U.S. Military Sealift Command commanders overseeing the U.S Transportation Command’s recent turbo activation are providing new details about the large-scale “stress test” exercise involving dozens of reserve ships and hundreds of civilian mariners.
Five of Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) East Coast-based and one West Coast-based surge sealift ships participated in the turbo activation, along with 28 vessels in the Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Fleet.
The East Coast-based MSC vessels involved in the exercise included USNS Benavidez (T-AKR 306), USNS Gilliland (T-AKR 298), USNS Mendonca (T-AKR 303), USNS PFC Eugene A. Obregon (T-AK 3006), and USNS SGT Matej Kocak (T-AK 3005). On the West Coast, MSC’s USNS Fisher (T-AKR 301) supported the exercise.
The large-scale turbo activation, ordered by U.S. Transportation Command September 16, was designed as a stress test of MSC and MARAD surge sealift fleet, ensuring that the ships can transition from reduced operating status to fully crewed and operating status with just 5-days notice. The activations are then followed by immediate sea trials.
“The turbo activation was an exercise to prove that the material readiness and crews’ skill level of our surge sealift ships make it possible to respond to world events on a short notice,” said Commander Vincent D’Eusanio, the tactical advisor (TACAD) aboard USNS PFC Eugene A. Obregon and the MSC TACAD program manager. “We had to know if our ships would be capable of delivering supplies and equipment to our deployed troops serving overseas, when required.”
MSC’s and MARAD’s reserve fleets, collectively referred to as the surge sealift fleet, are expected to be a ready source of shipping and transportation of cargo, equipment and supplies to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.
“The biggest thing that was different about this exercise than those we have done in the past was the sheer number of ships which got underway,” said Capt. Hans Lynch, Military Sealift Command Atlantic’s commodore and the exercise’s East Coast officer in charge. “The turbo activation was a really good test for the union halls’ ability to provide enough civilian mariners to get all the ships underway simultaneously.”
During the activation exercise, Lynch was in command of 17 MSC and MARAD ships, which activated off the East Coast. On the West Coast, Captain Gabe Varela, the MSC Pacific commodore, was in command of 11 MSC and MARAD ships.
Nationally, a total of 33 surge sealift ships activated for the turbo activation, making it the largest peacetime activation in the history the surge sealift fleet.
“The exercise was also a good test for our certifying authorities, the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard, to see if they would be able to attend to all of the vessels at the same time,” Lynch added. “The other concern was bringing aboard technicians and subject matter experts needed to get the ships to sea, short notice. Everyone did really well. None of the ships had major issues due to not being able to be inspected or getting people required to the vessels.”
“If there were a situation, such as war or a humanitarian crisis, and the Navy needed to provide logistical support overseas, our surge sealift ships would, come out of reduced operating status, be ‘crewed-up,’ inspected for material readiness and sail to a designated port to on-load cargo,” added D’Eusanio. “The ship would then sail overseas to our deployed forces and deliver the equipment and supplies required for the mission.”
The East Coast underway portion of the turbo activation included five MSC ships rendezvousing at a designated location in the North Atlantic Ocean on September 24 to execute tactical formation maneuvers designed to prevent enemy attacks on a convoy.
“When our ships are sailing in a contested environment, the threats they could face are evolving all the time,” Lynch said. “The biggest threats we face include hostile submarines and mines, and these are the threats we were training for during the turbo activation.”
“We were also training the crews to sail their ships as quietly as possible to counter electromagnetic ship’s signatures because our vessels also could face anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles fighter aircraft and enemy bombers,” he added.
Each of MSC’s surge sealift ships sailed with a TACAD, who are surge sealift officers (SSO), and surface warfare officers (SWO). They serve as the critical liaisons between Navy leadership and the civilian mariners who crew the ships, according to the Navy.
“The TACAD program is a relatively new concept, but it is based off of years of experience and past lessons learned,” said D’Eusanio. “During World War II we lost lots of merchant ships and mariners. Some of this was a result of not knowing how to sail a merchant ship in a hostile environment. When the Navy began to train mariners to counter threats, like German U-boats, our losses dwindled.”
“In 2017, MSC initiated its TACAD program,” he said. “Our TACADs are Navy reservists. We employ our TACADs aboard MSC’s civilian mariner crewed ships to educate and inform them about how to sail in a contested environment. We answer questions, provide tactical advice and facilitate communications with the combatant fleet allowing our mariners to successfully operate in unfriendly waters.”
Most of MSC’s TACADs are Navy reservists who sail as civilian mariners in their careers. D’Eusanio is a licensed chief engineer for the Staten Island Ferry when not mobilized for the Navy.
“The SSO forces are civilian mariners by nature; the majority of them having graduated with their U.S. Coast Guard licensing from one of our maritime academies,” according to D’Eusanio. “So having one of our SSO Naval reservist walk aboard one of our ships, and speak with the crew while in uniform, helps to set the tone and bring credibility to the program. The additional support we bring to the table has been very well received by the mariners.”
“The biggest contribution of our TACADs was that they brought reliable and secure means of communicating between the ships,” added Lynch. “They are not more experienced than our mariners but they possess a solid military background which allows them to interact better between the ships’ crews and the active duty military and the combatant fleet.”
While MSC’s surge sealift ships completed the turbo activation with TACADs, the MARAD vessels completed all of their evolutions without military advisors, according to Lynch.
“We really need to continue to apply energy to the TACAD program,” Lynch continued. “I think we need to expand what they are being exposed to. During the turbo activation, they focused on the surge sealift fleet. But I think there is value in them getting out and exposed to other platforms and the combatant ships and aircraft, to better understand what they bring to the table and broaden their experience.”
The day before to the simulated convey formation, each ship conducted independent training designed to strengthen the crews’ ability to sail in environments impacted by enemy threats such as torpedoes and mines.
According to D’Eusanio, each East-Coast based ship was required to establish secure communications with the exercise flagship, USNS Benavidez, and act on guidance and direction provided by Lynch.
Additionally, the ships’ bridge teams sailed their ships through a simulated mine field, established ‘darken ship,’ and ensured there was no unauthorized transmissions emanated from personal devices such as cellular phones and laptop computers.
“The service members and mariners who conducted the turbo activation did great,” Lynch said. “The mariners who sailed aboard the MSC ships had performed similar training evolutions in the past so they were familiar with the requirements and executed very well. All of the people who were in command and control of the exercise were Navy reservists, and they did fantastic as well.”
Before the tactical, at-sea portion of the exercise, each ship completed ‘sea trials,’ which were designed to inspect the vessels’ material readiness and ability to be crewed and able to get underway on a shortened time-line. The sea trials inspection began September 16, upon commencement of the activation, while the ships were still in port.
Prior to getting underway, each ship tested its generators and auxiliary systems, main engines, mission essential cargo gear, secure communications systems and platform habitability.
“The first step of the turbo activation was to notify the ships and shipping companies who crew these ships that the ships would be getting underway and when they were scheduled to leave,” D’Eusanio said. “For USNS PFC Eugene A. Obregon, the ship was in reduced operating status five, which meant the ship had five days to be ready to go. During the five days, the ship brought aboard the full crew, got the engines up and running, and made sure that all of their deck gear was ready to go.”
“The ship’s crew on USNS PFC Eugene A. Obregon was phenomenal,” said D’Eusanio. “A big part of our successful underway is a testament to the mariners who crew the ship while it is in reduced operating status. They have kept this ship’s material readiness at a level which allows the ship to be activated.”
Once underway, the ships performed an eight-hour operational speed run, an anchor windless underway test, a bow thruster test, distilling plant test and a test of the ships’ steering systems.
“I felt like this exercise was a success,” said D’Eusanio. “We got all five of our ships underway, on short notice, and met all of our requirements.”
Each of MSC’s ships that sailed off the East Coast, were crewed by approximately 30 civilian mariners employed by Crowley, Ocean Shipholdings Inc. or U.S. Marine Management Inc. The mariners’ responsibilities aboard these surge sealift ships include propulsion, navigation, culinary services and deck department requirements.
The overall turbo activation included approximately 500 mariners, according to MSC.
“I felt like the underway went really well,” said John Ratcliffe, USNS PFC Eugene A. Obregon’s chief mate. “Our critical equipment all worked, as it was supposed to, and the training our mariners received was realistic and effective.”
“I think that this turbo activation was just the beginning,” concluded Lynch. “I hope that we continue doing these exercises. From a material readiness perspective, these ships are 40-plus years, so I think it is important that we continue to test this capability and perhaps perform even longer and more comprehensive testing and see how these ships will perform.”