Tag Archives: Logistics

Unmanned Units Need Tenders for Distributed Operations

Unmanned Maritime Systems Topic Week

By Griffin Cannon

Over the past few years the United States Navy has slowly come to the realization that it must once more prepare to contest control of the world’s oceans, particularly the vast expanse of the Pacific, against peer state competitors. Simultaneously, technological developments have allowed the development of new types of warships, namely unmanned vessels, that will present new opportunities as well as new challenges to the force. Looking to the past, the precedent of the Pacific War, in which fleet tenders provided engineering support to a mobile fleet, suggests a path forward. Basing a support and sustainment model for Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) on 21st century tenders would both fulfill the unique support needs of USVs and help build the ability to fight and deter a war in the Pacific. This analysis will briefly discuss the role tenders played in the Pacific War, why tenders are the ideal model for sustaining USV units, then turn to what modern USV tenders should look like.

Tenders as Force Multipliers

Needless to say, the Pacific War began poorly for the United States. Not only was the bulk of the battleship fleet smashed at Pearl Harbor but forward bases in the Philippines also fell to the Japanese faster than expected. The fleet that would ultimately fight its way to the Japanese home islands would have to do so through rapidly constructed forward bases, fleet anchorages, and the constant efforts of fleet auxiliaries. Tankers and supply ships helped extend patrols, but for ships with little ability to repair themselves, engineering support was required.

Here was the role of the tender. In addition to basic sustainment needs, the submarine, seaplane, and destroyer tenders were in effect mobile naval bases, capable of deploying to underdeveloped anchorages throughout the theater. They would conduct practically any repair job short of those that required drydocking, serve as administrative centers for squadrons, and also provided respite from the cramped conditions of smaller warships.1 Rather than steaming back to Pearl Harbor or the West Coast, ships could be based, supported, and repaired just behind the frontlines. This allowed the United States Navy to generate far more presence with far fewer ships than would otherwise have been the case. Tenders helped make up for the early lack of major regional bases, and supplemented the bases that were eventually constructed.

While forthcoming USV designs have little in common with WWII-era submarines, seaplanes, destroyers, and PT boats, all share the relative inability to self-repair underway. Although the lack of crew on an unmanned warship does eliminate some of the constraints that come with providing for humans, it significantly limits the ability of the vessel to endure the accidents and mechanical failures a warship is bound to experience at sea, let alone damage from enemy action.

A tender would provide the operationally flexible engineering support that will be uniquely vital to USVs (and indeed UUVs as well). Being able to turn around a damaged USV from a nearby bay or island saves days lost in transit to regional basing hubs and lightens the load on those facilities substantially.

Indeed, the burden on shore facilities is poised to increase significantly. Looking at the numbers even briefly suggests that with the sacrifice of just two large surface combatants, one could acquire scores of unmanned surface vessels. The Sea Hunter prototype for example costs a reported $23 million dollars.2 Assuming a larger version with integrated weapons would cost between four and five times more, an even $100 million, one could still acquire 16 for the same price as a DDG.3 While the costs of unmanned platforms will vary wildly based on size, mission, and complexity, it is reasonable to expect the costs of such platforms to stay at least one, perhaps two orders of magnitude below those of the large manned platforms the Navy is accustomed to. If certain missions required (or would allow for) small, simple, and expendable single-purpose vessels, it might even be possible to reduce cost per platform an order of magnitude further. Regardless of the exact numbers, if anything resembling these price ratios continues, one should expect quite a number of these types of warships to begin populating the Navy inventory over the course of the next decade or two. The logistical backbone of the fleet must adapt in parallel.

Any large expansion of the unmanned force will thus necessarily increase the demand on existing basing facilities. Even leaving aside space concerns, the increased demand for maintenance facilities and man-hours would be substantial. Rather than concentrating still more sustainment capabilities at two or three major bases, it would be safer, though less efficient in some respects, to concentrate USV sustainment capabilities on tenders that would be able to replenish and affect repairs on the vessels at locations across the theater.4 Rather than rely on existing bases or build new ones to support a large USV force, placing sustainment and repair afloat will both keep USVs ready and do so in an operationally flexible manner.

While such a model might be possible for manned assets, it is uniquely practicable for unmanned platforms. This is because, unsurprisingly, USVs have no crews. There would be no shore leave, no fresh food deliveries, and when not underway unmanned vessels could drift afloat or sit anchored in protected waters, waiting. When routine maintenance is required, the supporting tender could rendezvous with the USV in question, anchor for a few days if needed, and be on its way. Friendly military and civilian ports, bays, atolls, or perhaps even the open seas if conditions permit, all could hold dispersed USVs and their tenders.

Dispersing both the tender and the supported USVs would reduce both the ability and the incentive for adversaries to strike first in a crisis. Rather than present concentrated targets of double or triple berthed warships vulnerable to preemptive strikes, a dispersed force creates uncertainty for potential adversaries.5 Even if one could reliably disrupt regional hubs such as Guam, Yokohama, and Sasebo, a tender and USV force permanently dispersed across the Western Pacific would be hard to locate, let alone reliably strike in an opening salvo. Not only would warships be harder to strike in the first place, distributed logistics would allow those vessels that survived the first wave to stay in the fight indefinitely. The ambiguity this creates in the mind of the adversary is the bedrock of deterrence and a core advantage of distributed maritime operations.

Tender Requirements

Turning now to the requirements for a modern USV tender, it should first be noted that the reasons given above for a tender sustainment model for USVs hold true regardless of displacement or mission. There will however be substantial variation in requirements for a tender based on the supported platform. One should also note that the Navy currently has two submarine tenders in inventory that were originally commissioned in the 70s. These vessels however are allocated to an existing mission and will be retired in 2029 and 2030, respectively.6

All notional USV tenders would require engineering spaces capable of the traditional welding, fabrication, and machining functions of the tender. New 3D printing technologies would ideally save space and increase efficiency, but the degree of utilization would depend more on the design of the tended than the tender. There should also be substantial flexibility and a slight overcapacity in facilities that would provide a degree of future-proofing, allowing the tender to support a range of rapidly evolving USV designs. Additionally, if a tender model of sustainment were adopted, future USV designs should take the capabilities of tenders into account and use parts and materials that would allow for rapid repair and replacement by these vessels.

As for variation based on USV type, larger unmanned platforms would probably require support much closer to that provided by existing submarine tenders while emphasizing the capability to perform such duties at a broad range of locations. These vessels should be expected to conduct all maintenance short of drydock work, keeping a large number of deployed, patrolling vessels ready for combat. In the Pacific War, a dozen or more vessels were supported by a single tender.7 Unless testing shows that the unmanned nature of large USVs radically changes the rate at which they will require maintenance, a similar ratio, if somewhat lower, should be expected. Additionally, given the relatively large volume of these vessels, carrying fuel or weapon reloads for more than a handful would probably necessitate either excessively large tenders or frequent replenishment of the tender itself. Thus, these types should be refueled and rearmed through the traditional methods, primarily oilers and ports, rather than trying to push these capabilities onto the tender. The large USV tender would also be required to reposition periodically, both to support a broadly dispersed force and to avoid easy targeting. While it would need the internal fuel to conduct frequent repositioning, the vessel itself need not be exceptional in terms of speed or self-defense.

Medium and small USV tenders would behave differently. These vessels should act more like a mothership than a floating maintenance facility. Given the smaller displacement of the vessels supported, replenishment would be both more feasible for a tender of reasonable displacement, as well as more regularly required. Support would likely be required somewhat further forward, probably more frequently at austere locations than the larger USV tender, and potentially in areas of elevated risk. Additionally, rearming and refueling may be a function of the small or medium USV tender. A handful of ASW torpedoes or small anti-ship missiles are easier to store and reload than even a small VLS bank. The shallower the magazine, the lesser the combat endurance of the platform. One might expect a large USV to go through an engagement or two without requiring rearming; a fast attack craft on the other hand, for whom a single salvo is its entire armament, becomes immediately combat ineffective after a single engagement. Rapidly turning around vessels such as these is essential to wringing as much combat power as possible from them. Finally, one can expect less redundancy on smaller vessels. Thus, the ability to rapidly repair and rearm, potentially far forward, will be all the more important for vessels tasked with tending these types. As for the tenders themselves, speed would be more important for vessels expected to maneuver closer to the enemy and basic self-defense weaponry would be advisable.


While the large-scale introduction of Unmanned Surface Vehicles will create problems for adversaries, it also creates logistical problems for the U.S. Navy. Rather than grafting a growing number of USVs onto the existing logistics infrastructure in the Pacific, adopting a tender model to support this force would better suit the platform and create a more agile, present, and lethal fleet. Whether tenders are large or small, ducking in and out of archipelagos to rearm small craft or conducting maintenance at unimproved anchorages, a reintroduction of the tender is needed to support emerging USVs.

Griffin Cannon is a budding navalist and graduating senior from the University of Notre Dame’s Security Studies program. He has interned with the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower in previous summers and will be working at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School this upcoming fall.


1. Akers, George CDR USNR. Tender Memories. Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 69/2/490, Dec 1943.

2. https://www.stripes.com/news/navy-s-revolutionary-sea-hunter-drone-ship-being-tested-out-of-pearl-harbor-1.555670

3. https://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/20pres/SCN_Book.pdf (Pg. 159)

4. https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/first-strike-chinas-missile-threat-to-u-s-bases-to-asia

5. Ibid

6. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan (FY 2020) states that the AS vessels will be replaced with an AS-(X), potentially a variant of the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP). While such a move would be advisable, replacing on a one for one basis creates no excess capacity to support a growing USV force, at least certainly not in the manner described in this article.

7. Coletta, Paolo CDR USNR. Destroyer Tender. Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 84/5/663. May, 1958

Featured Image: PEARL HARBOR (March 22, 2017) The Emory S. Land-class submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Released)

USNS Dreadnaught: A Combat Logistics Force for 21st Century Warfare

By Chris O’Connor 

The Future Capital Ship

During a recent CIMSEC topic week, the idea of the “Future Capital Ship” was discussed. This hypothetical asset was depicted several different ways that week. Transplanting the idea of the twentieth century battleship or aircraft carrier to the near future, this conceptual combatant could be bristling with railguns and directed energy weapons, in lieu of an “all big gun” dreadnaught’s armament. It could also be the mothership to many cross-domain unmanned systems, an update to the aircraft carrier archetype. Some viewed “capital ships” of the future as swarms of unmanned systems operating autonomously, a complete disruption in naval warfare akin to the first dreadnaught – eliminating the need for a manned vessel entirely. 

Taking a different route, the organizational investment that was put into the capital ships of the past could be applied in a way that transcends the idea of physical warfighting platforms. The CNO Strategic Studies Group 35 used that thought experiment to point out that the Navy of the future should treat the “Network of Humans and Machines” as the future capital ship. The argument was also well-made that investments in information warfare and cyber capabilities should be at the forefront, even to the extent that the U.S. Navy will eventually evolve into a cyber force with a maritime component.

These concepts are all deserving of consideration, and the future Navy will most likely be a combination of many of them, but the major foundation of naval power is usually an afterthought. The dominant Navy of the future will be the one with the most robust and adaptable logistics support structure needed to succeed in the future high-end fight as well as maintain command of the seas in peacetime through sustained global presence. 

Death of a Salesman

Aggressive recapitalization of the Combat Logistics Force (CLF) is needed because the Navy’s current logistics force structure is unprepared to support a distributed fleet in a fight against a peer competitor. There are fewer than 40 hulls in the CLF, a mix of oiler (AO and AOE) and dry cargo (AKE) supply ships of differing types. It is impossible employ them all at once, so the effective number of usable hulls is in fact lower for they require upkeep like every other vessel. They are incapable of defending themselves from anything other than limited numbers of lightly-armed small boats. This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that a limited number will be available to replenish shooters in the fight – if they can survive an area denial battlespace. In a high-end fight, they will become prime targets, and providing escorts to CLF assets only takes shooters away from the fight. But given the logistically-intensive nature of naval power projection, CLF ships will take on capital-ship value in a tightly contested conflict.

The force structure of CLF ships we have today is based off of their employment in the older model of hub-and-ferry routing, centered on specific ports in overseas Areas of Responsibilities (AORs). As the Navy moves toward fighting as a distributed fleet, it creates a complex variant of the travelling salesman problem (TSP). Familiar to anyone who has taken an operations analysis business course, TSP looks for the optimization of a route that passes through a set of points once each. Cities or houses in a neighborhood are often the problem set. In a disaggregated environment, a replenishment asset must do the same (if its customers have to stay in the fight), but the difficulty is compounded by the fact that the delivery locations will be moving targets and the distances between them will stretch around threatened areas and land masses. The academic TSP problem seldom includes the possibility of the salesman getting killed and never reaching the destination. In addition, naval assets are going to be limited to external lines of communication in some future conflicts. Ships will travel farther distances than their peers in the opposing force, leading to longer transit times between shore support and afloat customers.

CONOPs and Force Structure for Distributed Naval Logistics

Distributed naval warfare needs more “salesmen,” working together as an interconnected web of logistics assets. An enlarged fleet of combat support vessels is the base of this new support schema. Practically, this is easier done than asking for more warships. As we build a larger number of warships for the future, our military shipyards are going to reach capacity, especially if they continue to build platforms using conventional methods. New replenishment ships can be acquired in a number of ways, apart from dedicating some military shipyards to building replenishment vessels (which will take away from warship building capacity), or building them in foreign countries (which is politically unfeasible). There is a surplus of offshore support vessels (OSVs) that could be purchased and put into Military Sealift Command (MSC) service, along with other commercial vessels that could be modified for CLF purposes. Modified in smaller civilian shipyards instead of military ones, they could create work that would please the constituents of a number of decision-makers on Capitol Hill. Under new CONOPs, vessels such as OSVs could be employed in shorter range replenishments to independent deployers on missions such as antipiracy and ballistic missile defense.

HOS Arrowhead under way, date and location unknown (U.S. Navy photo via Navsource)

These additional CLF vessels will still be vulnerable, especially if kept in the current MSC construct as unarmed USNS assets. Risk of enemy attack will have to be built into the calculus of how these ships are employed. But giving them sufficient self-defense weapons and damage control resilience to survive being set upon by enemy platforms would be prohibitively expensive. A larger number of our vessels would create a targeting problem – they can service more combatants, operate from more ports, and inject uncertainty into the situational awareness of an adversary. In the current model, there are only a couple of CLF vessels operating in an AOR, and watching select ports will give plenty of indications of U.S. Navy presence. 

These ships can be augmented with automation to the level that is currently employed on commercial vessels, allowing MSC to man more ships with the same number of personnel. An AKE in current MSC service has approximately 130 personnel onboard, while there are thousands of commercial vessels afloat with crews numbering less than 30. At-sea replenishment creates demands for more personnel during alongside evolutions, but this could be mitigated with updating the CONREP (connected replenishment) stations with new equipment.  The receiving ship could guide the delivery ship’s systems remotely with short-range remote operation systems, supervised by a few merchantmen on the delivery ship. A fly-away crew could attend to this equipment only when needed, and not ride for long transits, or into harm’s way.

To reduce the threat profile of the manned CLF hulls, a system of smaller unmanned systems would create a web of logistical support. Cargo unmanned aerial systems (CUAS) will travel hundreds of miles point-to-point to deliver critical parts, instead of sailing entire vessels closer to get within VERTREP (vertical replenishment) range. They could carry parts for multiple customers and use aviation-capable ships as lily pads to get to others. Heavier lift CUAS could carry out VERTEP from unmanned CLF vessels to delivery ships, obviating the need for sailing alongside to transfer parts in a connected replenishment with a robotic vessel. These systems would be augmented by small unmanned surface vessels, possibly based off of the Sea Hunter Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), that could blend into surface traffic and make deliveries in battlespaces that are not conducive to aerial vehicles.

Arabian Sea (Nov. 11, 2003)  The guided missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64), top, and the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65), bottom, underway alongside the fast combat support ship USS Detroit (AOE 4) during a replenishment at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Douglas M. Pearlman)

There are a number of solutions to support problems that will also be needed in the Navy of the future. Digital investments will be needed to improve our logistics IT structure to create a more resilient and adaptable family of systems. Taken to the farthest extent, this would lead to Vertical Expert Systems (specialized AI), predicting demand through data analytics and optimizing the use of delivery assets. Additive Manufacturing will allow parts sourcing from many more locations than are currently available. Underway ships could eventually have the ability to make complex parts for their use or for other vessels that lack the technology. Fuel production from bacteria and “grow-tainer” produce farms could bring commodity sourcing much closer to the fight. Adoption of these technologies is important, but they do not eliminate the need for support to be physically delivered to our combatants anytime in the near future. 

Recognizing Priorities

The counterargument to a larger fleet of CLF hulls deserves to be heard. The Navy is looking toward a 355-ship force, and most of that plus-up number would be in warships. We want a lean Navy- with as little tooth-to-tail as possible, and the idea of buying more replenishment assets seems to be anathema to that. But the Navy must recognize it is unable to fight a long-term shooting war, especially in a disaggregated manner, with the current CLF force structure. A larger fleet of combatants only complicates this problem, especially since a majority of these shooters will be powered by liquid petroleum products that have to be brought to them.

To placate these concerns, these new vessels do not have to be single mission vessels, dedicated only to logistics. They could act as routers for line-of-sight transmissions, or even couriers of data packages between other platforms when they carry out their supply missions in a communications-restricted environment. They could seed sensors or deploy and recover unmanned systems in their transits. These missions could reduce the burden on warships and dedicated survey ships in peacetime and in war. 

A Worthy Investment

A successful future U.S. Navy will be comprised of innovatively designed combatants, with arsenals of new weaponry, employing cyberwarfare and unmanned systems to an extent that we can barely conceptualize now. They will still need a capital-ship level of investment in an interconnected web of logistics assets to fight against a peer adversary. The toilet paper, Diet Pepsi, and turbolaser parts have to come from somewhere.

Chris O’Connor is a Supply Corps officer in the United States Navy and a member of the CIMSEC Board of Directors. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense.

Featured Image: (Feb.12, 2015)  USNS Guadalupe (T-AO-200) delivers supplies to the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8), not pictured, during a nighttime vertical replenishment. (US Navy photo by MC1 Ronald Gutridge)

The US-India Logistics Agreement and its Implications for Asia’s Strategic Balance

The following article was originally featured by the Pacific Forum-CSIS’s PacNet series and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.           

By Abhijit Singh 

Recently, editorial columns in Indian newspapers have become a battleground for strategic commentators to debate the merits of India’s defense logistics pact with the United States. Despite a public declaration by the Indian government regarding the “non-military” nature of the Logistics Exchange Memoranda of Agreement (LEMOA), the pact hasn’t resonated favorably with a section of India’s strategic elite, who reject the idea of providing the US military with operational access to Indian facilities. New Delhi might have much to gain from the LEMOA, which could be critical in establishing a favorable balance of power in Asia.

The critics argue that the arrangement does not benefit India in the same way that it advantages the US military. As a leading Indian defense analyst put it, “the government seems to have been guided more by the fear of being accused of succumbing to pressure from Washington and less by an evaluation of whether this might benefit India’s military.” As a result, Indian defense ministry officials find themselves under pressure to explain why they believe an agreement with the US on military logistics is in India’s best interests.

New Delhi’s stock response has been that the pact is strictly “conditional,” and allows access to supplies and services to the military forces of both countries only when engaged in a specific set of predetermined activities. At a press conference in Washington after the signing of the agreement, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar was at pains to explain that the agreement has nothing to do with the setting up of a military base. “It’s only about logistics support to each other’s fleet” he averred, “like supply of fuel, supply of many other things which are required for joint operations, humanitarian assistance and many other relief operations.”

And yet there is little denying that in today’s maritime environment, every ‘place’ that provides logistics support essentially performs the role of a peacetime military base, albeit in limited ways. This is because operational logistics is the life-blood of contemporary maritime missions. Any ocean-going navy that can secure logistical pit-stops can guarantee itself a wider operational footprint in distant littorals. In fact, leading maritime powers, including the United States, Russia and China, are reluctant to set up permanent bases in distant lands because what they aim to achieve in terms of strategic presence is made possible through low-level repair and replenishment ‘places.’  To be sure, with over 800 foreign military installations, the US still has a globe-girdling presence, but few of its existing overseas facilities are permanent military bases.

To better appreciate why foreign military bases do not enjoy the same appeal as in earlier times, one must study the history of their evolution. The permanent naval base was a product of 19th-century politics when Britain, the leading maritime power, set up a network of military bases around the world to sustain its global supremacy. In the latter half of the 20th century, Britain was replaced by the United States, which soon came to dominate the world’s economic and strategic landscape. The US system of military bases consisted of several thousand installations at hundreds of basing sites in over 100 countries. The logic of the military basing system was intimately related to the dynamics of conflict. A military base was seen as a forward deployment position to enforce a denial regime on the enemy. It was a useful way of keeping the pressure on adversaries, and it allowed the US military to dominate the international system and prevent the rise of another hegemon.

But the logic of overseas bases has eroded. The absence of a real war in the intervening years has seen the law of diminishing returns kick in vis-à-vis foreign military bases, and an attenuation of their animating rationale. After struggling with rising domestic opposition to its military presence in Asia, the United States has been looking for more pragmatic options.

Since prolonged military presence on a foreign land isn’t a practical solution to any of its strategic problems, the US has been prioritizing logistics pacts that involve continuing support of rotational troops but no permanent deployments. These are variants of the “Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreements” (ACSAs) – or logistical arrangements for military support, supplies, and services (food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment) – that the United States shares with many of its NATO partners. And yet, despite being avowedly in support of peacetime operations and regional humanitarian contingencies, these pacts have not changed the public perception that US military presence overseas advance America’s imperialist ambitions.

A case in point is the recent Extended Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Manila, which provides the US military access to five military bases in Philippines. Even though the agreement was signed in 2014, strong domestic opposition within Philippines from civil rights groups resulted in a legal stalemate at the country’s Supreme Court. In January this year, when the court finally ruled in the pact’s favor, its decision seemed motivated mainly by the China-factor – the increased threat posed by China in the Philippines’ near-seas.

While the defense pact has a limited objective – enabling US troops to rotate through the Philippines, ensuring a persistent but intermittent presence – the new military facilities in Philippines aren’t expected to be any less potent than the United States’ erstwhile permanent bases in the country. The infrastructure will facilitate a spectrum of peacetime missions in the South China Sea, including training and capacity building, area patrols, aerial surveys, and fleet exercises. It will also enable the Philippines to call upon the US for critical military assistance in the event of a crisis.

The United States isn’t the only country to depend on military logistics pacts to achieve broader strategic objectives. Increasingly, China is resorting to the same means. The PLA’s logistical base at Djibouti doesn’t just provide support for China’s anti-piracy missions, but also enables a round-the-year naval presence in the Indian Ocean. What is more, China’s recent commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean Region seem more in the nature of dual-use bases, which can quickly be upgraded to medium-grade military facilities in a crisis.

New Delhi must come to terms with the fact that LEMOA’s utility lies in facilitating greater US-India operational coordination in Asia. Notwithstanding Parrikar’s assurances to the contrary, closer maritime interaction between India and the US will increasingly involve operational access to each other’s bases for strategic purposes. Even if the necessary cooperation is cleared on a case-by-case basis and driven mainly by regional capacity building and HADR needs, the Indian Navy and the US Navy might find themselves acting increasingly in concert to achieve common strategic objectives in the regional commons.

This does not mean LEMOA promotes US geopolitical interests at India’s expense. If anything, the pact empowers the Indian Navy to expand its own operations in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an aspiration that the Navy professed to recently when it released a map for public viewing that showed Indian naval deployments over the past 12 months, spread across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region.

Given the fraught nature of security in the Asian commons, India has been looking for ways to emphasize a rules-based order in the region. To consolidate its status as a crucial security provider, the Indian Navy will need to act in close coordination with the US Navy, the leading maritime power in Indo-Pacific, to ensure a fair, open, and balanced regional security architecture.

Abhijit Singh (abhijit.singh27@gmail.com), a former Indian naval officer, is Senior Fellow and Head, Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi. You can follow him on Twitter at @abhijit227.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks with Indian Naval Officers as he tours Indian Naval Station Karwar as part of a visit to the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, April 11, 2016. Carter is visiting India to solidify the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.(Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

Beans, Bullets, and Benzene: A Proposal for Distributing Logistics

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Elee Wakim

The days of majestic leviathans harnessing the power of the elements for propulsion to cruise the world’s navigable waters are long past. What has evolved are voracious beasts which tear across the world with little concern for all but the largest of wind and wave. The appetite of the engines that propel these vessels can only be satiated by a routine supply of petroleum. The United States Navy has established a global logistics network to feed this hunger, the backbone of which is a fleet of tankers, manned by the merchant mariners of the Military Sealift Command (MSC). Hand in hand with the ability to refuel the Navy’s ships is the ability to send fresh food, replacement parts, and ammunition to surface assets without the need to have them return to domestic ports and safe havens. This steady stream of supplies allows the United States to project power around the world. Given the importance of our MSC fleet, they will likely be a priority target in the opening stages of a conflict against a near-peer adversary. Given their vulnerability, these vessels will be faced with the prospect of withdrawing from the area of responsibility (AOR) or being sunk. Whatever the outcome, the cruisers, destroyers, and littoral combat ships at the tip of the spear will retain the requirement of contesting the battlefield until sufficient forces arrive in theater to relieve them. How then to supply these vessels and ensure they have what they need to do what is demanded of them? This paper seeks to address this concern and provide a possible solution to the disruption of our supply chain in the Western Pacific.

Distributing Logistics

One possible solution harkens back to the late 19th century, when nations desiring to project naval power around the world were confronted with a need for coaling stations to support their relatively short legged ships. The 21st century Navy, borrowing from this concept, could build a series of logistics hubs throughout the Western Pacific. These miniature logistics hubs could be built in small inlets, coves, and atolls – anywhere with sufficient draft to support our surface assets. They would function as temporary sanctuaries where thirsty ships could quickly gas up and resupply before turning around and returning to the fight. The infrastructure required to support this concept need not be excessive. A small tug, a fuel barge, and the personnel to man them would be the extent of the investment.

Depending on the potential threat (largely driven by its proximity of an adversary’s weapons systems, or lack thereof), the Navy could expand beyond the aforementioned bare necessities to provide additional support to its vessels. A runway could be constructed to allow for replacement ordnance or repair teams to be flown in.  To complement this, cranes could be prepositioned to support reloading of expended VLS cells. Any combination of support equipment could be staged to support rapid augmentation via air during wartime. Indeed, if we were feeling particularly ambitious, we could use these locations to facilitate the forward repair of battle damage, using vessels like the USNS Frank Cable (AS-40) with their extensive machine shops to establish floating forward repair facilities.

101230-N-8423B-015 POLARIS POINT, Guam (Dec. 30, 2010) The submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) tends the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Hawaii (SSN 776). Hawaii is the first Virginia-class attack submarine to be moored outboard of a submarine tender. Frank Cable conducts maintenance and support of submarines and surface vessels deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Catherine Bland)
POLARIS POINT, Guam (Dec. 30, 2010) The submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40) tends the Virginia-class attack submarine USS Hawaii (SSN 776). Hawaii is the first Virginia-class attack submarine to be moored outboard of a submarine tender. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Catherine Bland)

There are several advantages that such outposts offer our frontline commanders.  First and foremost is that, in a scenario where our logistics ships are driven off, sunk, or otherwise unavailable, the captains fighting their ships would have multiple locations to replenish and get back into the fight. This would facilitate greater time on station which is crucial to maintaining their ability to shape the conflict, contest the battle space, and disrupt an adversary’s plan.

Secondly, these dispersed outposts would allow for fixed locations to refuel. In a degraded C2 environment, this is no small consideration when the ship in question may not have the ability to locate, communicate with, or sufficient endurance to reach surviving oilers. By dispersing potential resupply locations across a greater expanse, we inherently complicate potential adversaries ISR and force distribution calculations. No longer could it be assumed that naval vessels will be taking the most direct route to or from Guam, Japan, Singapore, or the Philippines. Instead, the foe must now picket additional lines of approach and disperse limited assets.

It is a very different tactical problem to protect widely dispersed oilers with a handful of assets than those steaming in company with a strike group. If our logistics ships are to survive in an increasingly lethal anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) environment, they will require an escort to provide sensor and kinetic coverage, primarily from hostile airborne and subsurface threats. This coverage will necessarily be supplied by large surface combatants. This coverage would likely require a one to one matchup between these – the shepherds – and their quarry. Freeing them of the need to ride herd on our logistics (at least until they initially transit out of the theater) will make them available for other tasking.

Considerations and Challenges

There are a host of questions to consider, one of which is the sustainability of these stations. Operating upon the high seas takes a heavy toll upon equipment, which requires a great deal of maintenance to remain operational. These outposts would require personnel to ensure the airfields are capable of supporting aircraft, the cranes of swinging VLS cells, and the pumps of pushing fuel. Exact expenditure and allocation of personnel would need to be worked out on a case by case basis. The current U.S. Army facilities on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands provide a possible blueprint for use elsewhere. The island possesses a harbor, tug, fuel barge, and runway, which do not require burdensome manning. Additional requirements would necessarily be subject to further study.

(Kwajalein Range Services)
Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands. (Kwajalein Range Services)

Another question which merits consideration is the diplomatic expenditures necessary to enable the placement of these logistics hubs. Should the United States construct these facilities on the territory of regional partners or should it seek to, like the People’s Republic of China, improve upon maritime features scattered throughout the Pacific? Both lines of approach have inherent hurdles. Establishing them on the territory of another nation will require a greater initial investment of political capital and defining legal framework to permit their existence. Building upon unclaimed maritime features risks a charge of hypocrisy against the United States relative to its stance on the Spratly Islands, though this could largely be mitigated through a decision to forego claiming a surrounding exclusive economic zone. Ultimately, some combination of the two may ultimately prove desirable.

A third matter that should be addressed is that of targeting by long range weapons of an adversary. The proposed logistics hubs, like their seaborne counterparts, would be prime targets in the opening hours of a conflict while, unlike their counterparts, they would be unable to dodge. How then to prevent them from being anything other than a target or a drain of resources? There are two potential paths to their salvation. The first draws from the Russian concept of maskirovka, or military deception. Given the pervasiveness of satellite imagery, it will be difficult to actually hide the locations, making it necessary to convince an adversary that they serve a different purpose. They will be far less likely to waste precious missiles on a naval construction battalion facility or medical facility than a place to replenish a warship. The other path, for those facilities which would be emplaced on foreign territory, would be the protection afforded by the sovereignty of that nation. Potential adversaries may not want to draw unnecessary third parties (such as the Philippines or Japan) into a conflict with the United States by lobbing missiles at their territory, especially if the third parties are not obligated to join the United States.


George Patton once quipped, “fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity.”  This paper does not advocate turning these proposed positions into heavily manned bastions. Rather, their physical security would be derived from geographic remoteness and light covering forces such as Patriot batteries and Naval Expeditionary Combat Command detachments. This paper also does not seek to posit that our MSC fleet lacks utility; indeed, it is quite the opposite. Those ships are the defining variable in determining not only whether we can emerge victorious from a prolonged conflict, but whether we can simultaneously support our global commitments.

This paper offers an alternative means to supply our fleet in the opening stages of a conflict against a near-peer adversary who is capable of tracking and targeting our logistic ships at great distances. If we have sufficient forces in theater to meet mission obligations and protect our logistics ships, then there is no harm in having built up such a capability.  If, however, our opponent has denied these vessels the ability to safely operate where they are most needed, then such a low-cost investment may prove decisive in allowing our ships to hold the enemy at risk. Let us not forget that if she runs out of gas, no amount of advanced sensors or weapons will prevent a ship from being anything more than a target.

LTJG Elee Wakim is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy.  He is currently stationed in Singapore with the Maritime Staff Element of Destroyer Squadron SEVEN.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the United States Department of Defense or any other organization.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (July 30, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) conducts an underway-replenishment with the Military Sealift Command (MSC) fleet replenishment oiler Joshua Humphreys (T-AO 188). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham/Released)