A recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., Captain Craig Upton has sailed as master with Military Sealift Command since 1992. He has conducted well over 1,500 underway replenishments during this time.
American military might is projected daily at many hotspots throughout the world by the U.S. Navy. The Navy’s highly capable and powerful ships patrol strategic straits, hostile coastlines and support boots on the ground with air support in many global theaters simultaneously. Many of these global trouble spots are hundreds – sometimes thousands – of miles from friendly ports where fuel and stores are available. So how are these ships able to remain at sea for long periods of time? How do they continue their missions for weeks or even months without pause?
The answer lies with a sophisticated fleet of replenishment vessels in the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, a part of Military Sealift Command, itself part of the Department of the Navy. Manned primarily by civil service mariners, these ships routinely support naval vessels worldwide, shuttling fuel, food, stores, parts and ammunition from friendly foreign logistics ports to deployed naval ships at sea. Replenishment ships are purpose-built for their various support missions, specializing in various commodities. In the past, many of these ships were single-product ships, presenting the logistical challenge of mustering a fuel ship, a food ship and an ammunition ship to replenish one naval vessel. Many replenishment ships presently in operation are multi-product, carrying an array of food, ammunition and fuel, allowing the customer ship an opportunity to engage in one-stop shopping rather than three separate evolutions.
Beginning with design and construction of these specialized ships and ending with the planning and execution of replenishment evolutions, every consideration is given to maximizing cargo transfer rates, thus minimizing time alongside. This is of paramount importance for two primary reasons. First, maneuvering large, expensive ships in close formation 140-200 feet apart is not without inherent risk. Reducing time alongside minimizes the potential for collision due to mechanical failure or the effects of wind and sea. Second, time spent conducting logistics is time taken away from the warships’ primary mission. The more rapidly replenishment can be completed, the sooner a warship and its crew can get back to performing their mission.
Conducting replenishments efficiently requires extensive planning and communication with the customer warships both before and during the evolution. Based on the quantities of various commodities warships require, the replenishment vessel recommends certain combinations of replenishment stations, also referred to as rigs. This ensures that cargoes are transferred efficiently and simultaneously. Ideally, if a customer ship has a requirement for fuel as well as palletized cargo, proper planning would ensure that the transfer of all commodities being transferred at each rig would conclude at approximately the same time.
This logistical support is provided by a surprisingly small force of fifteen fleet replenishment oilers (designated as T-AO’s), eleven dry cargo/ammunition ships (T-AKE’s), four fast combat support ships (T-AOE’s) and a small number of support vessels of various types. Through their timely support, naval warships may remain at sea almost indefinitely. It is technically feasible for these deployed warships to not enter foreign ports for months at a time. When necessary, this capability and the replenishment assets the navy employs have proven invaluable tools to our fleet and our military and political leaders.