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Navy oiler tanker at night

The replenishment oiler USNS Pecos steams alongside amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard during a fueling in the East China Sea, Feb. 28,2017. The Richard is in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, serving as a forward-capability for any type of contingency. Navy photo by Diana Quinlan

Replenishing Controversy: The US Navy’s New Tanker Program

John Konrad
Total Views: 6885
April 20, 2023

By John Konrad (gCaptain) A Congressional Research Study update by Ronald O’Rourke shows the US Navy has earmarked $8.8 million in research and development funding for a new light tanker capable of underway replenishment.

In an era of escalating global tensions, the Navy’s Light Replenishment Oiler (TAOL) program, previously known as the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) program, is a contentious part of the Navy’s pivot to the Pacific. This program aims to develop a new class of smaller, allegedly cost-efficient at-sea resupply ships. However, it raises questions about the necessity and feasibility of introducing this new class of vessels.

This ambitious endeavor comes at a time when the Navy is grappling with a changing geopolitical landscape. Countries like China are bolstering their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, forcing the United States to consider new strategies. The TAOL ships are designed to support emerging naval tactics, such as the Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and US Marine Corps tactics like Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO).

The DMO and EABO doctrines, which aim to disperse U.S. naval assets and reduce their vulnerability to enemy strikes, demand a new approach to logistics. The Light Replenishment Oilers is touted by the Navy as the solution, meant to deliver essential supplies to combatant ships at sea while enabling them to remain operational without returning to port. Yet, there are concerns about whether these smaller vessels will be adequate to meet the Navy’s logistical needs.

These ships could take years to build and, because they have no missile defense systems, are vulnerable to enemy attack so it remains to be seen whether they will indeed prove effective in addressing these new challenges. This program also falls far short of the Department of Defense’s projected need on the order of one hundred tankers of various sizes in the event of a serious conflict in the Pacific. The DoD currently has access it can count on – assured access – to less than ten. Not only does the U.S. lack the tonnage required to support a major conflict in the Pacific, it has no identifiable roadmap to obtain it

Currently, the Navy relies on the John Lewis (TAO-205) class oilers, massive Military Sealift Command ships that come with a significant price tag of over $800 million per vessel. In contrast, the TAOL program is set to create a supposedly more nimble and cost-effective alternative, with the first ship slated for procurement in FY2026 at a comparatively modest $150 million. However, the cost savings may not justify the potential drawbacks of these smaller vessels, and Navy shipbuilding program costs often far exceed early estimations.

In an age of budgetary constraints, the TAOL program’s focus on efficiency and adaptability is admirable. However, the shift toward a more distributed fleet architecture raises questions about how the U.S. Navy will balance innovation demands with the need for fiscal responsibility, how they will be defended, and if enough of these ships will be ordered to fill the sizable tanker capability gap.

Also read: The US Navy Needs Tankers: A Crisis In Capability By Captain Stephen M. Carmel

An additional concern is that these ships are primarily designed to refuel Navy warships, not to deliver fuel to remote US Air Force (USAF) airbases dispersed throughout the Pacific, where it may be needed the most (the USAF currently uses over 60% of the Pentagon’s fuel budget). Although US Transportation Command, the military command responsible for aviation fuel delivery, is led by four-star USAF commander General Jacqueline Van Ovost—who has advocated for new ocean tankers—the USAF has been relatively silent on the need for such vessels. The Army is also silent on this issue. This need has become particularly relevant following events like the Nord Stream explosion and the Colonial Pipeline cyber attack, which exposed the vulnerabilities of fixed pipelines in times of conflict.

The US Navy itself is also out of touch with this broader tanker requirement. In highly concerning congressional testimony yesterday Representative Chris Deluzio asked Admiral John Aquilino, who serves as commander of all military forces in the Indian and Pacific (INDOPACOM) region how US sealift compares to that of China.

“In terms of Sealift, we have a distinct advantage over the PLC in both numbers and capabilities,” said Admiral Aquilino.

But sealift experts like Dr. Sal Mercogliano claim this statement is wrong not just in regards to tankers but also other sealift ships necessary to sustain a war.

“We have only bought two 25 year old ro/ros as part of Sealift Recapitalization,” said Mercogliano in response to the admiral’s testimony. “We have lost three five former USMC prepositioning ships, two converted LMSRs and probably two more plus the two new ships are not yet in service.”

As the TAOL program moves forward, Congress must grapple with these complexities. They will have to weigh the potential benefits of the relatively small Light Replenishment Oilers – which have no self-defense weapon systems – against the much larger need for ocean tankers and US Merchant Mariners to crew them.

Ultimately, the TAOL program is much needed but remains a risky gamble for the U.S. Navy. As the world enters a new era of maritime competition, it remains to be seen whether these smaller newcomers will indeed be the key to maintaining America’s dominance on the high seas or just act as a tiny bandaid to the problem.

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