Navy Fleshing Out Requirements for Next-Gen Logistics Ship

By Mandy Mayfield
Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Lewis and Clark

Navy photo

The Navy wants to build a new class of at-sea resupply ships, but it has more work to do to develop requirements and secure adequate funding for the effort.

The service announced in 2020 its Next-Generation Logistics Ship program, or NGLS, which is planned to be a new class of vessels that will enable refueling, rearming and resupply of Navy ships while complementing its existing logistics forces.

The NGLS program is part of the Combat Logistics Force, said Tom Rivers, executive director for amphibious, auxiliary and sealift programs at the program executive office for ships. The Navy’s current combat logistics ships include oilers, or T-AOs, dry cargo and ammunition ships, or T-AKEs, and fast combat support ships, or T-AOEs. These ships are all large auxiliary vessels.

“We’re looking for something that is smaller than the existing T-AOs, T-AKEs, T-AOEs,” Rivers said during a panel discussion at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium in January.

The new fleet would include an increased number of smaller ships to support a more distributed architecture and enable the Navy to more easily counter adversaries through a concept called Distributed Maritime Operations, or DMO, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report, “Navy Next-Generation Logistics Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress.”

“DMO aims at avoiding a situation in which an adversary could defeat U.S. naval forces by concentrating its attacks on a relatively small number of large, high-value U.S. Navy ships,” the study explained.

In December, the Navy released a new long-term shipbuilding plan aimed at boosting the capacity and capability of its fleet. Over the next 30 years, the blueprint calls for procuring a number of new vessels including 80 combat logistics force ships.

“Logistics ships are and have always been an integral part of the Navy’s architecture,” said Jerry Hendrix, a naval analyst and retired Navy captain. Hendrix recently released a book, To Provide and Maintain a Navy: Why Naval Primacy Is America’s First, Best Strategy, in which he advocates for a larger logistics fleet.

An auxiliary logistical support fleet is necessary for keeping Navy ships that are spread out across vast theaters resupplied with fuel, spare parts, ammunition and food, he said in an interview.

Having a bigger Navy means there needs to be growth in the logistics fleet “or what you’ll end up finding is that you’ll be out of balance, you’ll have too many combatants and you won’t have the logistics force to keep those combatants resupplied at sea,” Hendrix said. “It has to be carefully managed from that perspective.”

The NGLS program will likely be operated by Military Sealift Command which is currently in charge of the replenishment and military transport ships for the Navy and other services, Rivers noted.

According to the CRS report, the new logistics ships may be built in two different variants to perform specific missions.

The vessels “will enable refueling, rearming and resupply of naval assets — afloat and ashore” in support of Distributed Maritime Operations, littoral operations in contested environments and expeditionary advanced base operations, the report said.

The Navy is also considering converting existing vessels, building new ships, or pursuing both options to acquire the logistics platforms, Rivers said.

Military Sealift Command issued a solicitation in December looking to obtain an existing commercial platform to experiment with for the program, an effort that could help inform requirements, Rivers said.

Rivers said PEO Ships is partnering with Erica Plath, director of strategic mobility and the combat logistics division in the office of the chief of naval operations, to help develop requirements for the program. Officials are focused on writing the requirements for the refueling, resupply and rearming portions of the program, he added.

Military Sealift Command hosted an industry day in January where more than 20 companies participated, Rivers said. During the event, program leaders shared initial concepts studies with members of industry. The Navy is planning to release an industry study request for proposals in the first quarter of 2021 with the goal of awarding multiple companies contracts later this year that will help inform requirements for the program.

“We’re planning to release an industry study RFP here in this quarter, and … we’re looking to get some multiple participants to help us as we kind of inform the requirements decision process,” Rivers said.

The Navy hosted its first industry day for the program in June 2020 to gain feedback from attendees and to continue developing program characteristics. One of the challenges the service is facing is underway replenishment, Rivers said. That “is unique to Navy ships, and we’re trying to figure out how to best integrate that into a commercial platform, because we want NGLS to be based upon a commercial platform as much as possible,” he said.

Underway replenishment is a method of transferring fuel, munitions and other goods from one ship to another during operations at sea.

The contract for designing and constructing, or converting, the first NGLS will be awarded in the second quarter of fiscal year 2023, according to the CRS report. Construction or conversion of additional platforms will follow in fiscal year 2024 and subsequent years.

Building logistics ships won’t just help the Navy meet its resupply requirements. It can also build resiliency and redundancy back into the military’s overall shipbuilding infrastructure, Hendrix said.

“The one thing that we know is that a strong, robust logistics fleet — and for that matter, a strong, robust merchant fleet — helps to train workers, whether they’re welders or pipefitters or electricians that can work on ships,” he said. “Those people who are trained to build civilian or combat logistics ships also have skill sets that can contribute to the marketplace for the naval shipyards, so it helps to generate a better trained workforce for us in the long run.”

As the Navy grows its combat logistics shipbuilding capability, it likewise bolsters its small parts suppliers, he noted.

This “has a tendency to lower the overall cost of your naval ships — your destroyers, your cruisers — simply because you have more parts suppliers that are in the market of building small parts and components, and then competing for those contracts with the government,” Hendrix said. “By adequately managing your logistics force, as well as your military sealift and your merchant fleet, you are actually adding to your naval force as well by growing that resilience and lowering your overall costs.”

The Navy requested $30 million in research-and-development funding for the program for fiscal year 2021. However, funding for the NGLS was cut by $6 million in the fiscal year 2021 Defense Department Appropriations Act, according to the CRS report.
Oftentimes, logistics ships are one of the last programs funded by the Navy, Hendrix noted.

A “challenge that we often have is getting the logistics force to rise to the top of the priority list,” Hendrix said. “If there’s a restricted number of dollars, an argument has to be made that the logistics force is as important to invest in as your naval surface combatant force, and that we need to also invest in those shipyards that are associated with building them.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., ranking member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and force projection, recently has been advocating for the logistics fleet, and other Navy vessels that defend that fleet. Near-peer adversaries such as China could target logistics ships and thereby interrupt critical military supply lines.

“More and more people are understanding the critical nature of the Navy in this fight and the critical nature of all the different components … whether it is tankers, or securing tankers or cable ships … as well as a modernized logistics fleet, and then having the ability to make sure that we are protecting the logistics fleets,” he said.

Another important aspect of logistics ships, specifically in wartime scenarios, is that they are imperative for supplying not just the Navy, but the other services as well, Hendrix noted. For example, Air Force bases in the Asia-Pacific region rely on Navy resupply vessels for aviation jet fuel.

Wittman shared the same sentiment, noting that soldiers also rely on logistics ships.

The Army “understands in a very strong way that if they are going to be part of that [fight] in the Indo-Pacific, there needs to be a strong Navy,” Wittman said. “The Army has got to have a fleet of logistics ships to be able to mobilize and to be able to get there.”

Meanwhile, PEO Ships is focused on speedily developing capabilities and delivering vessels on time.

To increase its commitment to the effort, Rivers said a shipbuilding industrial base task force was stood up last year, “which is specifically charged with helping to align ship and submarine, construction, maintenance and modernization with available resources, capability and capacity requirements.”

As the service branches into more small programs, the industrial task force will give the Navy better insight into issues members of industry are facing.

“By doing this, we’re getting a better understanding of the cross-cutting challenges across the industrial base, that in turn allows us to develop strategies and better ... resiliency of the critical business space,” Rivers said. 

Topics: Logistics and Maintenance, Navy News, Defense Department, Shipbuilding

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