The huge red digital readout atop the USNS Laramie, a civilian-crewed supply and tanker ship (pictured), read out the distance, in feet, between the massive ship and the USS Kearsarge assault ship as the two vessels nervously edged together on the rolling Atlantic on Wednesday afternoon.
It was an “underway replenishment,” or UNREP, the Navy’s term for connecting two moving ships on the high seas to swap fuel and supplies. Plowing ahead at 15 miles per hour through unpredictable water currents, the two ships can stray dozens of feet in seconds. The goal is to hold them just 180 feet apart for a couple hours, as sailors on the receiving ship fire lines across the water to the supply ship then haul across huge hoses for transferring fuel. Meanwhile, helicopters can hop from deck to deck to bring aboard ammo and supplies. It’s a delicate and dangerous couple’s dance –- and one of the keys to U.S. dominance on the high seas.
Amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics. That’s the old military adage –- and nowhere is it more true than at sea. The distances are vast, the requirements for gas and supplies huge and the waves and weather complicate everything. The difference between a true “blue-water” navy with global reach like the U.S. Navy, and a glorified coastal protection force like most navies, is the former’s UNREP capability. It’s because of our logistics ships … and our skill in using them … that we as a nation can deploy military forces anywhere in the world at short notice.
Logistics underpin Kearsarge’s entire “soft power” deployment to South America. The idea is to haul medical staff, construction workers and their medicine and gear to some of the continent’s remotest, poorest places in order to win hearts and minds and help jumpstart economic development. The UNREP is just the most obvious and dramatic facet. Once we get to Nicaragua in a few days, sailors will start shifting cargo down below in the ship’s holds to get at the needed medical supplies; up on the flight deck, the ship’s detachment of Marine aviators will fire up their workhorse CH-53E choppers to ferry people and stuff; and the landing craft now lashed in Kearsarge’s well deck will motor out on their own supply runs. If Wednesday’s underway replenishment was a couple’s dance, the logistics operation off of Nicaragua will be one big hoedown.
These days all eyes are on the Navy’s ambitious plans to build new stealthy destroyers, shallow-water fighting ships and revamped nuclear aircraft carriers. But behind the scenes there’s an effort underway to boost the sea service’s already world-beating logistical capability. It’s called “seabasing,” and it’s all about designing better ways to move people and supplies from ship to shore. The seabasing plan includes new cargo ships, new floating docks and, most importantly, new planning tools and ways of thinking. Seabasing got one of its first big tests off the West African coast a few months ago, during a humanitarian deployment a lot like Kearsarge‘s.
If everything goes according to plan with seabasing, in the future the Navy will be able to pull off far bigger and more complex humanitarian operations than this. In that way, Kearsarge‘s current medical mission to South America is just a preview of even greater things to come.