Military Sealift Command: Ships that Wait

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano

In July 1963, three Victory ships arrived in Subic Bay, the Philippines. The vessel's stacks were adorned with the colors and striping of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). Normally, the arrival of such crafts would not spark any particular notice or even mention in history, yet their appearance marked the birth of a concept that has become one of the major missions of Military Sealift Command today.

The ships, USNS Provo under Henry J. Hassett, USNS Cheyenne with Byron K. Cross, and Vincent A. Nygren commanding USNS Phoenix were designated T-AGs, or "Miscellaneous Auxiliaries" in Navy nomenclature. They were the first of an intended force of nineteen Floating Forward Depot (FFD) ships. Earlier that year, the trio arrived in Norfolk to load equipment for the U.S. Army after completing extensive shipyard modifications that included fitting the holds with climate and dehumidication equipment to allow for the long-term stowage of cargo.

The ships underwent a test the next year in Okinawa when elements of the Army's 25th Infantry Division flew in from Hawaii to "marry up" with the equipment stored aboard the three ships. Each Victory contained the necessary gear to outfit an infantry battle group of 2,100 men.

Operation Quick Release demonstrated the capabilities of the vessels and the concept to the military.

Opposition from the Navy, and even the Marine Corps, over the immobilization of valuable sealift resources put the concept of afloat prepositioning on hold for another 15 years. In 1965, the three FFD ships were dispatched to Vietnam to offload their cargo for the Army's 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the famed "Blackhorse." The need for ships in sustaining the conflict led to their diversion into common-user-service and spelled the end of the initial project.

Although MSTS attempted to construct a class of vessels for prepositioning, known as Fast Deployment Logistics (FDL) ships, opposition from the commercial industry and tight ship construction budgets led to the cancellation of the program. On August 24, 1977, President James E. Carter signed Presidential Review Directive-18 (PRD-18) and established the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF).

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Iranian Shah served to highlighted a gap in American military capabilities and the ability to deploy forces to the Middle East and gave an added impetus to the deployment of the first afloat prepositioning ships.

The RDJTF initially relied solely on airlifted combat units, but the directive did call for the sea-basing of equipment in the region capable of sailing on short-order to troubled spots and marrying up with troops flown into secure airbases and ports. The concept called for the construction of 14 Security-class T-AKXs from 1981 to 1986, with the combined capability to transport the material for 3 Marine Amphibious Brigades.

In the interim, till such ships could be built, the Defense Department directive specified Military Sealift Command (MSC) to:

"create a force of ships which will support the unit equipment for a modified Marine Amphibious Brigade, fuel, water, Air Force ammo for several tactical squadrons plus Army ammo ­ plus supply support for 15 days."

In the remarkable span of a few months, Military Sealift Command pulled together 7 ships to form the Near-Term Prepositioning Force (NTPF). In April 1980, the command bare-boat chartered the State-class Roll-on/Roll-off ship SS Illinois and SS Lipscomb Lykes and renamed them USNS Mercury and Jupiter. Along with USNS Meteor, diverted from the nucleus fleet, they provided the space for the rolling stock of the 7th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

MV Cape Henry, a modern Roll-on/Roll-off ship
MV Cape Henry, a modern Roll-on/Roll-off ship (Ro/Ro) loads cargo

To transport the ammunition, medical supplies, and material for the Air Force and Army units attached to the RDJTF, MSC extended charters with United States Lines for SS American Champion and SS American Courier. Finally, to carry the necessary fuel, the tanker division made available USNS Sealift Pacific, and chartered MV Patriot to carry an equally vital commodity for use in the Middle East, potable water. These 7 ships represented the initial components of a force that has expanded five-fold and is today deployed near every potential hot spot in the world today.

The cargo ships sailed from the port of Wilmington, North Carolina in July 1980 for the desolate atoll of Diego Garcia, in the British Indian Ocean Territories. This island, known to those sailors who have visited it as "D-Gar," had been developed into an Air Force tracking facility and refueling station for naval forces in 1971. Its enclosed lagoon made it an ideal location for basing a fleet of merchant ships aimed at responding to the Persian Gulf region.

To provide operational control and secure communication for the civilian-manned ships, the Navy formed MSC Office Indian Ocean, later redesignated Prepositioning Group One in 1983. Headed originally by Captain John Fitzgerald USN, it included a staff of five officers and thirty enlisted, along with two civilian mariners, a marine officer, and two nurses. This staff was responsible for monitoring the condition of the ships and crews so as to ensure that all were immediately available to deploy on 24-hour notice.

By 1985, the force had been expanded from 7 ships to 17. While the force added additional freighters and tankers, it also incorporated a unique vessel into its inventory. Known as a LASH -- Lighter Aboard Ship -- they possessed double the cargo capacity of a standard breakbulk ship and had their cargo loaded in barges, known as lighters. The two initial LASHs, SS Austral Lightning and Austral Rainbow of Farrell Lines, loaded Army munitions. Fitted with a large gantry crane they had the capability to selectively offload some or all of their cargo while at anchor, making them ideal for use in contingencies. Carrying 60 to 70 barges, each ship included two pusher boats, which could maneuver the lighters pier side where portable cranes would then offload them.

From 1984 to 1986, the newly renamed Afloat Prepositioning Force (APF) underwent its second major revision with the inclusion of the T-AKX ships. Instead of the original 14 Security-class ships, the General Dynamics yard in Quincy, Massachusetts built only five of the intended vessels for American Overseas Marine. To fill the difference, 8 ships were converted, three previously built by Waterman Steamship Corporation and 5 from Maersk Lines, Limited.

Unlike conventional cargo ships, these Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) combined features of Roll-on/Roll-off ships, containerships, and tankers. They could be offloaded either pier side or at anchor, by use of stern-mounted ramps, ship-mounted cargo cranes, and embarked lighterage and watercraft.

The ships were split into 3 squadrons, and included naval staffs similar to Prepositioning Group One. In the western Pacific, the four ships of MPS Squadron Three utilized anchorages off the Marianas Islands. The 5 ships of MPS Squadron Two replaced the Marine Corps-sponsored ships of the NTPF at Diego Garcia. The last 4 vessels of Squadron One were originally to be stationed in Europe however basing rights with some nations delayed this for nearly a decade, and not till March 1995 did the unit take up station in the Mediterranean from the east coast of the United States.

The Afloat Prepositioning Force stabilized at 25 ships ­ 13 MPS, 4 each for the Army and Defense Logistic Agency, 3 for the Air Force, and a sole ship for a Navy Fleet Hospital -- till Saddam Hussein made his move against Kuwait in August 1990.

USNS 1st Lt. Harry L. Martin, a Maritime Prepositioning ship
USNS 1st Lt. Harry L. Martin, a Maritime Prepositioning ship, returns from sea trials March 2000

In the Persian Gulf War, the ships of the APF provided the initial heavy equipment, supplies, and material for General H. Norman Schwarzkopf's Central Command. While some of them remained on station as floating logistics bases, most went into common-user service and made a total of 46 runs from the United States and Europe to the Middle East. The 21 cargo ships of the APF proved invaluable and transported 19% of all the cargo sealifted to the Gulf.

The 4 tankers provided the initial fuel for the ships of the USS Eisenhower and Independence carrier battle groups. Based on their success, the Joint Chiefs of Staff conducted the Mobility Requirements Study in 1992 and determined the need to preposition an additional two million square feet and 4,000 containers of army cargo, leading to the third and most recent evolution of afloat prepositioning.

To meet this, and also increase the reserve fleet, the Department of Defense authorized the construction of 20 Large Medium Speed Ro/Ros (LMSRs), with 8 of them earmarked for the APF. Just as with the early history of the NTPF, MSC outfitted an interim fleet in 1993 to preposition an Army heavy brigade.

From the Ready Reserve Force, seven Ro/Ros and one crane ships sailed to Antwerp, Belgium, and Charleston, South Carolina for the initial load-out. Ironically, a large portion of the brigade's equipment came from the deactivating 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Europe, the same unit that had used the material from the three FFD ships in Vietnam nearly two decades earlier.

The Afloat Prepositioning Force has undergone a tremendous evolution from the 7 ships that arrived in Diego Garcia in July 1980. While the APF saw little operational use in its first ten years, its second decade witnessed the force responding to contingencies throughout the world.

In 1992, MV 1st Lt. Jack Lummus of MPS Squadron Three docked at Mogadishu, Somalia, the first MSC ship to support Operation Restore Hope. When Iraq once again threatened Kuwait in 1995, ships of the APF sailed to the Gulf and some remained to form a new unit, Afloat Prepositioning Squadron Four.

As MSC celebrated its 50th year, the Afloat Prepositioning Force consists of 35 ships deployed overseas, with plans for further expansion underway, including the addition of one new MPS to each squadron. While the force has undergone a tremendous evolution since 1963, the concept of prepositioning vital military equipment close to potential trouble spots throughout the world's ocean has proven to be an invaluable asset to the nation and will remain a major component of Military Sealift Command for many years to come.

Illustrations from:
Sealift, May 1997, Military Sealift Command
Sealift, March 2000, Military Sealift Command is grateful to Professor Salvatore R. Mercogliano for providing this article. Mercogliano is writing his doctoral dissertation about the history of the Merchant Marine, Military Sea Transportation Service and Military Sealift Command.

List of Military Sealift Command Ships Today


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