Thursday, December 11, 2014

Civilian-crewed vessels see larger role in amphibious ops

Civilian-crewed vessels see larger role in amphibious ops

With the gator Navy busy and undersized, officials hope the duct tape that covers the remaining gaps are the ships of Military Sealift Command.

Top officials are confident that mobile landing platforms, pre-positioning ships, joint high-speed vessels and even tankers can ease the mission load. Adm. Bill Gortney, who ended his run as head of Fleet Forces Command on Nov. 24, is among the supporters.

"Can we use a lower-cost capability to do some of those low-end missions? Absolutely," said Gortney. "If we can provide the same capability for lower cost, and that frees up more money for readiness of the rest of the force or to recapitalize more of the high-end assets, that's what we need to do."

The auxiliary ships of MSC are becoming more central to fleet operations as demonstrated in the recent Bold Alligator exercise, which included the joint high-speed vessel Choctaw County. JHSVs and other MSC vessels can augment amphibious operations -- once a fleet mainstay -- but have their own complexities, including putting their civilian crews in the middle of dangerous operations.

The fleet remains well short of the Marine Corps' stated goal of 38 amphibious ships; it had 31 as of December, according to the Naval Vessel Register.

Closely tied in is the issue of cost. Building new a JHSV costs about $180 million, about one-third the cost of a littoral combat ship. It has a crew of fewer than 30 civilians with an annual operating cost of $26 million, according to MSC data. In comparison, the LCS has a core crew of 50 sailors and mission-module crews of 15 to 20 sailors, and costs $79 million to operate annually, according to the Government Accountability Office. A frigate has 170 sailors and costs $54 million in annual operations costs, while a destroyer has approximately 250 sailors at an annual cost of $88 million.

On the other hand, MSC ships have drawbacks. They are not manned to fix battle damage and are crewed by Navy civilians, raising questions about how much they can participate in an offensive action like an amphibious assault under the laws of war. But from a practical standpoint, recent exercises have put MSC ships to the test in uncontested sea space, and found them up to the task.