Will Black-Hulled Ships Become the U.S. Navy’s New Best Friend?

jhsv rail gun
JHSV with installed railgun. Rendering courtesy Office of the Chief of Naval Operations

Fiscal austerity is here to stay, commented Rear Admiral Thomas Shannon, Commander of the United States Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) while speaking at a meeting of the Washington, DC Propeller Club recently.  “It’s our new reality.”

Despite this reality, global demand for US naval presence remains high. Maritime forces continue to face challenges and adversaries ranging from traditional roles such as counter-piracy and maintaining open trade routes to unique challenges such as the disposal of chemical weapons from Syria.

Meanwhile, “every week, without exception we are under attack.” notes Shannon.

MSC isn’t being fired upon in a literal sense. Admiral Shannon’s battles are political and budgetary in nature and he remarked that his influence on Capitol Hill carries significantly less weight than lobby groups representing high profile acquisitions like the Joint Strike Fighter, submarines, or Ford-class aircraft carriers.

But yet, Admiral Shannon’s fleet of MSC vessels may find themselves playing an increasingly vital role in future maritime operations around the globe.

Fortunately, the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert shares his vision, according to his spokesman CAPT Danny Hernandez. Greenert notes that the world we live in today needs some slightly different vessels and platforms – some that are lower cost, innovative and effective – to augment forcible entry platforms.

In a recent address to the annual Surface Navy Association, CNO Greenert remarked that the flotilla of Navy ships dispatched for the Maersk Alabama incident – which included the amphibious ship Boxer, destroyer Bainbridge and frigate Halyburton – could have been swapped for a new, MSC operated Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV). These innovative platforms offer a fast, flexible response tailored to the mission, freeing those other surface combatants for missions better suited to what their design.

usns john glenn mlp 2
The Military Sealift Command mobile landing platform USNS John Glenn (MLP 2) on builders trials on Jan. 9, 2014. Image: U.S. Navy

“Ships of the future need to evolve a little bit,” said Greenert, “everything can’t be a cruiser or destroyer teemed with missiles, guns and everything.”

And why should they?

There are plenty of highly capable MSC black-hulled vessels crewed by U.S. mariners who graduate from institutions like the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who have the experience, dedication, and desire to serve.  The cost of these mariners and their vessels are a bargain when compared to operating expensive U.S. grey-hulled warships that typically have several times more personnel.

Shannon illustrates this with an example of a U.S. Navy frigate operating in the Mediterranean with 170 sailors onboard participating in a reconnaissance mission.  One of the Navy’s destroyers, carrying upwards of 250 personnel, is fulfilling a similar mission off Somalia.

That’s 420 paychecks Shannon feels could be replaced with two MSC ships, reducing the daily operating cost to U.S. taxpayers by perhaps 90 percent. Not only that, but, as every sailor in the U.S. Navy’s fleet is aware, Combatant Commanders demand assets in today’s unstable world.

“We can do some pretty cool stuff off these black hulls,” commented Shannon.

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Other ideas Shannon floated to the crowd included turning a roll-on roll-off vessel into a destroyer tender by adding modularized intermediate maintenance facilities to the vessel.  The M/V Cape Ray, he notes, was transformed into a factory to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in a 60-day period.  It departed last week from Norfolk to carry out its mission.

v-22 osprey military sealift command
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Feb. 9, 2012) An MV-22 Osprey makes a historic first landing aboard the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE 5). (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Michael Sheehan)

Perhaps instead of a maintenance facility, a hospital package could be added in order to transform the vessel into a hospital ship that can be sent to littoral areas unreachable by the current Comfort-class ships.

The Austal-built JHSV highlights the versatile nature of these black hulls.  Recently embarked on her maiden deployment, a railgun will be installed by 2016 to demonstrate capabilities.  Possibilities are endless when you consider the potential to utilize these vessels to launch unmanned vehicles.

Looking further to the future, it may even be possible to launch a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from an Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB).

The key to it all Shannon says, is “get it out there.”  “I don’t care what it was designed to do, I want creative ideas that show the U.S. military what these ships CAN do.”

New MSC ships like the MLP, AFSB, and JHSV have a range of mission possibilities limited only by the creativity of those developing the concept of operations for use.  These ships are far more than ‘piers-at-sea’ and reflect a tremendous opportunity to take on missions like counter-piracy, special warfare, and reconnaissance, while more costly assets like destroyers perform sea control missions requiring their impressive – and expensive – array of combat systems.

In an era of fiscal austerity, it would be foolish not to fully utilize these very capable assets.

But, it’s not just about the ships themselves; the U.S. merchant mariner is also an important consideration.  Admiral Shannon notes that our mariners are critical component of black hull ships, but even that could be expanded. “Perhaps we could assign merchant mariners to work in the engine rooms on board amphibious warfare vessels.”

While the possibilities seem endless, the reality of the MSC fleet paints a different picture; 20 ships are in reduced operating status and another 46 are in the ready reserved fleet in a reduced operating status.

The first Mobile Landing Platform, USNS Montford Point, was commissioned in 2013 and is currently at Vigor Industrial’s shipyard. An impressive ship with a design based on the commercial Alaska-class crude oil carrier, it leverages float-on/float-off technology to ballast, facilitating movement of cargo and craft.  With her open, reconfigurable mission deck and enormous potential to serve in a wide variety of maritime operations, Montford Point should have a bright future.  Yet, she is destined for Diego Garcia, where Shannon laments she’ll spend much of her time anchored for the foreseeable future.

The second Mobile Landing Platform, John Glenn, was christened on Saturday at GD-NASSCO shipyard in San Diego.  Shannon notes that current plans call for MLP-2 to immediately be put into a reduced operating status.

According to CAPT Hernandez, it is not the CNO’s expectation for these ships to operate in a reduced status; other options are currently being explored.

This lends hope for future integration of the U.S. black and grey hulled fleets. The current shipbuilding plan calls for 10 Joint High Speed vessels, two Mobile Landing Platforms and two Afloat Forward Staging Bases.  These innovative new platforms provide promise for both the MSC and U.S. Navy.

If Rear Admiral Shannon and Admiral Greenert have their way, the Montford Point and her fellow black-hulled ships will be up for a far more interesting future.

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