Logistics: A New Generation of Pre-Positioning


September 9, 2007: The U.S. Navy has leased a heavy-lift merchant ship and hired contractors to operate it. This is an effort to develop the next generation of pre-positioning ships. In essence, the Navy is not only showing that it is still worth funding (after all, it is budget time) by operating via leased ships and contractor crews, but it is also getting a prototype to figure out how to improve the capabilities of these ships.

Maritime pre-positioning forces played a major part in the 1990 Gulf War, where pre-positioned equipment deployed to Saudi Arabia helped deter Saddam Hussein's forces from invading that country. Later, when the buildup was complete, Saddam's forces were evicted from Kuwait early the next year.

Why was pre-positioning so important? In essence, it cut the time it took to get armored units to the battlefield. Most American armor brigades are stationed in the United States or Europe. To move an armored division takes time. One not only has to move the tanks and IFVs, but thousands of other vehicles, and the equipment they normally carry. Airlift is an option, but there are not enough C-17s and C-5s to move an entire division. In fact, air movement would take about as long as bringing in the division by ship, especially if you include the fuel, ammunition, and other supplies (like spare parts) needed to make a division combat-capable. This also is true for Air Force units. Yet, hauling from the U.S. will take time. Time that an ally being invaded might not have. So, the pre-positioning forces are kept in secure areas relatively close to potential crisis locations with 30 days of supplies, and enough gear for a Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Others carry enough for an Army heavy brigade with 15 days of supplies.

Because of this pre-positioning, the troops just have to fly to their destination, where they can meet up with the gear. But even then, they still have problems. Current vessels need port facilities to operate at peak efficiency. If the port facilities are damaged or in enemy hands, these current vessels have a problem - their ability to deploy over the beach is limited. The new pre-positioning forces will be able to operate with amphibious vessels, and support marines over the beach.

Still, this is a huge investment. Pre-positioning ships are large (about 675 feet long and displacing over 40,000 tons), and these ships are expensive (over $250 million each new-build or over $200 million to convert a merchant vessel). Their crews' pay isn't exactly cheap. And the United States has thirteen pre-positioning ships from the 1980s that will need to be replaced eventually (even pre-positioning ships get old).

So, a single heavy-lift ship, the MV Transshelf, has been leased. This vessel will, in essence serve as the prototype for the new pre-positioning vessels, allowing the Navy to work out some ideas - and make sure that when they build the next generation of pre-positioning ships, they will be the right ships for the job. The slightly more than $25 million spent now could help prevent a major war. That is a good bargain. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)


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