It's no secret that, even during peacetime operations, it's not always smooth sailing for U.S. Navy warships, literally, which can encounter extreme weather of various types in the course of their deployments. Case in point, a recent photograph of the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Bainbridge, which almost doesn't look real, showing a lightning bolt striking the sea beyond the ship as it sails through a storm.
The picture was originally posted to Twitter by Bainbridge’s Executive Officer, Cmdr. Desmond Walker, who also goes by the handle @deedubya78. Walker captioned the post with the following: “Sometimes, the winds are not fair. Sometimes, the seas are not following. But we still push forward.”
It's unclear exactly where or when the picture was taken. Official photos of Bainbridge that were taken around the same time that Cmdr. Walker posted the thunderstorm picture on Twitter say that the ship was sailing in the Mediterranean Sea in the second week of July. The vessel had spent the earlier weeks of July performing training and interoperability with the French and Italian navies in the Adriatic and Ionian seas.
Bainbridge, also known by its hull number, DDG 96, is a part of the current strike group accompanying the supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman, which first arrived in European waters late last year. The Truman Carrier Strike Group was subsequently ordered to remain there, rather than continue to the Middle East as originally planned, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia flared. The strike group continued to operate after Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine as part of broader ongoing U.S. military efforts to reassure members of NATO and deter potential Russian aggression against the alliance.
Bainbridge is now currently in the Atlantic Ocean, according to more recently released Navy pictures. This is further confirmed by the fact that ship spotters caught it, along with another Arleigh Burke class destroyer, the USS Cole, sailing west through the Strait of Gibraltar last week.
Ships of predominantly metal construction, like Arleigh Burke class destroyers with their steel hulls and superstructures, essentially have a degree of built-in lightning protection.
"Lightning strikes are not a major problem for large ships constructed of metal because the energy produced by the lightning is usually conducted through the metal to the water," Mike Mazzola, then an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Mississippi State University, who was also the coordinator for a project to develop composite hangar structures for naval vessels, explained back in 1998. "Composites do not conduct the energy away from the ship and electronic equipment housed inside a composite structure can be severely damaged by a lightning strike."
That being said, there is still some degree of risk even to ships of mostly metal construction from direct lighting strikes, especially those that hit electronics and other specialized equipment. On warships, the systems in question, or portions thereof, are often fitted to tall masts which further increases the possibility of strikes. In general, lightning strikes have the potential to cause damage in various ways, including by triggering power surges and causing fires. For a modern naval vessel, even temporary disruption of key systems, like navigation and communications gear, could have negative impacts on their ability to perform their assigned missions. U.S. Navy ships and many of their electronics are built to tough standards, that help mitigate such risks.
Individuals onboard a ship, especially anyone who might be caught out on the deck near where the lighting impacts, might also risk injury or even death depending on the circumstances.
Whatever the case, hopefully, the seas will be fairer for Bainbridge and its crew for the remainder of their current cruise.
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