bursts in about 1.2 seconds,” said DeVries. “The shoot ensures us that the radars and the guns are pointing at the same place.”

DeVries said CIWS is made up of different mechanical and electrical components and that maintenance is time consuming.

“We own it, operate it and fix it,” said DeVries. “Maintenance is intensive and long. There is an semi-annual maintenance which is about 32.5 man hours long.”

“It takes experience and knowledge to run the CIWS,” said Fire Contolman 2nd Class (SW/AW) Matthew Reynolds. “There’s three second classes, one third, and one seaman that run CIWS and we know what we’re doing.”

In February, the five fire controlmen received a 100 percent score with no discrepancies on their evaluation during the ship’s Inspection and Survey (INSURV).

Fire Controlmen go to a seven-month school to learn the components and operations of the CIWS system. Reynolds said even though he learned a lot at school, the real learning happens when you get to the CIWS mount you’re assigned to.

“Every mount has its own personality,” said Reynolds. “Each mount is specific, and each system creates its own personality. Each system has its own maintenance issues and its own problems.”

DeVries said the best part about working with the CIWS is participating in a towed drone unit shoot, where an aircraft drags a drone behind it on a chain and the CIWS shoots it off.

“It is one of the times we actually get to fire the CIWS,” said DeVries. “We upload live rounds, the CIWS tracks it and it fires.”

CIWS is an integral part of the ship’s defense system, the five fire controlmen maintain them to help ensure Stennis can transit the seas, projecting sea power and protecting America’s interests.