Tag Archives: MSC

Merchant Warships and Creating a Modern 21st Century East Indiaman

Sea Control Topic Week

By Steve Wills

The East Indiaman was an iconic vessel from the age of “fighting sail” that combined the features of a robust, long-range cargo ship with the weapons of a frigate-sized combatant. One source defines these vessels as, “large, strongly built vessels specifically designed by the great trading companies of England, France and Spain for the long and dangerous passage to the Far East. They were, as a type, powerfully-armed and carried large and well-disciplined crews.”1 John Paul Jones’ famous flagship USS Bonhomme Richard was such a vessel, formerly of the French East Indies Company.

The great mercantilist trading companies of the age of sail are long gone, but the idea that a heavily armed merchant ship might again more fully participate in naval warfare has new credence. The advent of the large, survivable container ship, with the potential for containerized weapon systems changes the calculus of the last century where merchant ships were soft targets requiring significant protection. If properly armed and crewed, U.S. owned and U.S. government chartered container ships have the potential to become powerful naval auxiliaries capable of defending themselves and presenting a significant risk to those that might attack them. Such ships could free naval escorts for other combat duties and contribute toward short term sea control while otherwise engaged in logistics operations.

The Historical East Indiaman

The East Indiaman was a significant vessel type throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. While designed to carry high value cargo through dangerous waters, they were capable of being quickly up-armed to the point where some could mount as many guns as a major warship. For example, the British Royal Navy (RN) purchased the British East India Company (EIC) vessel Glatton in 1795 for warship conversion. Originally armed with 26, short-range, but powerful carronade weapons, she was up-gunned by the RN to a total of 56 guns and served in several engagements with French, Dutch, and Danish forces, notably the 1802 Battle of Copenhagen when she was commanded by William Bligh; formerly the master of the mutinous Bounty.

Their large size caused pirates and French naval vessels to often mistake them for more heavily armed ships of the line. When actually engaged in battle, the East Indiaman usually performed well if not excessively overmatched. The East Indiaman General Goddard operating with one RN ship of the line and several other company ships captured eight of her Dutch East Indiaman counterparts off Saint Helena in 1795. They were however vulnerable if overmatched. In July 1810, two company ships; the Ceylon and the Windham; both with respectable frigate armament of near 30 guns each were captured by a strong French frigate squadron. The East Indiamen still put up significant resistance to the French attack; allowing a third ship of their convoy; the Astel to escape.

20th Century Armed Merchantmen

The end of the British East India Company after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the advance of modern technology, and the 1856 Declaration of Paris where Europeans powers took a firm stand against privately owned warships helped eliminate the concept of a heavily armed cargo ship. Armed merchantmen returned however in both World Wars as nations sought to protect their trans-oceanic convoys from German U-boats and surface raiders. In the First World War nations armed merchants with old naval weapons as a defense against both surface warships and surfaced submarines. These ships generally gave good accounts in battle; sometimes against similar craft when the British armed passenger ship RMS Carmania sank the German armed liner SMS Cape Trafalgar in a rather bloody battle at close range in 1914. Also active were disguised raiders for surface action and Q-ships to lure submarines to destruction.

Carmania sinking Cap Trafalgar off Trinidad, September 14, 1914. (Charles Dixon via Wikimedia Commons)

World War II again saw all of these auxiliary naval units in action. In the first six months of the war the U.S. lost 350 merchant ships and 3000 merchant seaman. Raiders could sometimes defeat purpose-built warships if they retained the element of surprise and/or disguised themselves as peaceful vessels. The German Raider Kormoron was able to fatally wound the light cruiser HMAS Sydney under these conditions but was lost herself due to return fire from Sydney. The U.S. again assigned naval personnel as weapons crews on U.S. merchants, primarily against air and surface attack. The U.S. Merchant Marine Armed Guard was assigned to this mission during the Second World War and suffered over 1800 dead in the course of its operations.

The practice of arming merchantmen again fell into decline after the Second World War, although naval auxiliaries continued to be armed with defensive weapons through the end of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union and in the downsizing of the U.S. Navy that followed, nearly all commissioned supply and auxiliary ships were shifted over to the authority of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in an attempt to save money through re-crewing with a smaller number of civil service MSC mariners rather than with Navy sailors. A 1990 Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report suggested, “The Navy would save $265 million annually if the service turned over 42 support ships and tenders to MSC.” The study attributed the annual savings to much smaller crew sizes on MSC ships. It reported, for example, that civil service crews on a Navy oiler would be half the crew size the Navy used on those ships. The auxiliaries assigned to MSC were disarmed of weapons upon transfer from the Navy, and those built or added since have not been equipped with them. However some classes such as the Lewis and Clark TAK-E class are, “designed with appropriate space and weight reservations “to allow future installations of self-defense systems as required.

A New Breed of Cargo Carrier

Maritime technology has in effect come full circle with the advent of extremely large container ships that effectively carry half the cargo weight of an entire World War II convoy with a single hull and larger than all of the world’s combatant warships, some even larger than U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Pioneered by the American President’s Line under the leadership of Ralph Davies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, container ship growth in size and numbers has been astronomical with nearly 90 percent of all world commerce moved by these ships and their “twenty/forty foot equivalent length TEU” containers now commonplace throughout the globe. So-called “Panamax” container ships stows 5,000 TEUs and the “Super-Panamax” size supports 13,000 TEUs. The very largest of these vessels support over 20,000 such containers.

The Maersk Line operates better than 600 large container ships (about 15 percent of the global fleet,). 86 ships are ultra-large, Super-Panamax vessels and Maersk builds about 20 ships per year. This creates the opportunity to incorporate underwater signature control and survivability measures including foundations for modular combat systems in huge mass production hulls for MSC habitually chartered ships. The hull speed ratio (~0.6), the ship fineness ratio, and the huge slow speed props gives a sustained sea speed of 24 knots and an acoustically silent speed that with non-cavitating props that may well exceed 24 knots.

21st Century East Indiaman

TEU containers can support more than just cargo. In recent years some nations have developed a variety of “containerized” weapon systems to include guns, mortars, small missiles and even larger cruise missiles. The combination of the very large container ship, vast numbers of containers per ship, and containerized warfighting tools offers the possibility of a 21st century East Indiaman. Such a ship might field several dozen “militarized” containers with offensive and defensive weapons, sensors, and the communications equipment needed to link the ship to larger, regional battle networks. If not already possessed of helicopter facilities, additional containers could support rotary wing aviation. The vessel might carry large numbers of unmanned air vehicles for both offensive and defensive missions. They won’t have large crews for damage control and their container-based combat systems may likely be fragile and not capable of sustained combat as a warship could.  A 7,000-ton frigate’s combat systems could weigh about 1050 tons, about the equivalent of 35 TEU loads and might occupy 70 TEUs of space. If a container load for the modular combat system must supply power as well – figure 100 TEUs – a small fraction on a 5000 TEU PANAMAX ship’s cargo space.  Erecting the modular combat system at sea might constitute a larger challenge unless the ship was designed for the purpose and had self-enablement cranes. That said, such capabilities might be enough to repel an attack on a convoy by light or medium enemy forces. Like their 18th century forebears, 21st century armed cargo ships could in effect escort themselves with significant self-defense capabilities and magazine spaces equivalent to those of medium-sized warships. The Israelis and the Russians are already experimenting with these concepts.

Israeli LORA launch test.

While not built to warship survivability standards, the sheer size of modern container ships contributes to their survivability rating. Large merchant ships that have been the victims of attack since the 1980s have shown remarkable resiliency in resisting damage. In 1987 the large oil tanker Bridgeton, a reflagged Kuwaiti vessel being escorted by U.S. Navy ships as part of Operation Earnest Will mounted in response to the 1980s “tanker war,” shrugged off a mine hit and continued operations. A similar weapon disabled the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, a purpose-built convoy escort ship. The 21st Century East Indiaman could free up escorting warships for more offensive actions. The price tag for such a vessel might be relatively low, with most costs being associated with the additional containerized weapons and sensors, as well as the small Navy crew needed to operate the vessel.

The U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC) as a Source

While the current MSC fleet has few container ships ready for armament, the Civil Mariners are thinking again about how to operate in a more contested environment than that of the last 30 years. Of the combat logistics force, the T-AO-205 and T-AKE-1 classes already have excellent signature control. They can be given a guided missile frigate (FFG) equivalent combat system as part of their new construction design or for T-AKE at mid-life overhaul. There has also been informed discussion on the legal implications of arming civilian vessels. An armed MSC ship acting as a combatant risks blurring the legal lines between military and civilian personnel. Civil Service Mariners may need to be designated as U.S. Navy reservists under special cases such as active wartime operations in order to avoid having civilians operating weapon systems. Such discussions would likely become academic at best in the midst of a high end war where logistics ships would be a prime target.

Containerized Club-K missile (Wikimedia Commons)

MSC usually charters container ships and tankers from large operators such as Maersk. These operators are continuously building ships in production numbers. Container ships and tankers are much larger than combat logistics ships. The operators can design features into the ships MSC habitually charters such as underwater signature control, side protection systems, and AI controlled robotic damage control and appropriate adaption for modular combat system installations at little additional cost. Many of the features may be suitable for general commercial use in that the ships can approach conflict areas more closely and may enjoy lower insurance rates.

Moving Ahead with Armed Merchantmen

While there remain considerable legal and policy issues regarding the concept of merchant ships armed with shipping container-based weapons, the technology appears ready for use. Such vessels could add to fleet size and free destroyers and littoral combatant ships for other missions other than convoy escort. The question is whether or not the U.S. Navy would embrace the idea of an armed container ship as a combat unit in its own right. Given the current size of the fleet and the potential need for high endurance escorts for the Navy’s replenishment force, a force of 21st cargo ships outfitted with frigate-level armament to escort themselves makes good financial and operational sense.

Steven Wills is a Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are his own and are presented in a personal capacity.

References

[1] Jack Coggins, Ships and Seman of the American Revolution, Harrisburg, PA, Promontory Press, 1969, 31.

Featured Image: Chinamax ship Berge Stahl (via Maritime Connector)

The Ultimate Stealth Ship

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

When one thinks of a stealth ship, images of the Chinese Type 055 destroyer, the French La Fayette-class frigate, or Swedish Visby-class corvette come to mind. The use of material and technology to produce a smaller radar cross-section or to reduce sound and electronic emissions are all common attributes of what is commonly considered a stealth ship. Yet, if one was to ask what is the stealthiest ship in the U.S. Navy, the answer may prove surprising. It is not USS Zumwalt, the newest destroyer in the fleet. It is also not the most recent Virginia or Seawolf-class submarine, and it most assuredly is not one of the littoral combat ships. The ship that holds this title is not even a commissioned vessel in the U.S. Navy, or owned by the government, but leased from one of the largest ship operators in the world. MV Ocean Trader, chartered by the Military Sealift Command for the U.S. Special Operations Command, most assuredly holds this title.

One may remember back to early 2014 when articles began to appear about the Navy obtaining a “Big, Secretive Special Operations Mothership,” as reported by David Axe in War is Boring. The story went, “The U.S. Navy is quietly converting a 633-foot-long cargo ship into a secretive helicopter carrier with facilities for supporting a large contingent of Special Operations Forces and all their gear, including jet skis.” In 2016, pictures appeared of the ship while at the BAE Shipyard in Mobile, Alabama. Constructed in the Odense Steel Shipyard in 2011 for Maersk Line, MV Cragside is capable of speeds of up to 21 knots. Her design is a common one in Europe, derived from the Flensburger roll-on/roll-of ships. She is a near sister ship to the four Point-class roll-on/roll-off ships chartered by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense in 2002. The ship’s configuration, when compared to photos of the vessel before conversion, indicate an addition aft of the main house without windows or ports. Forward of the house, two enclosed helicopter hangers are added with the addition of a large flying off platform indicated by the drop-down nets along the edges.

Photo  showing modifications to M/V Cragside. (Wikimedia Commons)

That picture of the ship in Mobile is the last available image and report of the vessel by an American source. A French news agency reported the arrival of the renamed MV Ocean Trader in the Mediterranean on May 16, 2016. According to Maritime Administration records, the ship was renamed on October 30, 2015 and remains on the rolls as a U.S. flagged merchant ship as of July 1, 2017, although a few of the sources identify the ship as Marshall Island flagged. Checks of various Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) has the ship in Gibraltar on May 14, 2017, Souda Bay, Crete on May 24, 2016, and Amsterdam on August 16, 2017. The ship does not currently show up on any active AIS systems. A search of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command records, including both their annual reports – which state all the vessels owned and under long-term charter to the Navy – and the U.S. Navy’s official sites, have no records of the ship. Even the list of MSC contracts does not identify MV Ocean Trader, nor MV Cragside, nor contract N00033-14-C-2015. The ship has been deployed to the Mediterranean and possibly the Baltic for over a year, yet no news or information has been released about the vessel. While stories abound about the Navy’s and MSC’s hybrid-crewed afloat forward staging base, USS Ponce AFSB(I)-15, and the recently deployed Lewis B. Puller and its change in designation from USNS to USS, no press or mention has been made about MV Ocean Trader.  

Ocean Trader has the capability to house a total of 209 special warfighting personnel, enough stores and provisions for 45 days of operations and the capability to refuel and replenish at sea, along with capacity to launch, recover, refuel, and resupply up to four small craft, including UAVs. She includes a flight deck rated for day and night operation of Chinooks, Seahawks, Blackhawks, Kiowas, Apaches, Ospreys, Sea Stallions and Little Birds. There is storage and launch capability via the stern ramp for Zodiacs, RHIBs and jet skis. The ship contained all the command and control and food services, including the ability to provide hot lunches between 2330 and 0030 hours. A ship, forward deployed for over a year, can easily disappear amid an ocean filled with commercial shipping.

MV Ocean Trader, along with Expeditionary Support Bases, such as Lewis B. Puller and USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams, and Spearhead-class Expeditionary Fast Transports, provide a unique capability to project military power afloat and ashore. Ocean Trader’s commercial guise (like an auxiliary cruiser of old) provides stealth suitable for congested areas such as the Mediterranean or Baltic. Spearhead-class T-EPFs, like dozens of Incat and Austal catamarans around the world, also possess that capability to meld into the background or operate in the open, except for their Navy-gray exteriors.

The days of small radar signatures, applying special material to the hull, or suppressed sounds may just be giving way to the hoisting of false flags akin to the day of sail. While this may sound like a story from the age of piracy, MV Ocean Trader remains under contract to the United States through March 14, 2018, and she may be preforming missions as we speak.  

Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an Associate Professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina and teaches courses in World Maritime History and Maritime Security.  He is also an adjunct professor with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and offers a graduate level course in Maritime Industry Policy.  A former merchant mariner, he sailed and worked ashore for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command.  He recently published Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War, available for free download through the Naval History and Heritage Command at: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/publications/publications-by-subject/Fourth-Arm-of-Defense.html.

Featured Image: M/V Cragside (Manuel Hernández Lafuente/ShipSpotting.com)

Distributed Lethality, Non-traditional Fleets, and the Law of War

Distributed Lethality Topic Week

By Chris Rawley

In simplest terms, the U.S. Navy’s distributed lethality concept complicates the enemy’s targeting problem by dispersing larger numbers of platforms capable of offensive action over a wide geographic area.  With no significant increases in fleet size anticipated for the foreseeable future, it is incumbent that all avenues be pursued that will optimize the use of scarce ships.

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A video recently released by the Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet shows a variety of ships besides surface combatants equipped with anti-ship missiles and unmanned aircraft capable of targeting these weapons.  In addition to amphibious vessels, a Lewis and Clark Dry Cargo/Ammunition ship is depicted (minute 1:21) with a drop-in missile module. This ship, and 29 others in the U.S. Navy’s Combat Logistics Force (CLF), are controlled by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and manned by professional civilian mariners (CIVMARS).  The introduction of armed naval auxiliaries in the U.S. fleet would raise a number of important operational and legal questions.

In what sort of tactical situations might an offensively-armed replenishment ship be worthwhile?  Distributed lethality requires distributed logistics. Meaning, surface combatants operating alone or in small groups will require fuel, food, ammunition, and parts. In a major theater war, traditional replenishment ports will be placed at risk by mines, theater ballistic missiles, terrorist surrogates, and other area-denial capabilities. To mitigate these risks, underway replenishment has been a mainstay of U.S. naval surface ship operations for nearly a century. A CLF ship armed with self-defense weapons and a small number of medium ranged surface-to-surface missiles operating in tandem with a group of cruisers and destroyers (CRUDES) provides additional magazine capacity for the surface combatants.

Conversely, oilers operating solo while transiting to or from underway replenishment stations are an appetizing target for would-be adversaries. In some cases, these ships would require a dedicated “shotgun” surface combatant to protect their precious cargoes. But these escorts would take scarce CRUDES ships away from other offensive duties. CLF ships equipped with additional self-defense weapons, be they remotely-operated crew served machine guns or short-ranged surface-to-air missiles (like the SeaRAM), will enable defense against a variety of potential attackers. However, the possibility that CLF ships are capable of not just defending themselves, but of fighting back, will challenge indirect enemy strategies that rely on attrition of our logistic forces.  A CLF ship would target its over-the-horizon weapons by either cueing off another platform’s sensors or using organic manned or unmanned aircraft.  These ships sometimes deploy with MH-60s, which can carry their own weapons, but can also assist in targeting a ship’s missiles.  For longer ranges, future unmanned air vehicles such as DARPA’s TERN prototype could support CLF-launched missile engagements over hundreds of miles. Besides the aforementioned weapons, CLF ships providing replenishment operations within adversary threat envelopes will need to employ counter-targeting techniques and some will carry Surface Ship Torpedo Defense Systems.

Non-traditional or Normal?

I’ve been guilty of using the phrase “non-traditional” naval vessels when referring to auxiliaries engaged in naval operations other than logistics. A recent example would be MSC’s Expeditionary Fast Transports serving as Partnership Station platforms. Historically, however, civilian-run shipping has been integral to naval warfare for as long as humankind has fought on the seas. Lincoln Paine discusses a number of non-traditional fleets in The Sea and Civilization, an amazingly comprehensive chronology of all aspects of maritime trade and warfare. In lieu of a powerful navy, the early Roman Empire established coloniae maritimae (maritime colonies), which exempted their men from service in the legions in exchange for their promise to destroy invading enemy vessels. A millennium later, Byzantium held off Muslim invaders at sea with a largely provisional force of merchants and fishermen. In the 19th Century, pirates turned privateers were engaged as naval commerce raiders by various states including Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas.

In World War I, the British Admiralty encouraged merchant vessels to arm themselves with deck guns, ostensibly for the purposes of defense. Some of these merchants took it upon themselves to actively attack German shipping, often using false flags. The German Empire, as one might expect, grew to view these vessels as belligerents, rather than as neutral shipping, a role they were initially accorded by international law. Then in World War II, thousands of American merchant ships were protected by Naval Armed Guards, who manned anti-aircraft weapons and up to 3″ deck guns. Merchant mariners supported these gun crews by passing ammunition, but were also trained to employ the weapons when necessary, and many did so, distinguishing themselves in battle.

WNUS_6-50_mk8_Mongolia_stern_pic
Historical Precedence: Naval Armed Guard Sailors Man the stern 6″ (15.2 cm) gun on S.S. Mongolia in May 1917 (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # NH 41710) .

More recently, we’ve watched the emergence of China’s rather sizable maritime militias, which are a key aspect of the PLAN’s expansion strategy in the South China Sea. These sorts of maritime surrogates have kept up with changing naval technology. Today, instantaneous data communications have made over-the-horizon networked targeting by civilian craft a distinct possibility. Additionally, concealable anti-ship weapons, such as Russia’s Club-K containerized missile system, could raise the threat posed by merchant shipping. These non-traditional fleets are not anomalies, but rather mainstays of offensive naval warfare.  How does this historical reality reconcile with modern legal norms of international armed conflict?

Nuances Riding on a Single Letter

Traditional prohibitions against civilians taking a direct part in hostilities are based on a duty to discriminate between combatants who may be lawfully targeted and non-combatants who may not be intentionally targeted. International humanitarian law is also designed to protect duly-recognized combatants from prosecution and provide for status as prisoners of war. In modern times, these distinctions have been interpreted to prohibit civilians aboard a warship from serving as a weapons release authority or standing tactical watches.  Besides CIVMARS, a host of civilians routinely ride naval ships, including maintenance contractors, college instructors, and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation planners; all of course, in non-tactical roles.

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The hidden shipping threat: Russian Club-K containerized missile system.

To understand the legal nuances behind arguments for and against non-traditional naval vessels undertaking offensive operations, it’s worth examining the distinction the U.S. Navy makes between warships and naval auxiliary vessels.[1] In accordance with Navy Regulations, Article 1259, a commissioned warship – designated USS – requires “a personal flag or command pennant of an officer of the Navy, or a commission pennant.” U.S. Naval Ships (USNS) operate under the control of civilian mariners, and therefore do not technically qualify as warships. Under the same regulations, in some circumstances, a USNS ship can be reclassified as a USS hull, but this requires approval by the Secretary of the Navy.  These conventions are supported by Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which states a warship is “a ship belonging to the armed forces of a State bearing the external marks distinguishing such ships of its nationality, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government of the State and whose name appears in the appropriate service list or its equivalent, and manned by a crew which is under regular armed forces discipline.” The 1994 San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea also provides a non-binding, but widely-accepted view of naval auxiliaries in warfare.

Auxiliaries are vessels, other than warships, that are under the exclusive control of the armed forces of a state. Some interpretations of international law infer that naval auxiliaries (non-warships) may defend themselves and other friendly forces in the vicinity, but may not be used to conduct offensive belligerent acts. Under the strictest legal interpretations, MSC ships would be prohibited from a range of activities to include launching anti-ship weapons, but also to missions as innocuous and defensive as clearing a channel of mines for the safe passage of commercial shipping. International agreements are important, but we should not ignore historical precedence and operational necessity that may force auxiliaries into combat roles. As further precedence, not every vessel conducting offensive missions in the U.S. Navy meets the criterion required for warship. For example, combatant craft of the Navy’s Special Boat Teams and Coastal Riverine Squadrons are not commissioned warships, but may carry out offensive operations. Of course, these boats are run by Navy crews, and a commissioned officer resides at some point in their chain of command (though not always embarked).

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Embarked Security Team (EST) watchstander on the Military Sealift Command’s Expeditionary Fast Transport (T-EPF-1) in Sekondi, Ghana, Feb. 14, 2015 (US Navy photo).

Given generally-accepted views of international law, what are the alternatives available to include naval auxiliaries as offensives nodes in a distributed lethality regime? A handful of warships in the U.S. Navy, including USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15), two flagships, and submarine tenders, feature a hybrid crewing model. These ships are commanded by a commissioned naval officer, though their navigation and engineering functions are primarily conducted by CIVMARs. This hybrid crewing approach enables them to conduct or command offensive operations in accordance with international law. Implementing this approach on a wider scale would require the reclassification of armed CLF ships to USS and the introduction of permanent Navy crews, an option not necessarily supported by today’s manpower budgets.

Embarking military detachments to operate defensive and offensive weapons might be another acceptable alternative. Over the past few decades, the combat logistics force has transitioned from USS ships, to USNS ships embarking military detachments (MILDETS) run by a junior surface warfare officer, and now to primarily USNS ships with no MILDETS. When embarked, MILDETS mostly handled command and control (C2) functions. Many of these roles have been absorbed by CIVMARS, but others, like operating self-defense weapons, are still supported by embarked Navy security teams. It’s possible that arming a CLF ship and operating its weapons systems with a MILDET, without reclassifying it as USS could put a ship’s status as naval auxiliary in jeopardy during hostilities. However, like merchant shipping that was targeted during the World Wars, that becomes largely an irrelevant academic argument once ordnance starts flying and logistics ships become primary targets themselves.

In an era of declining Navy end strength and increasing personnel costs, it is no longer fiscally prudent to assign full time military detachments to every ship that might require one in wartime.  The Navy’s reserve component (RC) provides a feasible C2 alternative which can be surged forward during contingency operations, while meeting legal and operational requirements for offensive operations. In recent years, military detachments for theater security cooperation missions onboard MSC ships have been created ad hoc from cross-decked active duty Sailors or sourced from existing staffs such as Destroyer Squadrons. In the event of a major contingency, it is likely that these staffs will be tied up with their primary missions and unable to dedicate manpower to supporting auxiliary C2 requirements. In recognition of these demands, the Military Sealift Command recently established a dedicated Navy Reserve unit designed to provide C2 elements for MSC ships involved in non-logistics missions. This nascent capability has been demonstrated with embarked detachments onboard various MSC ships during fleet exercises and security cooperation missions.

The expansion of additional RC military detachments should be explored that support not only theater security missions, but future offensively-armed combat logistics force ships. The advantages of this capability residing in the reserve force are several: The first relates to cost.  On average, a part-time reservist costs the navy approximately one fifth of an active duty Sailor. In peace-time, reservists would train for the mission by embarking CLF ships to support weapons testing and fleet exercises, and surge forward if required for contingency missions.  Additionally, reserve Sailors, some of them with licensed merchant credentials themselves, have a strong knowledge of MSC ship unique operating procedures and understand how to integrate well with CIVMARs. The habitual relationships dedicated reserve units build with CIVMAR crews have proven valuable in other missions.

Regardless of whether the decision is made to increase the weapons capabilities of our Military Sealift Command ships, additional RC detachments would provide the legal and operational top-cover necessary to perform other traditional naval operations on these vessels in peace and war to include maritime security operations, mine-countermeasures, special operations direct action support, and amphibious raids.

Chris Rawley is a Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve and serves as Commanding Officer for the Navy’s sole unit dedicated to providing command and control detachments aboard Military Sealift Command vessels. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency. 

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[1] The author is not an operational law attorney.  The reader is encouraged to seek out other legal interpretations.