Oiler Debate: The fast replenishment ship Bridge resupplies the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and cruiser Mobile Bay last year in the Arabian Sea. A plan to inactivate the Bridge and a sister ship to save money has been put off. (Christopher P. Cavas)
WASHINGTON — They’re the biggest supply ships operated for the US Navy, and the fastest. Rarely does a deployed carrier strike group travel without one. But they’re also the most expensive logistics ships to run, and that’s made them the target of planners eager to reduce operating costs.
The result is a classic cost-versus-capability debate that continues to be played out behind the scenes in Washington and at fleet headquarters in Norfolk and Pearl Harbor.
“They” are fast combat support ships — T-AOEs in Navy lingo — designed to carry enough fuel, ammunition and supplies to supply a carrier group. The 49,000-ton ships are powered by the same gas turbines that drive the fleet’s cruisers and destroyers, reaching speeds approaching 30 knots.
The four ships of the Supply class were commissioned in the 1990s as Navy-manned and operated fleet units, but were transferred to the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in the 2000s. Even with civilian mariners, their crews number around 160 sailors, and each ship costs about $75 million per year to operate.
Matched up against older oilers — at around $40 million per year — and newer dry cargo ships running about $50 million a year, the T-AOEs became attractive inactivation candidates for a Navy scrambling to reduce spending any way it can. By 2013, the service announced it would inactivate the Bridge in September 2014 and the Rainier a year later.
A plan was proffered to assign the remaining two ships — Supply and Arctic — to US Central Command and Pacific Command, where they could serve deployed strike groups.
In discussions this year, one proposal envisioned laying up even those two ships in a reserve operating status of up to 45 days, meaning it would take at least that much time to reactivate them.
Operators squawked at the proposals.
“When I had the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, we didn’t do a 16-knot transit to get where we’re going. It was often 20-24 knots. You constructively can often be doing a transit somewhere at 25-26 knots,” former strike group commander Rear Adm. Tom Shannon said in a June 26 interview. “And who can run with you, except the T-AOEs?”
Between them, oilers and dry cargo ships can carry everything one T-AOE does, but at speeds little more than 20 knots. To Shannon, it’s a clear choice.
“From a war-fighting perspective, from how we operate and exercise, one-stop shopping from one ship as opposed to bringing along two slower ships, I just think it’s a very practical way to go.”
Shannon now looks at the issue from a very different perspective, as commander of MSC, the Navy entity that operates the fleet’s civilian-manned combat logistics and service support ships — including the T-AOEs, oilers and dry cargo ships.
“It’s a budget fight. This is all about money,” Shannon said. “What I want to argue is sometimes, because of the line of work we’re in, you don’t always make the smartest financial decision. You make the smartest war-fighting decision. That’s the rub.”
Fleet operators agree. According to Navy sources, US Fleet Forces Command in Virginia and Pacific Fleet in Hawaii have been arguing strenuously to keep the ships in service. Fleet Forces balked at the idea it would lose its T-AOEs to overseas commands.
“Yes, these T-AOEs are expensive, but that is a capability we need to retain,” said Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, and a former planner for Navy leadership.
Clark acknowledged, however, that a solution might be to place the ships in reserve.
“Is there an alternative approach” to keeping them in operation, he asked. “Put them in [reserve operating status] so they’re still available if we get into a conflict and need more ships.”
The issue continued to be hotly discussed as June turned into July. “There was a strong backlash” to keeping the ships, a defense official said. A decision is required quickly because Bridge will soon reach the point where MSC will have to begin the inactivation process.
“Talks with the fleet regarding fleet requirements are ongoing,” the defense official said July 10. “Fleet readiness is a priority and we take very seriously all concerns the fleet has brought up regarding the inactivation of the T-AOEs.”
As last week ended, it appeared there might be some movement on the T-AOE issue, with one source claiming the Navy would drop plans to inactivate Bridge this year and Rainier in 2015. But the issue could come up again in 2016, the source said.
A similar debate is looming for two lesser-known fleet support types. MSC operates four T-ATF fleet tugs and four T-ARS salvage ships. The ships are valuable enough that replacements are scheduled in the 30-year shipbuilding plan — T-ATFs beginning in 2017, T-ARSs beginning in 2020. But planners have debated inactivating all eight active ships, and a compromise calling for the removal from service of two ships of each type in 2016 is in the latest shipbuilding plan. The issue is far from over.
“There’s an initiative out there to kill those [ships] and go fully commercial,” Shannon said. “And we really need to think our way through that.”
Clark agreed the ships are valuable assets.
“COCOMS [combatant commanders] ask for T-ATFs and T-ARSs a lot because they do a lot of security cooperation work with partners,” Clark explained. “They do salvage operations, annual BALTOPS and CARAT exercises, ordnance disposal. I was often amazed at how often COCOMS asked for them,” he added.
Like the T-AOE debate, the T-ATF/T-ARS issue has prompted a similar waterfront reaction.
“The fleets were adamant they needed the capability,” a Washington source said. “And they want us to own it.” ■