Last week's Culebra Koa 15 (CK 15) exercises in Hawaii were the last chance for some fun in the sun before two of the US Navy's newest — and most unusual — ships get deployed.
The USNS Montford Point is not just the first ship of its class, it's the first of its kind. The ship "became fully operations capable and delivered to Military Sealift Command just last month," Lieutenant Commander Brian Tague of the US Navy's Military Sealift Command told VICE News in Hawaii. It practically has that new-ship smell.
The ship is what the military calls a Mobile Landing Platform (MLP). Part of the vessel has a big ramp that connects to any one of a variety of other ships that would normally unload cargo at a dock. The other part of the ship can, after some fiddling, effectively emulate a beach for amphibious landing craft, a.k.a. "connectors." When used in conjunction with those connectors, the MLP allows for massive big transport ships to unload their cargo miles from shore, without having to rely on a port or other fixed infrastructure.
So think of MLPs as great big ocean-going adapter plugs.
The ability to change how and where an amphibious group can move things from sea to shore is a big deal. Oceans make it really easy to move ginormous amounts of material at a fairly good clip. But getting things from the water onto land is a heck of a bottleneck, often requiring vulnerable fixed infrastructure that can cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. The only other option is employing highly specialized and costly amphibious ships and landing craft. The USNS Montford Point and future MLPs stand to eliminate some of the bottlenecks by emulating a pier while also acting like a specialist amphibious mothership.
Tague said that the USNS Montford Point is headed west for assignment and an inaugural operational tour. At this point, there's no telling what (if any) contingency will be the operational debut of the ship, but it's a near certainty that whatever command gets it will be looking for an occasion to take 'er for a spin.
The other ship heading out on deployment after CK 15 is the USNS Millinocket. She will be deployed with the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship for Pacific Partnership, an international disaster response preparedness exercise. The USNS Millinocket is the third of the military's Joint High Speed Vessels (JSHV); one is assigned permanently as a trainer however, so it's only the second deployable JHSV.
The Millinocket and other JHSVs are actually similar in design to the high-speed ferries that used to carry people and vehicles back and forth between the Hawaiian Islands, where CK 15 is being held. Maximizing cargo haul and speed is a pretty tricky tradeoff because big and heavy doesn't play well with lean and fast.
'Every additional pound that is loaded onboard affects the output. Even the hull is unpainted due to extra weight of the paint.'
"These ships are built for speed," Tague said. "Equipment, tools, and parts are strategically outfitted and heavily scrutinized because every additional pound that is loaded onboard affects the output. Even the hull is unpainted due to extra weight of the paint."
The ship sports four V-20 engines, giant turbochargers, and all other manner of things that make it go fast. When the engines are just idling, it moves at 14 knots. At full throttle, it does better than 40 knots. Fully loaded she can carry 600 tons of cargo and 312 Marines (basically a company of light armored vehicles). That isn't enough on its own to storm a heavily fortified beach, but think of it in policing terms: You don't want or need a SWAT team to show up for each and every 911 call, but there are a hell of a lot of cases where the thing that matters most is getting the boys in blue on the scene as quickly as possible. And, as it happens, getting JHSV and MLP ships to play nice together — in other words, in allowing the JHSV to unload at sea — is something the military is very keen on working on.
You may have noticed that both of these brand-new and relatively experimental ships have the prefix USNS rather than the more familiar USS. USNS stands for United States Naval Ship and is used by ships owned by the US Navy but operated by Military Sealift Command (MSC). MSC ships (sometimes called black bottom ships) are non-combatant support vessels crewed by civilian employees of the federal government. Ships designated USS are owned, operated, and crewed by the US Navy. Those ships, sometimes referred to as grey hulls, are almost all combatant ships.
This black-bottom/grey hull distinction means MSC usually ends up being the roadie to the various war-fighting rock stars who end up getting all the love. The roadies schlep gear back and forth and set everything up so the rock star looks like a rock star. The rock star arrives on the scene just before the show starts, then proceeds to caterwaul and flail around. After the final encore, the rock star gets wasted and hooks up with hot groupies. Meanwhile, the roadies have to haul the gear back to the bus and get ready for the next show. The rock star may utterly depend on the roadies, but it's a rare rock star who will give roadies the time of day.
However, the capabilities that ships like the USNS Montford Point and USNS Millinocket will bring to the table could mean that the roadies of MSC might be getting a lot more time in the spotlight. For starters, their new capabilities are going to be in very high demand, and there's nothing like being unique and irreplaceable to make you feel loved.
The second part of what should by all rights be getting MSC more love is what the MLP and JHSV will do as part of humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) missions. To be sure, MSC already does a lot in when it comes to such missions, as they did in Operation Tomodachi (the relief effort following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake) and Operation Damayan (the 2013 post-Typhoon Haiyan effort).
But those disasters are almost tailor-made for the capabilities of both the MLP and JHSV. A giant typhoon, massive earthquake, or devastating tsunami can absolutely flatten transport and shipping infrastructure. Thus, MLPs, which can get cargo and equipment off of big transports without port infrastructure, will be critical. And the JHSV's ability to move hundreds of tons of cargo at high speed over thousands of miles? Well, it turns out that speed is pretty important when you're acting as a first responder. Further, both the JHSV and MLP can carry prefab containers capable of housing people, communications facilities, operating rooms, and all other kind of vital stuff, meaning that they can act as a mobile base of operations in an HA/DR scenario.
Together, these big boosts in HA/DR capability should, in turn, pay strategic dividends down the road. Sure, this stuff isn't the usual big sexy that goes with more familiar violent and pyrotechnic stuff associated with the rock stars of hard power. Instead, HA/DR missions are an important means of generating soft power influence even if they're more akin to an unplugged, acoustic set.
One of the growing realizations in the defense community is that the US will never fight a major war without allies or partners. Ill will between erstwhile allies can eliminate supporting forces just as surely as air strikes and bombardment. Conversely, good attitudes and strong working relationships between nations can pay off big time when if you find yourself in a crunch.
Which brings us back to MSC, and all the other logistical stuff hashed out last week at CK 15 and the related Pacific Command Amphibious Leaders Forum. National armed forces and their auxiliary support services like MSC are flat-out instruments of national power, hard or soft. Granted, no armed force can neglect its combat power, lest it devolve into a very strange, mutant disaster relief charity. But regardless of whether a nation is deploying support assets for war or humanitarian purposes, those support assets — like the USNS Montford Point and USNS Millinocket — are, essentially, the means by which a nation turns desire into reality. Odds are you'll see one or both of those ships in action doing their thing whenever the next calamity strikes.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan