The U.S. Navy SEAL commandoes used to have a near-monopoly on launching raids and other special operations missions from the sea. But now MARSOC (Marine Corps Special Operations Command) and U.S. Army Special Forces (which includes Delta Force) operators are also training to launch operations “from the sea”. The SEALs will probably retain their monopoly on scuba type operations because the SEALs already have a lot of training and regular practice in this specialized area. But given the shift of U.S. attention to the Pacific and the greater probability that more commando missions will be launched from the sea, more of the existing American commando force needs this kind of training.
To support this increase need for seaborne commando operations the navy is building special commando support ships and having more surface combat ships prepare to support commando operations. These preparations increasingly involve bringing in SEALs, MARSOC or Special Forces operators for training exercises. The commandos can be delivered via small transports to carriers and thence by helicopter to smaller ships (destroyers, amphibious carriers or the new LCS) for the actual mission (via a smaller boat that goes to a nearby beach.) The commandos also practice going in via low-flying helicopter or, if they are SEALs, via the specialized mini-subs that most American SSN (attack subs) can carry on their deck.
The navy and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have been planning this shift for several years now and it includes creating some special commando support ships. In late 2013 the U.S. Navy began converting a 30,000 ton container ship to serve as a seagoing base (MSV or Maritime Support Vessel) for SOCOM commandos and support troops. Over $100 million is being spent to do the conversion. What’s interesting about this is that it’s an old idea.
Back in 2004 the U.S. Navy was asked by SOCOM to look into the idea of modifying a container ship for use as seagoing base for Special Operations troops (Special Forces and commandos). This idea was apparently inspired by incidents in the past decade where SOCOM forces had been based temporarily on navy ships. Off Haiti in 1996 and Afghanistan in 2001 the Navy provided an aircraft carrier with most of its air wing withdrawn and replaced with Army or Special Operations helicopters and personnel. While this tactic demonstrated tremendous flexibility on the part of the navy it could not be done on a regular basis because it tied up one of the most valuable navy assets (carriers and their crews.) Then in 2001 the navy began converting four SSBNs (ballistic missile firing nuclear subs) to carry 154 cruise missiles as well as SOCOM (so far mainly SEALs) commandos. This includes commando equipment and special boats to get them ashore.
The conversion concept had several major advantages over the traditional approach of building a new type of military ship. Commercial vessels, even ones the size of aircraft carriers (large tankers and container carriers), typically require crews of less than fifty rather than thousands for military ships of the same size. A large container ship used for military purposes could be operated by fewer than a hundred 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 Military Sealift Command (MSC) would own and operate these ships using civilian crews. The navy would keep one or two of these ships ready at all times plus a reserve of special containers ashore for use on additional MSC-owned ships or those leased from commercial users.
The current MSV project uses a smaller (30,000 ton) container ship and will handle a few hundred SOCOM operators and support troops and less than a dozen helicopters plus some small commando boats.