Political leaders must grapple with a critical but dangerously inadequate military capability: The U.S. Navy lacks adequate organic heavy-lift capacity. At present, it must rely on foreign commercial vessel contracts to retrieve large ships damaged at sea. In conflict, it is questionable whether the Navy will be able to count on commercial semisubmersibles to transport damaged ships or support battle damage repair (BDAR) near the fight. The Navy’s ability to restore combat power swiftly will be a contributing factor in a fight with China, but without organic capacity, that capability will be lacking.
In the world of cargo-carrying vessels, heavy-lift semisubmersible vessels are exotic. Only about 62 exist in a global cargo fleet of nearly 58,000 ships. The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) classifications define heavy-lift vessels as “specially designed and equipped to load/unload heavy deck cargoes by temporarily submerging, ballasting the vessel beyond the load lines and enabling load and transportation of cargoes.” Put more simply: These are float-on and float-off ships. ABS also notes that they are used primarily as an alternative to towing when towing is not economically feasible or the damaged vessel lacks watertight integrity. For new construction of such ships, ABS uses the building and classing standards for “Floating Dry Docks for Heavy-lift Ships.”1 These standards emphasize deck-strength requirements not otherwise incorporated in the design for cargo vessels.
Without organic assets to support heavy lift, the United States must rely on contracting with foreign-flagged shipowners to transport its ships to U.S. shipyards. In recent decades, the Navy has needed foreign heavy-lift semisubmersibles to transport the USS Cole (DDG-67), Fitzgerald (DDG-62), John S. McCain (DDG-56), and other ships following accidents, terrorist attacks, and battle damage. The foreign-flagged Dockwise Mighty Servant II carried the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) from the Persian Gulf in 1988 after an Iranian mine exploded, leaving a 21-foot hole in her hull.2 The Maltese-flagged Dockwise MV Blue Marlin transported the Military Sealift Command vessel Sea-Based X-Band Radar from the East to the West Coast in 2006. Semisubmersible vessels have even been used to transport smaller naval vessels, including mine countermeasures (MCM) vessels and yard tugboats.
By the mid-2000s, the worldwide commercial heavy-lift industry had consolidated, leaving two primary companies—Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V. (Boskalis) in the Netherlands and the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) Heavy Transport, managed from Houston, Texas. In the 1990s and 2000s, as new heavy-lift companies were formed, Boskalis or its predecessor, Dockwise, rapidly acquired them. As a result, Boskalis and COSCO will monopolize the heavy-lift market for the foreseeable future. Moreover, this consolidating market has given China an edge. During this period, COSCO has continued to build heavy-lift vessels. COSCO—and by extension, China’s government—therefore now boasts the world’s largest heavy-lift fleet. Policy-makers in the United States and partner nations must consider whether they are comfortable with this imbalance.
How Industry Does It
The cruise industry is driven not by a warfighting requirement but by profit. Local industrial repair facilities with capacity are imperative for a thriving maritime industry. Carnival and most other Caribbean cruise companies use the Grand Bahama Shipyard for repairs. When local facilities are not available, the cruise industry must improvise.
In 2019, the Carnival Vista, Carnival Cruise Line’s second-largest ship, needed repairs on its azipod thrusters. Every day out of normal operation cost Carnival nearly a million dollars.
The repair required dry-docking, which was scheduled to take place in July. Unfortunately, on 2 April 2019, while the Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas was in dock #2, the shipyard’s largest floating dry dock, a catastrophic failure of the dock and crane severely damaged both the ship and the dock itself. Carnival was forced to use the heavy-lift ship Boskalis BOKA Vanguard for emergency dry-docking.2 Had Carnival not done so, the ship would have had to transit to a shipyard thousands of miles away. Carnival told investors it would take 17 days and cost more than $50 million to execute the repair in Galveston, Texas.
The influence of China and other adversaries across commercial sectors—and the resulting ability for China to shape policy—must be factored into how the United States shapes its force. Chinese investment will certainly limit access to resources in a conflict, and a Dutch company may not want to contract with the U.S. Navy for a war that does not involve the Netherlands. Commercial industry could likewise compete for heavy-lift resources. Businesses have turned to heavy-lift ships to carry out emergent repairs when traditional dry-docking capabilities were unavailable.
The heavy-lift industry is composed of ships purpose-built for heavy lift and ships converted from tankers. Depending on industry conditions, used tankers converted to semisubmersibles can be more economical. In 2008, Dockwise began converting six single-hull tankers into semisubmersibles with capacities greater than 35,000 tons and deck areas of 60,000 square feet. China’s COSCO has converted the tanker Mako.
COSCO has five classes of heavy-lift ships, four with the capacity to handle People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) destroyers, replenishment ships, and auxiliaries. The delivery of the Xin Yao Hua in January 2022 elevated the Chinese Communist Party and COSCO’s semisubmersible heavy-lift fleet to the largest in the world.
The U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) operates two expeditionary transfer dock (ESD) ships that, with modifications, could serve as floating dry docks forward like the BOKA Vanguard. The ESDs, built by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO), were based on the Alaska polar crude oil tanker hull form.4 The heavy-lift ship MV Mighty Servant I was used as a test ship during the design phase for the ESD (previously the mobile landing platform, or MLP). The first-in-class USNS Montford Point (MLP-1/ T-ESD-1) was delivered to the Navy in May 2013.5 The ESD is a capable ship that can serve as a mobile sea base, acting as a pier to offload large roll-on/roll-off vessels and carrying cargo ashore with the three embarked landing craft, air cushion. ESDs displace 83,000 tons and can travel at speeds of 15 knots. The mission deck is 25,000 square feet, and the ship can carry 380,000 gallons of fuel.
Heavy-lift and forward-repair capabilities have been the backbone of modern naval campaigns. The Navy operationalized forward battle-damage repair in World War II at Ulithi Atoll, among other locations. Admiral Chester Nimitz, suffering from insomnia, pored over charts of the western Pacific. One night, he found the tiny atoll of Ulithi.6 In September 1944, the 323d Regimental Combat Team from the 81st Division captured Ulithi nearly unopposed. For the next seven months, Ulithi was what is now termed an afloat forward staging base supporting all five vectors of maritime sustainment (repair, revive, resupply, refuel, and rearm), as well as rest and relaxation. Following the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet anchored in the Ulithi lagoon. The Navy towed three large and four small dry docks to Ulithi from the United States. An advance base sectional dock, ABSD-2, was anchored in Ulithi lagoon and was supported by 6,000 welders and pipefitters.7 Forward deploying floating dry docks would be a partial solution to the Navy’s gap in expeditionary battle damage and maintenance today.8
If heavy-lift ships were needed in a conflict with China, they should be located outside the second island chain in access-protected waters with adequate draft. These heavy-lift ships would be part of an afloat forward sea base, which would provide floating spare and repair parts, materials storage, and transportation—a staging point for small triage teams and repair planners.
Forward, from the Dock
From the western Pacific, transit time, repair, and shipyard capacity and access will challenge the ability to sustain ships forward in a conflict. The paucity of commercially available dry-dock facilities in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific to support repairs on combatants and larger MSC vessels will make seaborne heavy-lift and transport capability critical. The U.S. Navy needs organic heavy-lift capacity now and for future conflicts, but earlier this year, the Department of Defense released its proposed vessel decommissioning list, which included both ESDs, a decision that should be reconsidered.9
The U.S. defense industrial base lacks dry-dock capacity to support the Navy for maintenance and modernization.10 A 2018 Government Accountability Office report says the 17 U.S. Navy public dry docks require more than $4 billion to repair. According to the Navy, there are an additional 21 private dry docks that could be used, but only 7 are in the Pacific. Optimization of port loading and deferred maintenance will not suffice in wartime when emergent repairs and battle damage recovery demand urgency. Organic mobile floating dry docks should be considered to expand much-needed industrial capacity today with inherent capability should it be needed forward.
After 1943, the Pacific Fleet remained forward for the remainder of the war supported by ship repair and logistics assets. In Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil, Rear Admiral Worrall Reed Carter wrote: “Daring initiative has been a characteristic of American operations in both strategy and tactics. Our enemies have known the book doctrines as well as we, but they could not throw the book overboard and try something new as freely as we can.” The divestiture of repair capabilities has left the Navy with a gaping hole where expeditionary repair once existed. The Navy may not be able to depend on industry in the event of war, but it can learn from industry now to identify the means to effect battle damage repair. It cannot wait for the war to start to do so.
1. American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), “For Building and Classing Semisubmersible Heavy Lift Vessels,” Eagle.org.
2. “USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58),” Naval History and Heritage Command, 25 June 2019.
3. “Boskalis Heavy-Lift Ship Serves as Floating Dry-dock for Cruise Ship,” The Maritime Executive, 4 July 2019.
4. “Expeditionary Transfer Dock (ESD)/Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB),” naval-technology.com, 28 January 2022.
5. Naval Vessel Register, “USNS Montford Point (ESD-11),” 10 May 2022.
6. CAPT Michael A. Lilly, USN (Ret.), “How Nimitz Coped,” Naval History 36, no. 1 (February 2022); Todd Depastino, “Ulithi Atoll: The Tiny Speck of Land that Became the Largest Navy Base of World War II,” Veteransbreakfastclub.org.
7. Joris Nieuwint, “The Massive Floating Dry Docks of the Pacific Fleet That Could Carry Battleships and Aircraft Carriers You Never Heard About,” War History Online, 26 September 2015.
8. MIDN Liam Nawara, USN, “Revive Expeditionary Battle Damage Repair Squadrons,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 3 (March 2022).
9. Megan Eckstein, “U.S. Navy Reveals Ships Facing Potential Decommissioning Next Year,” Defense News, 4 April 2022.
10. Christopher Cedros, “Distributed Lethality and the Importance of Ship Repair,” The Strategy Bridge, 14 February 2017.