Tag Archives: Logistics

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.

Conclusion

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)

Canada’s Naval Fuel Crisis

This article originally appeared on the CDA Institute and was republished with permission. You can find the article in its original form here

CDA Institute guest contributor Ken Hansen, a research fellow at Dalhousie’s CFPS, comments on the necessity of logistics in light of the decommissioning of HMCS Protecteur and HMCS Preserver.

The loss of at-​sea replenishment capability has dropped the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) standing from a blue-​water, global force projection navy to an offshore territorial defence organization. The major fire in HMCS Protecteur and the severe rust-​out problems in HMCS Preserver have resulted in the decommissioning of both ships and a logistical crisis that requires corrective action. Some signs for optimism have arisen recently in two contracts with the Spanish and Chilean navies for the use of two of their replenishment ships for a period of 40 days each. The total cost is rumoured to be approximately $160M CAD.

Forty days of sea time will allow each coastal formation to run an exercise involving replenishment at sea training and perhaps a tactical scenario for task group readiness. By doing this, Canadian sailors will get a chance to preserve complex and perishable skills that are vitally important in modern naval operations.

Replenishment at sea involves all of the ship’s departments. Navigation, operations, deck, engineering, and supply must all understand the sequence of events intimately if all is to go as planned. While sailing a ship alongside another at 20 to40 metres distance is demanding in calm seas, at night and in rough weather is no place to be doing this for the first time. The most graphic example of what can go wrong occurred off the coast of South Africa on the night of 18 February 1982, when the South African navy’s replenishment ship SAS Tafelberg rammed and sank the frigate SAS President Krugerafter the latter made the fatal mistake of turning in front of the bigger ship. Sixteen sailors were lost in this incident.

The South African accident occurred due to confusion in close-​quarters manoeuvring during an anti-​submarine exercise. Replenishment is a common activity in multi-​ship exercises and is often scheduled to coincide with other tactical ‘challenges’ to raise the complexity of challenges facing commanders. I have had many first-​hand experiences with these exercises and their hazards. On one occasion, north of Iceland, nearly four hours spent attempting to refuel in stormy winter conditions resulted in a mere 20 cubic meters of fuel transferred, much damage to the equipment, plus lots of frozen fingers and faces from the spray. We nearly lost one sailor overboard from the icy deck before the two captains conferred and agreed to call it off. Another occasion resulted in a side-​swiping by our ship of the much larger oiler. We slid backward along her side, leaving a long smear of distinctive Canadian naval paint on her hull and eventually cleared her stern ignominiously. Everyone knew trying to extricate ourselves by going the other way was potentially fatal.

The history of replenishment at sea training is full of such near misses and embarrassing moments. The calamity that befell President Kruger is actually a rarity. More common are parted fueling hoses and span wires, fouled screws, plus minor dents and scratches. Such tough lessons become legend amongst seafarers and we learned vicariously from these mistakes.

In operations, failure during replenishment at sea takes on a more serious nature. Less well known are replenishment events from the Second World War. Canadian escorts frequently had to abandon their convoys despite the presence of attacking U-​boats, owing to the difficulty of mastering the intricacies of refueling at sea. At one point in the war, the Admiralty forbade Canadian warships from refueling in eastbound convoys due to the amount of damage they were doing to scarce replenishment equipment. A related problem arose during the Cuban Missile Crisis when returning Canadian warships had to pass right through their assigned anti-​submarine patrol stations and carry on to Halifax to refuel. They returned days later. The accompanying aircraft carrier simply did not carry enough fuel to sustain her ‘thirsty’ escorts. Analysis showed that the navy needed a minimum of three replenishment ships to sustain short-​range escorts at a distance of only 250 to 500 nautical miles from base.

Today, the Government of Canada has a penchant for deploying the RCN worldwide. The fuel capacity of our current frigates (.1 tonne of fuel per tonne of displacement) equals historic pre-​war lows. This has forced planners to assume replenishment is a given in fleet operations. That assumption is now false. Without replenishment ships, the navy’s status has fallen and precious seamanship skills are wasting away.

Contracting foreign naval replenishment ships for short-​term training is a necessary expedient but it is only a stopgap measure. It may be that Chantier Davie will be able to produce an interim solution in short order, but if it goes longer than six months you can expect the RCN to re-​contract with the Spanish and Chileans on a regular basis.

The cost of leasing replenishment at sea services must now be added to the construction costs of the two new ships being built at Seaspan plus the cost of the building the interim ship by Chantier Davie. It should have been obvious that delaying the replacements for Protecteur and Preserver would result in added expense and more complexity in operations. It is a sad but entirely predictable mess and there is no real end in sight.

The blame for all this has to lay with the naval leadership. Somehow, generations of Canadian admirals decided that logistics is less important than combat capability. The National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS) is based on a one-​for-​one replacement plan of the Cold War Fleet, with the notable exception of the DeWolf-​class arctic/​offshore patrol ships. The logistical demands of this new security era are vastly greater than they were during the Cold War. The history of the RCN since 1989 has an abundant array of examples to prove this point.

I find it sad that the admirals care more about politics than they do about the history of their own service. A much more robust logistical capacity is needed immediately. They should remember this advice from American General Omar Bradley: “Amateurs talk tactics; professionals study logistics.”

Ken Hansen is an adjunct professor in graduate studies at Dalhousie University and a research fellow with the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. He served for 33 years as a maritime surface warfare officer with the RCN. (Image courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy.)