One of U.S. Southern Command’s (SouthCom’s) primary missions is detecting and monitoring illegal narcotics flowing from South America. Because Navy warships have higher priorities in other regions, Coast Guard cutters often provide the majority of surface forces to SouthCom, through Joint Interagency Task Force–South (JIATF-S). With the 2020 counternarcotics surge, however, a number of Navy ships deployed to the SouthCom operating area. This surge came with an unsung hero: the oiler.
Regular deployment of fleet replenishment ships to SouthCom would not only improve the effectiveness of available ships by increasing their time on station, but also enable the Coast Guard to build skills critical to any operation in the western Pacific. Most larger cutters are minimally qualified to conduct refueling at sea, and few conduct these operations frequently enough to be considered anything near proficient. Refueling operations also help hone important and highly perishable skills such as station keeping and coding/decoding tactical signals, which are rarely practiced by Coast Guard cutters.
Some may push back against additional oiler deployments to SouthCom, citing a lack of available assets. But replenishment at sea—referred to as the Navy’s secret weapon by Admiral Chester Nimitz during World War II—will no doubt be foundational to any future conflict. If the Navy has too few assets to meet steady-state peacetime operations, how would it be able to support even short-term sustained combat operations in the far-flung corners of the globe?
The 20 planned replenishment oilers of the John Lewis class are a good start, but limited shipbuilding budgets with competing priorities might challenge completion of the full class.
The recent oiler deployments to SouthCom naturally improved logistics, but counterdrug operations provide an opportunity to use replenishment ships for more than their traditional role. With a little planning, they also could decrease the time detainees remain on deck and reduce crew fatigue while building credibility among myriad stakeholders and disarming critics. Further, they could improve operational success by foiling transnational criminal organizations’ (TCOs’) counterintelligence efforts by altering cutter pattern of life.
Without replenishment support, cutters need to head into port approximately every two weeks, usually for two or three days. The first day is almost entirely consumed with logistics, leaving only one or two days for crew rest—fewer for the majority of the crew, who have at least one day of duty per stop. Port calls also decrease the amount of time an asset is on station. Coast Guard analysis indicates cutters while under the tactical control of JIATF-S spend more than 50 percent of their time engaged in logistics or transiting, including for port calls.1
Regular oiler availability could enable ships to stay on station almost continuously. From a crew fatigue perspective, this would hardly be ideal, but fewer port calls, each with a longer duration, could improve crew rest. Oilers providing fuel, food, and spare parts also would mean less time in each port call dedicated to logistics and repairs and more time for each ship to be fully mission capable while at sea.
Pattern of Life
SouthCom has been conducting significant operations in the eastern Pacific for decades. It is reasonable to assume TCOs have developed an accurate picture of U.S. logistical limitations. A replenishment ship would enable operational planners to alter the pattern of life for ships operating in the area.
Once an oiler departs port, it can operate under emissions control and effectively disappear from visual and electronic surveillance. Longer times between port visits for ships, coupled with their independence from shore-based fuel and logistics, could keep TCOs guessing about the number and location of ships at sea. When intelligence predicts activity on a particular vector, planners would be able to position assets without alerting adversaries to an increased presence in the area.
In a 2017 New York Times magazine article titled “Floating Guantanamos,” Seth Wessler tells a story of a cocaine smuggler caught by the Coast Guard in the eastern Pacific and held on board several ships before finally arriving in the United States for prosecution after approximately 70 days at sea.2 While a detention this long is rare, the article brought pressure on the Coast Guard and SouthCom to reduce the number of days detainees spend on board.
An amendment to the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act in December 2017 that allows suspects to be tried in any U.S. federal court district helped reduce the delay in landing detainees.3 However, travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic again increased the time detainees spend on deck, and pressure remains to reduce this delay. Unfortunately, given the distances involved in the eastern Pacific, without additional support, cutters would need to come off station and spend days transiting to deliver each batch of detainees ashore.
An oiler provides a relatively low-cost alternative for transporting detainees. Imagine a T-AKE or allied oiler that stages out of Panama with a Coast Guard law enforcement detachment and either a Coast Guard or a Navy armed helicopter on board. The helicopter, although primarily intended to provide vertical replenishment capability, also could be an interdiction asset, if needed.
Departing Panama, the oiler could make a loop through the eastern Pacific, providing fuel, food, and parts to ships on station, while also collecting detainees. At completion of the loop, the oiler would return to Panama and meet Department of Justice officials for a regularly scheduled transfer of detainees, then restock and commence another loop. This would reduce the burden of guarding detainees for minimally manned crews (most cutters engaged in counter-drug operations have crews of 100 or fewer) and enable SouthCom and the Coast Guard to demonstrate the nation’s priority to get suspects ashore and into the justice system as quickly as possible.
Oilers are a force multiplier in any theater, but the unique missions of SouthCom provide an opportunity for auxiliaries to contribute to the fight in additional ways. These relatively low-cost ships could significantly improve the effectiveness of the ships on the front lines in the war against TCOs in the Western Hemisphere while improving Coast Guard proficiency in critical skills.
1. U.S. Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement (CG-MLE), FY2020 Annual Interdiction Report.
2. Seth Wessler, “Floating Guantanamos,” New York Times Magazine, 20 November 2017.
3. 46 U.S. Code Ch. 705, “Maritime Drug Law Enforcement,” §70504, “Jurisdiction and Venue.”