Within Baltimore’s Inner Harbor–across from famed Fort
McHenry–sprawls one of the latest weapons in the U.S. Navy’s
battle to speed up deployment of U.S. forces to global hot spots.
The USNS Fisher (T-AKR 301), completed in 1999 at a cost of $250
million by Litton Avondale Industries, of New Orleans, is one of
the biggest, fastest cargo ships in the world.
Known as a large, medium-speed, roll-on, roll-off ship (LMSR) of
the Bob Hope class of strategic sealift vessels, the Fisher is 950
feet long–nearly the length of an aircraft carrier. Its huge,
seven-deck interior has a cargo-carrying capacity of eight football
fields, enough space to accommodate an entire battalion of Abrams
tanks or air-assault helicopters. Despite her bulk, the Fisher can
cruise at 24 knots and can hit much higher speeds, when necessary,
according to the ship’s officers.
The vessel is operated by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command
(MSC), which is part of the joint service U.S. Transportation Command.
The MSC provides ocean transportation for the equipment, fuel, supplies
and ammunition needed by U.S. forces around the world at a cost
of approximately $2 billion per year.
"During a war, more than 95 percent of the equipment and supplies
needed to sustain U.S. military forces overseas is carried by sea,"
the MSC’s commander, Vice Adm. Gordon S. Holder, told National
Defense. Holder made his comments during an interview in his state-of-the-art
headquarters in a restored portion of the historic Navy Yard in
Currently, Holder said, the Air Force–using C-17, C-5 or
C-130 transports–can fly relatively small numbers of lightly
armed combat troops into battle within days, but protracted warfare
requires massive amounts of heavy weapons and supplies that can
only be delivered from the United States by ship.
During the 1999 NATO campaign against Yugoslavia, for example,
the MSC moved more than 1.15 million square feet of cargo, or 267,000
tons of supplies into the theater.
To perform this mission, the MSC operates a total of about 110
ships worldwide in a day-to-day basis, spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Shawn
M. Cali explained. If needed, the command has access to more than
100 additional ships, all kept in reduced operating status at ports
along U.S. coasts, ready to be activated in a national emergency.
About 90 of these–the Ready Reserve Force–are owned
and operated by the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration.
The remainder are maintained by the MSC.
From the command’s Navy Yard headquarters, officials stay
in constant communication with their fleet, sending ships from one
port to another, changing destinations as needs emerge.
After the USS Cole was disabled last year by terrorists in Yemen,
for example, it was the MSC that contracted for the MV Blue Marlin–a
Norwegian heavy-lift ship–to load the 505-foot-long Cole on
to the deck of the Blue Marlin and carry her back to the United
The Blue Marlin was chosen because it happened to be nearby, having
just delivered two Navy mine hunters to Bahrain. Because of the
circumstances, the deal was done quickly–"a gentlemen’s
agreement"–by a contracting officer, using her cell phone,
"I don’t know very many people who could do that within
two or three days," he said.
Unlike other Navy ships, all MSC vessels have civilian crews. The
command has a workforce of 8,000 people worldwide, about 80 percent
of whom serve at sea. Most are civil service employees. Another
1,900 or so are employed by MSC contractors.
Some ships have departments of military personnel to carry out
communication and supply functions, but Holder is trying to get
all military personnel off MSC ships.
Last year, he noted, the command replaced the Navy helicopters
aboard three MSC combat-stores ships with civilian versions–SA-330J
Pumas. Geo-Seis Helicopters Inc., of Fort Collins, Colo., received
a $20 million, three-year contract to operate the helicopters.
"It’s important to say why we’re replacing the
sailors on our ships," Holder said. "We’re doing
it so that they can be more productive for the Navy. It’s
a matter of hiring the right people for the right job."
Civilian mariners are much more suitable than uniformed sailors
for the MSC’s non-combat mission, Holder explained. Using
civilians on MSC ships frees up active-duty personnel for combat
assignments, he said. Also, civilian crews give the MSC more flexibility,
Holder said. Most uniformed military personnel have families back
in their homeports, He noted. "They just can’t be expected
to stay at sea forever."
Mariners, on the other hand, spend long periods at sea. "We
pay them to stay at sea," Holder said. Mariners sign contracts
agreeing to be at sea up to a year at a time, and they can earn
as much as $120,000 during that period.
The MSC performs five key functions:
Through World War II, sea transportation of military equipment
was provided by four separate agencies. The MSC was formed In 1949
and transported the vast bulk of U.S. equipment and supplies to
the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
In the early 1980s, the MSC began prepositioning supply-laden ships
near trouble spots, including the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf
and Far East.
During the Persian Gulf War, the command delivered more than 12
million tons of tanks, trucks, helicopters, ammunition, fuel and
other supplies to the theater. It took months, however, for the
United States to build up enough strength to retake Kuwait and invade
To provide the capacity to move faster, the MSC is building or
converting LSMRs, like the Fisher, at U.S. shipyards. By next year,
the command plans to have 19 such ships.
Some of the LSMRs are loaded and prepositioned overseas at U.S.
naval bases in such locations as Diego Garcia, a tiny British possession
in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and the U.S.-controlled islands
of Guam and Saipan in the Western Pacific. Others are permanently
positioned in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic Ocean, moving
from one European port to another, rarely traveling together.
Still others, like the Fisher, are kept at dockside in U.S. harbors,
in reduced operating status, occupied by a skeleton crew, but always
at the ready. When trouble erupts somewhere in the world, the Fisher
can set sail within 96 hours, her civilian captain, Master Mariner
Lester Cole, explained during a tour of his vessel. "We could
leave the dock within a few hours–a day or two–if we
had to," he said. "This ship drives like a sports car,
considering her size."
Six days after setting sail, the Fisher could be in Rota, Spain,
and another week later, she could be in the Persian Gulf, Cole said.
"The only limitation is how long would it take to get the
crew aboard," added Tom Rogers, the ship’s port engineer.
To make sure the Fisher is ready when needed, she participates
regularly in military exercises. Already, since she was delivered
to the Navy in 1999, she has taken part in two exercises–one
in Egypt and one in Hawaii. In fact, the Fisher has scratches on
her hull caused by passage through the Panama Canal on her way to
and from Hawaii. With a beam of 106 feet, she is just a foot or
so narrower than the canal, according to Cole.
Despite her formidable size, the Fisher is built to operate with
a crew of 29. She also can take up to 100 military personnel, as
passengers, to maintain the cargo. By comparison, an aircraft carrier
of similar size might have a crew of 5,000.
"We’re not a combatant vessel," said Cole. "We
rely upon regular Navy escort ships for protection when necessary.
The only weapons that we carry, other than cargo, are small arms–rifles,
pistols and shotguns–to keep order on board and to repel boarders."
The Fisher is a Navy-owned ship, but like all MSC vessels, her
crew is entirely civilian, supplied by Patriot Contract Services
LLC, of Walnut Creek, Calif. The civilians are "more flexible"
than regular Navy sailors, explained the weather-beaten Cole, who
is a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy with 30 years at sea.
"We’re all cross-trained," he said. "Each
of us can do a number of jobs. Everything is not all cut and dried.
You get to find creative ways to solve problems. The Navy would
need probably 10 times as many sailors to run this ship."
Goodbye Spit and Polish
The Fisher’s civilians dispense with traditional Navy spit
and polish. Instead of uniforms, the crew–even the officers–wear
white workers’ coveralls to take the oil and grease found
on any ship.
The Fisher has ample space on its seven cavernous decks for lashing
down helicopters, tanks, trucks and other large vehicles, including
the more than 900 support vehicles used by an Army battalion. The
chains used to secure such heavy equipment have links as big as
A slewing stern ramp and a movable one that services two side ports
make it easy to drive vehicles on and off the ship. They are wide
and sturdy enough to accommodate two Abrams tanks, side-by-side.
"If one of those tanks breaks down on a ramp, the only way
to get it off may be to drive another one up right beside it,"
Two 110-ton, single-pedestal cranes make it possible to load and
unload cargo where shoreside infrastructure is limited or nonexistent.
A commercial helicopter deck enables emergency, daytime landings.
One of the MSC’s most difficult challenges is recruiting
The problem is not the accommodations, MSC officials explained.
Every crewmember gets a private or semi-private stateroom. Amenities
include a weight room, satellite television, video and book libraries,
personal computers and lounges for officers and crew.
MSC last year implemented a new food-preparation system. Meals
prepared ashore under the supervision of executive chefs are packaged
and frozen for MSC crews to reheat aboard ship.
MSC recruiting standards, however, are high. All of its mariners
must have U.S. Coast Guard-issued merchant mariners’ documents.
Isolation–with months at sea, away from family and friends–is
not attractive to many, despite the good pay and physical comforts.
"Let me tell you," one experienced mariner said. "Diego
Garcia is out in the middle of nowhere."
As a result, some ships are sailing with crews as small as 11 people.
"When the crew is that small on a ship this size," said
one ship’s officer, "it’s hard to find people to