On 17 October 2014 the U.S. Navy’s oldest warship, the USS Constitution, got under way ahead of a three-year maintenance period.1 Unlike other surface combatants entering shipyards in the next few years, she will not receive ballistic-missile-defense upgrades or directed-energy weapons. Nor will she be called on to deploy in support of combatant commanders around the world when she leaves the yard. While a national treasure, the Constitution is the shining example of maintenance without modernization. At almost 220 years old, she has not advanced one iota in countering threats developed over the last two centuries, yet she is still able to get under way. While other ship classes have undergone expensive modernizations to pace the threat, some have not, and entire classes of ships have been decommissioned. There is another path, that of payloads, which can breathe life into older or less capable ships and allow some to serve in missions for which they were not originally intended, and for others, the ability to stay relevant throughout their service lives.
It’s no secret, in an era of reduced military spending, readiness is a challenge for the Navy. In July 2013, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert reported that in the event of a crisis, the Navy had only one fully prepared carrier strike group and one amphibious-assault group. Just the year before, it had three of each available. He spoke of how the Navy has had to cut training and maintenance, highlighting how although the number of ships in the Mediterranean and Pacific has risen slightly because of the rebalance to the Pacific, there are fewer ships around Africa and the Indian Ocean, and no combat ships in Latin America.2 Every year, deciding how to divide scarce defense dollars between maintenance, modernization, and presence is undertaken by professionals who come to terms with knowing that all the easy trade-offs were taken a long time ago; theirs is a daunting task. The pressure on the fleet arising from meeting combatant-commander demands and finding the time to get needed repairs and upgrades may be finally getting relief, allowing ships to take on new missions with little to no redesign by using payloads brought aboard for a specific mission.
The use of payloads, modules, or adaptive force packages placed aboard vessels such as the littoral combat ship, tailored to individual missions, is a growing reality. In a July 2012 Proceedings article, Admiral Greenert outlined a successful payload-centric approach like that practiced by aircraft carriers, whose air wings function as interchangeable payloads while the ship remains essentially the same.3 To illustrate the CNO’s point, the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) was commissioned in 1975, the same year as the first Spruance-class destroyer. While the Nimitz is still going strong, successfully landing her latest payload, the F-35, in November, the last of the Spruances left naval service almost a decade ago. The class fell by the wayside, not unlike how the first five Ticonderoga-class cruisers were decommissioned. The Navy did not have the resources to modernize them to pace with the current threat—a problem greatly lessened through the concept of payloads.
Fortunately, the Navy has bench strength. In an era with fewer ships and increasing operational demands, the Military Sealift Command (MSC) is the knight in shining armor. In addition to its traditional fleet of oilers and cargo ships, the MSC is taking ownership of 11 joint high-speed vessels (JHSVs), two mobile landing platforms, and at least two afloat forward staging bases in the coming decade. These ships add real capacity to the MSC’s ship inventory.They can serve in alternative roles and perform expanded mission sets through the use of adaptive force packages to relieve pressure on combatants and amphibious ships in low-end, permissive operations. This ultimately allows the combatant fleet to catch up on needed maintenance and training.
In a 30 September 2014 discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work described the friction between maintaining forward presence and rebuilding readiness. He stated that a key principal is to “develop innovative ways of maintaining forward presence as we rebuild our readiness.” Secretary Work relayed the well-known example of the 2009 Maersk Alabama incident in which numerous warships, to the tune of billions of dollars of American warfighting capability, surrounded a single lifeboat holding four pirates and the kidnapped captain of the container ship. This is exactly the kind of mission the JHSV could execute—for a fraction of the cost. While not designed for counterpiracy, with the addition of a counterpiracy force package, she would be superb in this role.
The JHSV was originally intended as a high-speed ferry for executing missions like those carried out by the MV Westpac Express (HSV-4676), a catamaran that moves Marines and their cargo throughout the Western Pacific. The Navy Fact Sheet describes it as follows: “The JHSV is designed to transport 600 short tons of military cargo 1,200 nautical miles at an average speed of 35 knots in sea state 3. The JHSV includes a flight deck for helicopter operations and an offload ramp that will allow vehicles to quickly drive off the ship.” However, in the need to come up with innovative solutions to executing missions forward, the JHSV is quickly demonstrating that it is a much more versatile asset than ever imagined.
An oft-heard concern in the use of alternative platforms is survivability. These ships will not replace combatants or amphibs in the fight; rather, they can take many of the lower-end missions in a peacetime environment. The issue of survivability, while important for warships, does not negate the ability of ships with low-end survivability to execute many naval missions. For example, minesweepers are made out of wood, and about 20 years ago, the Navy operated six aluminum patrol-missile hydrofoils that made up for their lack of survivability with small size and speed. While the proposed enhanced missions for the MSC fleet would not alleviate or lessen the need for amphibs or combatants (as the combat operations they potentially face require a tougher breed of ship), they would take many low-threat/permissive-environment missions the combatants and amphibs are often called on to accomplish.
Teaching a New Dog New Tricks
The first JHSV, the USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1), arrived in the fleet about two years ago. She proved her capability and versatility quickly, providing a potential high-speed noncombat evacuation operation (NEO) for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. She immediately followed up with successful operations in the Gulf of Guinea, acting as an afloat forward staging base (AFSB) for Marines in support of West African security missions and exercises such as visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) and fisheries patrols.4 The Spearhead then deployed to Southern Command, where she conducted further missions and demonstrations, such as mine hunting with a Predator drone, and use of an aerostat and unmanned aircraft systems in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).5
Not to be outdone by her slightly older sister, the second ship of the class, the USNS Choctaw County (JHSV-2), was the star of Bold Alligator 2014, the Navy’s multinational amphibious-warfare exercise. This year, the JHSV not only executed simple logistics missions such as transporting trucks, but served as an AFSB for special operations forces, unmanned underwater vehicles, and Dutch riverine operations.6 In two years, the JHSV has performed its design mission, has successfully demonstrated its ability to execute VBSS, ISR, mine hunting, UUV and UAV support, NEO, and AFSB operations. In 2016, the JHSV will be the test platform for the first seaborne demonstration of the electromagnetic railgun. This is an impressive record of innovation and operational relevance for a vessel that is so new to the fleet.
The JHSV isn’t the only logistics platform performing outside its traditional roles. The dry cargo/ammunition ship (T-AKE) is also conducting alternative missions. In February 2014, the USNS Sacagawea (T-AKE-2) embarked Marines from Okinawa completing a multi-country theater security–cooperation event throughout the Pacific.7 This theater-security mission used the Sacagawea instead of perhaps tasking an overworked amphib from Japan, allowing the amphib to focus on other priorities and still allowing the mission to be accomplished. Also, in 2009, the USNS Lewis and Clark (T-AKE-1) was reconfigured to hold as many as 26 suspected pirates in addition to her capability to stage SH-60 helicopters.8 In 2014, the USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE-13) served as a Marine Corps command-and-control platform in Bold Alligator. The T-AKE has also shown its future versatility in its ability to accommodate the takeoff and landing of a V-22 Osprey. Other MSC ships could be modified for the V-22, giving the Marines a new level of flexibility in the Pacific and Africa. Conceptually, MSC platforms could serve as refueling and logistics hubs for the V-22 and associated Marines, vastly increasing the operational range and flexibility of the Osprey. This concept certainly has its precedent in the 1920 conversion of the USS Jupiter (AC-3), a coal carrier, to the USS Langley (CV-1), America’s first aircraft carrier
Another new platform in the Navy’s arsenal is the mobile landing platform (MLP), a ship based on an oil-tanker design. The MLP has three lanes for landing-craft air cushions to drive up, onload, and pick up cargo that has been transferred from a large roll-on/roll-off ship. But like many of the new logistics ships being built, the MLP concept carries far greater potential. Described as a giant blank canvas, the MLP has significant room to support other payloads. That canvas can easily be filled. With its ability to ballast down for launch, it’s easy to imagine the MLP as a warehouse for unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles.
The Marine Corps is further realizing the hidden potential of the MSC fleet. The Marines are reconfiguring the loadouts of their prepositioned forces in Guam and Diego Garcia. The loadout for these ships has traditionally provided the equipment for a Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB); however, with some further creative reloading of the MEB equipment the individual ships could provide a level of crisis response on their own, without the need to bring the entire Maritime Prepositioned Force. These loadouts are referred to as Crisis-Response Force Packages (CRFPs).9 The CRFP is a brilliant example of a service taking aboard the concept of developing innovative ways to get more utility from the fleet, without modifying or losing its core mission.
This concept has the most utility in the Pacific, where the Maritime Prepositioned Squadrons are homeported. Combatant commanders should view, modify, and develop this capability as the primary humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief (HA/DR) force. Couple a tailored humanitarian-assistance force package with an additional V-22 logistics capability, and a disaster such as the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan recovery could be met with the MSC fleet, ensuring that combatants and amphibs assigned in the Pacific, either operationally or in the training phase of the Fleet Response Plan, can stay focused on tasks at hand, and not be concerned about every typhoon traversing the region.
Making the Case for MSC Modules
The MSC ship-deployment model is different from that employed by the rest of the Navy. Navy ships must train, certify, and be prepared for major combat operations throughout the world. The Military Sealift Command deploys its ships for up to years at a time, rotating crews. MSC ships are either in standby for operations, such as those in the Maritime Prepositioned Forces in Diego Garcia and Guam, or, as with the T-AKE and JHSV, remain forward-deployed to accomplish their logistics missions.
Using a simplified Navy deployment model of one ship on deployment, one working up from deployment, one winding down from deployment, and one in the shipyard, it is clear that the Navy must purchase and install four systems to maintain one set forward-deployed. If a system or capability were modularized or made into a single adaptive force package, the Navy would only need to purchase a single system, which could be swapped out on different platforms. This would be relatively easy with systems such as ISR, or unmanned vehicles. Military detachments could be assigned to these ships, similar to the current model for mission modules on the LCS, or those practiced by the JHSV on its maiden deployment.
So far, the Navy and Marine Corps have successfully deployed payloads across the low end of the range of military operations. The use of payloads on MSC ships is ready to evolve from experimentation/demonstration into a sustainable, repeatable process. In the near term, the Navy needs to commit these ships to missions such as ISR, VBSS, and HA/DR. However, for the long term, the Navy must ensure the payloads are available to meet combatant-commander demands for sustainable missions and forward sustained presence. That may entail following the model similar to the LCS module concept, whereby crews are specifically trained to operate the payload. It may even be possible to train military detachments in the operation of all current payloads, with perhaps specific mission specialists or contractors for some of the higher-end equipment.
The next step is to assign an organization to administratively control payloads for the MSC fleet. This organization would be responsible for maintaining the payloads, in addition to manning and training the forces assigned to operate them. While the MSC may seem the right choice, given it already maintains the platforms, it doesn’t own the myriad missions that may be associated with them. The Navy Expeditionary Combat Command is better suited to oversee this endeavor. It is one of the few administrative commands that serves both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, with experience in a wide range of disparate missions similar to those we are asking these ships to perform.
The inclusion of the maritime preposition ships and the JHSVs will add 22 vessels to the inventory, but because of their different deployment model, the notional presence added to the Navy would be much higher, since the MSC ships are not required to go through the inter-deployment training cycle.
The use of MSC ships in low-end missions is a current necessity. As new missions are added (antisubmarine warfare, strike, ballistic-missile defense), the Navy may need procedures to rapidly commission these ships as Navy platforms to ensure the lines between logistics ship and combatant are not crossed. For example, MSC masters could be given Navy Reserve commissions, and when necessary be activated with their ships. This would place a naval officer in charge, and coupled with a quick modification to the Naval Register, would ensure compliance with international law for those missions where belligerent acts may be required. With that kind of flexibility, combatant commanders can just pick the missions that need to be filled and let the Navy put the package together to fill it, no matter the hull type.
In October 2014, Lockheed Martin announced that within the next decade, it will produce a compact fusion reactor small enough to fit on the back of a truck.10 Coupling this technology with directed-energy weapons such as a laser or the electromagnetic railgun could provide an incredible advancement. The advent of new energy technologies would alleviate the power and cooling requirements that currently exist, and allow the power and cooling to be just another part of the package, thus rapidly reducing the time required to add or remove.
At an address to the Washington, D.C., Propeller Club, Rear Admiral Tom Shannon, commander of the MSC, proposed turning a roll-on/roll-off ship into a destroyer tender by adding modularized intermediate maintenance facilities to the vessel, highlighting how the motor vessel Cape Ray was transformed into a Syrian chemical weapons–destruction facility in only 60 days.11 A ship such as a JHSV could be configured as a support or mother ship to coastal patrol craft or LCSs. This may be especially useful in an environment where no accessible ports are nearby. All the logistics, repair, and supply requirements, along with the personnel needed to man them, could be containerized and located on a JHSV, whose high speed gives it the ability to get to where it is needed quickly. Rear Admiral Shannon further delineated how the same concept could apply to a modularized hospital package for accessing locations unreachable by current hospital ships.
At less than $200 million per ship, the JHSV may be the most cost-effective platform in the fleet. So are 11 enough? Or should the Navy view the initial buy as round one of a fiscally sound strategy for providing presence and flexibility to the combatant commander? If the Navy went another round on the JHSV with the forethought of providing an even more capable utility player to the combatant commanders, what would it look like?
Reduced budgets and their effect on readiness and presence will be a reality for the immediate future. Expanding the role of the MSC, through the use of payloads for low-end peacetime missions, is the right solution. The Navy and Marine Corps have made tremendous strides in the experimentation, demonstration, and planning to increase the utility of MSC ships. It is now time to formalize these roles, organize the adaptive force-package concept for enduring missions, and take advantage of the strongest utility player on the naval team.
1. “USS Constitution makes last cruise before repairs” Boston Globe, 17 October 2014.
2. David Alexander, “U.S. Navy Deployments, Readiness Eroded by Budget Cuts: Navy Chief,” Reuters, 19 July 2013.
3. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, “Payloads over Platforms: Charting a New Course,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 138, no. 7 (July 2012), 16–23.
4. Grace Jean, “USN’s first JHSV Completes Europe, Africa Mission; Returns Home for Maintenance” Jane’s Navy International, 6 May 2014.
5. “U.S. Navy Tests General Atomics’ Lynx Multi-Mode Radar,” Naval-technology.com, 1 September 2014, www.naval-technology.com/news/newsus-navy-tests-general-atomics-lynxa-multi-mode-radar-4357884. “Joint High-Speed Vessel Fleet Experimentation A Success,” U.S. Navy press release, 4 July 2014, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=82051.
6. “Marines Work with T-AKE 1 in Exercise,” U.S. Navy press release, 17 October 2012, www.msc.navy.mil/sealift/2012/December/marines.htm.
7. “Marine Returns to Island Home, Trains Local Law Enforcement,” U.S. Marine Corps press release, 6 October 2014, www.marines.mil/News/NewsDisplay/tabid/3258/Article/503329/marines-returns-to-island-home-trains-local-law-enforcement.aspx.
8. Sandra Jontz, “Civilian Ship Repurposed to Help Anti-Piracy Effort,” Stars and Stripes, 10 February 2009.
9. Maren Leed, Amphibious Shipping Shortfalls: Risks and Opportunties to Bridge the Gap (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2014), http://csis.org/files/publication/140902_Leed_AmphibiousShipping_WEB.pdf.
10. Amrita Jayakumar, “Nuclear Fusion Energy in a Decade? Lockheed Martin Is Betting on It,” Washington Post, 15 October 2014.
11. Rob Almeida, “Will Black-Hulled Ships Become the U.S. Navy’s New Best Friend?” gCaptain.com, 3 February 2014, http://gcaptain.com/military-sealift-command-black-hull-shannon-us-navy/.