Special Operations: Secrecy In Constant Motion


July 9, 2018: With no fanfare at all the U.S. Navy completed the conversion of a cargo ship into an MSV (Maritime Support Vessel) for SOCOM (Special Operations Command). The ship to be converted had been built in 2011 for commercial service with Maersk Lines. It was quietly purchased by the U.S. Navy and in early 2014 an American shipyard began converting the 20,000 ton (displacement) RO/RO (Roll On/Roll Off) cargo ship MV Craigside to serve as a seagoing base (MSV) for SOCOM commandos and support troops. This included renaming the ship to Ocean Trader.

About $80 million was spent on the conversion which consisted of turning the deck into a landing pad for at least two helicopters and hanger in the forward part of the ship that can house three helicopters for maintenance or just to keep them out of bad weather. The ramp for RO/RO of vehicles is in the rear and remains. The Ocean Trader had special windowless communications and planning areas built as in well as spaces for launching and recovering Scan Eagle UAVs. There was a dive locker (chamber) for U.S. Navy SEALs to quietly slip into sea as well as storage and launch facilities for RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boats) like the 11 meter (35 foot) RHIB used by SOCOM and the 12.8 meter (41 foot) CCA (Combat Craft Assault) for more difficult insertions of SEALs to a hostile shore.

The CCA was built of composites and shaped to be stealthy for coastal and riverine operations. Carrying up to eleven personnel, the CCA can be airdropped (from a C-17) but is usually launched from larger ships (like Ocean Trader). There is still a large vehicle deck on the Ocean Trader and it can carry a wide variety of vehicles used by SOCOM personnel. There are climate controlled storage areas for a wide variety of supplies and a small hospital area including an operating room and recovery areas.

In 2015 the Craigside was renamed Ocean Trader and by 2016 was spotted in the Mediterranean. Commercial ships can easily be tracked using the Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and Ocean Trader showed up for a while (Crete in May 2016, Gibraltar in May 14, 2017, and Amsterdam in August 16, 2017) but since then the AIS has been turned off most of the time, as is the case with warships much of the time. Without AIS you have to rely on visual spotting and that has put Ocean Trader in the Baltic, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Black Sea during 2017 and 2018.

The Ocean Trader has a top speed of 36 kilometers an hour, even in heavy seas. Internal fuel enables it to go about 14,000 kilometers and it has been equipped for resupply (including fuel) at sea. The ship crew consists of 50 civilian personnel (with security clearances and lots of experience running cargo ships). There are at least two crews and they are periodically switched to give the crews time at home and the Ocean Trader the ability to remain at sea for long periods. The ship has berths for about 200 special operations personnel or contractors (for operating special electronic or transport equipment) and whenever it docks somewhere there is activity as personnel and some equipment are changed and supplies taken on.

What’s interesting about the Ocean Trader 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 a seagoing base for Special Operations troops. 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 commandos. This includes commando equipment and special boats to get them ashore. But these SSGNs did not have the capabilities of a MSV like the Ocean Trader. The SSGNs have proved useful for some (largely classified) SOCOM missions but not for all the missions SOCOM needed an MSV for.

The 2004 SOCOM proposal was to buy or lease a container ship, paint it gray and fit it out with crew quarters, (similar to those used by oil platform crews) for up to 800 SOCOM operators and 200 support troops got some serious consideration. The facilities on board would include command, medical, recreation and storage for weapons, ammunition and explosives, and so forth. All would all be built into standard modular containers, as the U.S. later did extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Container ships have power generating capability to support refrigerated cargo so there is plenty for military needs (especially communications).

The use of modified (onshore) containers would also provide some bolted together to serve as a helicopter hangar and flight deck. With this setup, the ship could operate over a dozen SOCOM helicopters, especially the larger MC-47s and V-22. Other containers would hold at least half a dozen RHIB boats and equipment for launching and recovering them.

The 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 container ship conversion never took place but there were some MSC ships that quietly move SOCOM personnel and equipment around but nothing as customized as the Ocean Trader. While the Ocean Trader was created quietly there was no keeping it secret. The Ocean Trader had to frequently make port calls and was subject to being photographed by anyone with a smartphone. That was done often and the photos made their way onto the Internet and suddenly a lot was known about the Ocean Trader. While SOCOM remains quiet on the subject the fact that the Ocean Trader has been constantly at sea (or briefly in some foreign port) for over two years indicate the ship is being used regularly.


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