February 4, 2004
The US Navy, encouraged by SOCOM (Special Operations Command), is studying the idea of modifying a container ship for use as a "sea-basing" platform for Special Forces units. Twice in the past ten years, Haiti in 1996 and Afghanistan in 2001, the Navy has stripped an aircraft carrier of most of its air wing and replaced it with Army or Special Operations helicopters. While this tactic shows a tremendous flexibility for the traditionally rigid Navy, in many ways, it squanders a valuable and limited asset: the Navy's carriers and their busy crews.
The proposed solution is to buy, or more likely lease, a container ship and paint it gray. The hull would be fitted out as crew quarters, (similar to those used by oil platform crews) for up to 800 special operators and 200 support troops. A command post, medical and recreation facilities, a hardened armory for soldiers' weapons, ammunition and explosives, and so forth, would all be built into standard modular containers. Because the ships' power generating capacity was originally designed to support the high demand of refrigerated cargo, they should have no trouble providing ample power in their new role.
In its new configuration, the deck would be covered with one level of modular containers that would bolt together to serve as a helicopter hangar and flight deck with two elevators. It would be able to simultaneously launch a dozen MC-47E Chinook-sized helicopters and carry 1 million gallons of aviation fuel. Options include V-22 Osprey variants, Harrier or STOVL F-35 fighters, and up to half a dozen 40-foot rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB).
The concept has several great advantages over traditional approaches. Commercial vessels, even ones the size of aircraft carriers, typically require crews that number in the dozens, rather than thousands. A large container ship could be operated by as few as 20 sailors, compared to 1,100 on an LHD or 3,200 on a Nimitz-class carrier. It would also be easier to upgrade, as the modules could be removed and replaced independently.
The plan is for the Military Sealift Command to own and operate these ships with civilian crews. If the concept works, the Navy might keep one or two configured at all times and have a reserve of containers on land for MSC-owned ships leased to commercial users.
This flexible concept opens up a range of other missions for such containerized cargo carriers, including replacing the current aging underway replenishment fleet, the Navys two hospital ships, and the Afloat Pre-positioning Ships parked at various locations around the world. Five vessels of this type can be acquired at the cost of one LPD-17 and they can be available, converted, from the Maersk shipping company within one year of the decision to go ahead. -AJ Wagner