Of the many lessons learned in Operation Desert Storm, the most important is that it could have been worse. Two Navy ships were damaged by mines, and salvage assets responded quickly. But if those assets are not included in long-range contingency plans, the results could be disastrous.
USS Princeton and USS Tripoli stricken by mines! The news reverberated around the world. Although Allied forces completely dominated the air, surface, and submarine phases of Operation Desert Storm, major naval vessels sustained severe damage in what was essentially a single-threat environment, highlighting the need for salvage resources.
After Desert Storm began, air action against Allied naval forces was virtually nil. The same was true of surface opposition. There was no submarine threat. Our amphibious forces crossed no defended beaches. Therefore, mine warfare posed the only significant threat. Despite this, however, the Allies sustained severe damage. Salvage assets to deal with these casualties were barely adequate and arrived in-theater just in time. Any large naval action would have overwhelmed available salvage resources. The Princeton (CG-59) and Tripoli (LPH-10) casualties rein-force the lesson that planners must always anticipate salvage requirements and write them into contingency plans and operation orders. Salvage assets adequate for the anticipated threat and level of naval activity must be earmarked and in-theater.
In the Gulf War, the material risk associated with combat operations and logistics rose sharply, and with it the potential demand for salvage services. Those potential demands included:
➤ Combat casualties to in-theater naval forces, primarily from mines, missiles, attack aircraft, and small craft. Anticipated amphibious operations required substantial combat salvage capability.
➤ Combat casualties, breakdowns, and marine accidents to noncombatant sealift forces; increased shipping concentrations in both the continental United States and the Arabian Gulf; the age of shipping activated for the crisis.
➤ Harbor clearance and wreck removal, both for high-priority logistics access through ports to support ground forces and to restore ports for commercial use.
➤ Search-and-recovery operations to recover downed aircraft and missiles for failure analysis or other material for intelligence exploitation.
➤ Environmental management: the United States sponsored few efforts to combat offensive oil spills. Inquiries were referred to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Kuwaiti government.
Initially, Allied logistics planners believed that locally contracted salvage assets could meet requirements. They based this estimate on levels of commercial salvage activity in the late 1980s during Operation Earnest Will— the operation to protect oil tankers in the Gulf. Historically, commercial salvage operators have worked on a “no cure, no pay” basis. The initial contract is established— usually by radio—at the time the assistance is rendered, by offer and acceptance of “Lloyds Open Form.” Following the salvage, an arbitrator in London determines the salvor’s payoff (salvage award), based on the salvor’s risk and work and the value of the property (ship and cargo) saved. Saving a loaded tanker from small-arms and light missile fire is financially attractive for the salvor (awards of up to 12.5% of vessel and cargo value) and for the war-risk marine-insurance underwriter who finances these salvage operations, with enormous premiums for tankers trading in the Arabian Gulf.
The U.S. government does not participate in this form of salvage agreement, for a number of reasons. Hence, a salvor has no significant incentive to put himself at risk for a U.S. government ship. In fact, local contracted commercial assets were not available for combat salvage in Desert Storm. Those commercial assets that did play a supporting role were arranged through standing salvage contracts with the office of the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SupSalv) at the Naval Sea Systems Command.
Requirements for Salvage Assets In-Theater
Knowledgeable, experienced salvage personnel representing SupSalv arrived in theater early in January 1991. Using Navy White Paper 62-1 (Surface Ship Survivability), the evolving concept of salvage assist response teams (SART), preliminary results from the study “Salvage 2010, Navy Force-Level Requirements for Salvage Ships” being produced for SupSalv, and applying their own experience, they identified the following requirements:
➤ Two or Three Commissioned Navy Salvage Ships (ATSs/ARSs): These ships have towing, salvage, and mixed-gas diving capability, portable salvage equipment, and heavy-lift bow rollers, as well as off-ship firefighting, with monitors being installed as alterations. They are unique and versatile ships and were to be employed for combat and amphibious-assault support. The combat-salvage requirement was vindicated by the Princeton and Tripoli casualties. Salvage ships are also required to keep ship-to-shore lanes clear during amphibious operations. As commissioned ships, they will unquestionably go in harm’s way when ordered. They can be employed both for salvage and for recovery and clearance.
➤ 50-Man Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) Detachment: Comprised of personnel from MDSU-2 (Norfolk) and MDSU-1 (Pearl Harbor), they are already trained in diving and salvage. Some MDSU personnel have received specialized, SupSalv-funded firefighting training in 1990 from Boots and Coots, Inc., an industry leader in marine firefighting. An MDSU detachment augments the commercial firefighting and salvage tug crews and conducts harbor clearance operations as required. Those personnel not at sea on the tugs were to be berthed on a barge moored in Bahrain. The barge that housed the sailors could easily be towed to a clearance or standing work site and used as a work platform.
➤ Three-to-Four Military Sealift Command (MSC) or Commercial Tugs: These are needed to receive casualties from commissioned salvage ships and transport casualties to repair points. This frees the commissioned ships to return to the combat or high-hazard areas. With civilian crews, these fleet tugs are outstanding tow ships and good salvage platforms. They have berthing for a 19-man detachment and clear space aft to mount portable salvage-and-diving equipment. These MSC or commercial tugs can also transport equipment and serve as platforms for clearance and recovery operations.
Large commercial tugs have a wide range of capabilities, usually much the same as the fleet tugs. Smaller tow boats are well-suited for towing and resupply functions but less equipped than their larger commercial brethren. While the commercial tug operators in the Arabian Gulf stated that they were eager to support us wherever required, they were compelled only by a contractual obligation. Operational impact could have been severe, if commercial tugs had been our only salvage assets and they had refused to enter hazardous areas. The distinction between traditional “no cure, no pay” salvage and government-contract salvage looms very large here. Profit does not increase for increased risk when working for the Navy as it does in commercial salvage.
A major shortcoming in employing commercial assets is a lack of Navy-compatible communications. This equipment mismatch complicates the command-and-control problem between Navy operational commanders and technical personnel and the commercial salvage vessels and crews. The international maritime satellite (InMarSat) commercial radiotelephone system, while useful, is subject to overload. Language problems with non-English-speaking crews remain unresolved, as well.
➤ Emergency Ship Salvage Material (ESSM): This local, ready cache of salvage equipment, much of it specialized, can support a broad range of requirements. ESSM equipment typically consists of pumps, generators, anchors, chain, wire, hydraulic pullers, anchors, petroleum/oil/lubricant pumps, air compressors, hoses, winches, water purification equipment, light stands, and other salvage equipment in various sizes. By being available locally, at a port and near an airhead, it serves as the repair locker for the salvage forces and a source of equipment for a major salvage or clearance operation.
Salvage Assets in Place
The salvage assets in place during Operation Desert Storm consisted of the following:
➤ A commissioned salvage ship, the USS Beaufort (ATS-2), in the most capable class of salvage and towing ships in the U.S. inventory, came equipped for towing, salvage, and fire fighting, as well as air and mixed-gas diving.
➤ Two commercial ocean going tugs, the Smit New York and Smit Madura, were under contract to SupSalv through its Western Pacific/Indian Ocean standing salvage contract with Smit Tak. Operating costs of these highly capable tugs were underwritten by the Dutch government as part of its support for the Gulf War. The Smit New York Was fitted out with salvage gear from ESSM. The Smit Madura carried portable off-ship firefighting equipment hired from Smit. Salvage assist response teams from the mobile diving and salvage unit detachment were designated to ride the tugs, had the detachment been deployed.
➤ Three offshore supply boats—the Gala, the Stella, and the Big Orange—were subcontracted to SupSalv through Smit. These boats were to act as logistic support craft and tow vessels, freeing the Smit tugs for more critical casualties. They also served as platforms for search-and-recovery and salvage operations. In addition, four other vessels were on standby.
➤ One working/berthing barge, the Subtec I, was contracted to SupSalv through Smit Tak in anticipation of the arrival of the Mobile Diving and Salvage Units detachment and for use in any major salvage or harbor clearance work.
➤ A mobile emergency recompression chamber was set up in Bahrain and manned by MDSU personnel. Although salvage management personnel were in-theater, the MDSU detachment was unable to deploy. This shortfall resulted from guidance restricting the flow of personnel into the Arabian Gulf.
➤ Salvage equipment totaling 325 tons was transported from the United States to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, with selected equipment on board the Smit New York. This equipment was available to support salvage and harbor clearance by vessels of opportunity, such as fleet tugs, offshore supply boats, and barges, and to supplement large operations by commissioned ships.
Organizational Relationships/Concept of Operations
Immediately following the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving initiated efforts to establish a viable salvage presence in the Gulf. Salvage assets, requirements, and planning, however, were addressed only minimally in existing documentation. The concept of operations and operation plans were not completed until January 1991. Because of logistics and transportation difficulties, these planning documents could speak only to the employment of assets already in theater, and these assets were not in place until January. This ad hoc approach provided less-than-optimum salvage planning.
The Commander, Service Force Sixth Fleet’s Ship Repair Unit Detachment in Bahrain functioned as the force salvage coordinator (Commander, Task Group 151.12) in the absence of one assigned directly either to the Commander Task Force 151 or 150 staffs afloat. The staff organization is shown in Figures 1 and 2. Senior personnel assigned included a special operations (salvage/diving/explosive ordnance disposal/ordnance management) captain and an engineering duty officer salvage engineer commander from the office of the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving. One of the salvage engineer’s projects at SupSalv was developing the Program of Ship Salvage Engineering, a computer program used to assist salvage engineers in dealing with grounding, flooding, and other ship casualties. Later, the program dealt successfully with mine casualties.
In short, such a rudimentary salvage organization would respond to a casualty by sending a salvage response team by helicopter to assist, assess, and stabilize. A commissioned salvage ship—such as the Beaufort—would then move the casualty out of danger and transfer it to a Smit tug, which would either complete the tow or pass it to a logistics supply tug. With minor variations during the Gulf War, this concept of operations, driven by available assets, was effective. More numerous or more severe casualties, however, would have been overwhelming.
Salvage Assistance Provided
On 18 February 1991, the Princeton and the Tripoli suffered mine strikes in the Arabian Gulf, off Kuwait. Both ships experienced blast, shock, flooding, and whipping. The Tripoli was holed and flooded and sustained structural damage. The Princeton received major structural damage with minor flooding and damage to her propulsion and steering systems. The sea was calm, minimizing weather-induced structural stress on the casualties. In both instances, the salvage response was immediate. The Beaufort proceeded directly to the area, sending a salvage officer and master diver ahead by helicopter. The Ship Repair Unit Detachment in Bahrain dispatched the engineering duty officer salvage engineer as the officer in charge of a combination salvage-assist response/battle damage assessment team from the USS Jason (AR-8) by helicopter.
When the salvage engineer arrived on board the Tripoli, he reviewed damage reports on both ships from the Beaufort divers and reviewed the damage with ship’s force. Performing triage based on the best information available, he determined that the Princeton had more significant damage. The Princeton's commanding officer, having restored his combat system and while continuing to operate as antiair warfare commander, said that his primary requirement was to determine the structural integrity of his hull. He immediately sent a helo to the Tripoli for the salvage engineer.
Based on the Princeton's plans and on personal assessment of the damage, including inspection of many small compartments below the waterline with the ship still in the minefield, the salvage engineer developed a model of the Princeton and her damage on his laptop computer. Using the ship salvage engineering program, he calculated the approximate remaining hull strength and determined that the ship had been weakened severely. If the weather deteriorated, chances were good that the ship would, break up. He was then able to advise the commanding officer about the structural condition of the ship.
This was the first time that a Navy salvage engineer had been able to provide accurate, real-time, on-site analysis of ship damage and structural integrity. The analysis was confirmed the following day when the Naval Sea Systems Command transmitted similar findings by message.
The Beaufort, the Smit New York, and the Gala, in succession, assisted with escorting and towing of the Princeton. The salvage engineer continued to advise the commanding officer. His input was critically important when the weather deteriorated en route to Dubai, and the ship started to “work” at her primary damage site. Ongoing observation and analysis showed that the ship was in danger of breaking up if the weather got worse. The salvage engineer confirmed the commanding officer’s concerns. The Princeton's commanding officer altered course to Bahrain for temporary repairs, before proceeding to Dubai.
The salvage engineer left the Princeton in Bahrain, flew back to the Tripoli, and confirmed his initial analysis: the Tripoli's damage, while serious, would still allow the ship to continue her mission.
These were classic salvage actions in which Navy and contract commercial salvage vessels, equipment, and crews provided an effective and successful response to combat casualties.
USNS Andrew J. Higgins (T-AO 190) Grounding
On 2 January 1991, the Andrew J. Higgins went hard aground on an uncharted pinnacle in the Gulf of Oman just south of Masirah. The ship had been operating in direct support of the amphibious force. At that time no Navy salvage capability was present in the Gulf region, except the Smit New York, which was not to go on hire until three days later. The Smit New York was hired immediately and proceeded to provide assistance. The U.S. Seventh Fleet salvage officer flew in from Subic Bay, arriving on 4 January, two days after the grounding. Along with the motor vessel (M/V) Courier, which received fuel offloaded to lighten the ship, the Smit New York and the Seventh Fleet salvage officer assisted the Andrew J. Higgins in getting free, and the Smit New York escorted the Andrew J. Higgins to her repair port.
SH-60B Helicopter Recovery
On 18 March, the Beaufort, using SupSalv personnel and equipment, located and recovered a U.S. Navy SH-60B helicopter from the bottom of the Arabian Gulf, in a classified operation. The operation was straightforward and completed within 24 hours.
Between 23 March and 10 April SupSalv and its remote operated vehicle (ROV) contract operators on board the Beaufort located and assisted in recovering three Tomahawk missiles from depths of 200 to 225 feet.
The brevity of the ground fighting and early cease-fire took harbor clearance and wreck removal out of being a tactical concern and into the humanitarian and economic arena. The commanding officer of MDSU-1 was designated to move two supertankers clear of north A1 Ahmadi pier in Kuwait. Towing bridles were rigged on both vessels, using equipment from the Smit New York and the Smit Madura. The Smit New York then moved the empty tankers to designated, mine-swept anchorages. In Ash Shuaybah, a Soviet-made Osa-II fast-attack missile boat was sunk with two live missiles aboard in launchers. The missiles had to be made safe and removed to render the harbor safe. A joint effort, involving a Navy explosive ordnance detachment. Task Group 151.12 salvors, and a U.S. Army diving detachment accomplished the task. The Army divers assisted in harbor clearance, but they were neither trained nor equipped for a major clearance, salvage operation, or salvage assist response functions.
Funding and Contracting
Government contract regulations tightly control the acquisition of goods and services. Some aspects of the Desert Shield/Desert Storm contract situation are worth noting.
Vessels to support salvage operations were contracted through the SupSalv Western Pacific standing salvage contract with Smit Tak. The Supervisor’s office expended considerable effort to ensure funding for support of operational requirements. Certain in-theater salvage personnel were authorized to contract for salvage assets. Because the contracting vehicle was in place, further commercial assets for salvage support could be hired rapidly. The Dutch government funded both the Smit Madura and the Smit New York for 45 days, with an informal commitment of further funding if required.
Seed money to undertake Navy ship salvage operations (as distinct from standing funding resources, such as the Smit New York) is in place. But the funding agency must commit for each aircraft and missile search before commencing operations. Although aircraft and missile search-and-recovery operations are seldom operationally critical, some funding snags caused delays during Desert Storm. In-place delivery order contracts permit rapid mobilization once funding is committed. Several aircraft were never recovered, because salvage efforts were not funded by the sponsor.
➤ Plan for salvage in standing documentation. This eliminates a lengthy identification and justification process in the heat of mobilization or battle. It also allows maximum time for identified assets to transit into theater. Include required assets in planning documentation. Define scenarios: combat salvage, marine accidents, mines, amphibious support, search and recovery and harbor clearance and commence concept-of-operations decision making and preparation as soon as the potential for conflict is identified.
➤ Use U.S. Navy commissioned and auxiliary naval vessels to the maximum extent. Versatility, operational control, and communications all mitigate in favor of commissioned Navy ships.
➤ Maintain or establish ESSM equipment pools in areas of interest. SupSalv has established an ESSM base in Bahrain.
➤ Maintain Navy ship force levels to support salvage requirements. The Secretary of the Navy confirmed planned salvage ship force levels through 2010 on 30 August 1991.
➤ Employ reimbursable funding to a single source of service because the infrequent demand for aircraft or missile search and recovery and the broad range of sponsors make it far more cost-effective than maintaining full-time assets at each command.
Salvage has tremendous operational impact, whether in keeping lanes clear during an amphibious landing, in preserving scarce, high-value ships, or in clearing harbors for access. As with most logistical functions, the leverage is in preparation and planning. Identifying the need in the midst of conflict is too late. The ship damage sustained during the Gulf War, despite our having been dominant at sea, demonstrates that salvage must be an integral part of our warfighting planning, and salvage assets must be identified and in place when operations begin.
Captain Fiske is Director of Ocean Engineering, Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, at the Naval Sea Systems Command, Washington, D.C.