Being in More Places at Once Calls for Both Large and Small Platforms: Expeditionary Fast Transport Can Provide Logistics Support at the End of the Supply Chain
By Edward Lundquist
The Spearhead-class Expeditionary Fast Transport ship USNS Carson City (T-EPF 7) in Sekondi, Ghana, July 22, 2019. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams/Released.
Silitaryince the end of the Cold War, America’s defense strategy has focused on maintaining the peace instead of waging a war with near-peer competitors. But, according to what Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson wrote in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority Version 2.0, issued in December of last year, the United States is once again in the middle of a great power competition, where “China and Russia are deploying all elements of their national power to achieve their global ambitions.”
“It has been decades since we last competed for sea control, sea lines of communication, access to world markets, and diplomatic partnerships. Much has changed since we last competed,” Richardson said. “We will adapt to this reality and respond with urgency.”
Richardson calls for maturing the Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept and key supporting concepts, which means having more capability in more places at any given time, and to “posture logistics capability ashore and at sea in ways that allow the fleet to operate globally, at a pace that can be sustained over time.” That means improving the Navy and Marine Corps ability and resilience to refuel, rearm, resupply, and repair.
A recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) study, Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era, has documented the need to expand and improve the current and programmed defense maritime logistics force of the United States, which the study’s authors said “is inadequate to support the current US National Defense Strategy and major military operations against China or Russia.”
America’s abilities to sustain its deployed naval forces is second to none. In 2019, however, the CSBA report said that there are numerous indications that this area of US competitive advantage now threatens to become a major weakness. “Adversaries of the United States—the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, in particular—have developed the means to degrade, deceive, and exploit the US logistics architecture, with cascading effects on US combat forces. Moreover, decades of cuts to logistics capability, capacity, and posture have resulted in a relatively small and brittle US logistics force that at times chose and at times was forced to prioritize peacetime efficiency over wartime effectiveness and resiliency against capable adversaries.”
The study looked at major programs and investments needed to retain or restore America’s competitive edge in logistics and force sustainment, including a number of recommendations that deal with large vessels, which will be needed to supply the US and partner nations at sea and ashore. The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, and its goal of growing to 355 ships, means it will need more support ships. The plan calls for more combat ships, but proportionally, the study concluded, there will be a reduction in support ships overall. The military expects to “fight in a more effective, distributed, and sustained manner, while supporting Joint Force power projection,” the authors said, which means more and varied platforms must be available to support the distributed force where needed.
“An unsupported force may quickly become a defeated one,” the report said.
One platform in particular—the Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF)—has shown promise in closing gaps and delivering new capabilities to planners and warfighters. EPF is a high-speed transport based on a commercial ferry design that has a unique combination of attributes: high-speed; significant cargo volume with a roll on-roll off ability; and shallow draft to get in and out of smaller ports. And it is affordable.
EPF is not ideal for all missions. The light weight all-aluminum construction enables higher speeds and shallower draft. The platform’s wide beam and voluminous mission space provides plenty of logistics and warfighting capability, but the catamaran design poses some limitations on operations in higher sea states. As an auxiliary ship, manned by civilian mariners (CIVMARs), EPF cannot be armed or conduct combat operations, but it can support those operations in a number of ways.
Operating a distributed force in a contested environment means the ships will need to be replenished and maintained. The EPF can be a platform that can deliver critical supplies, parts and maintenance capabilities and medical support as needed to dispersed locations. And if needed for combat missions, the ships can be commissioned as warships, be armed, and participate in those operations which would otherwise be prohibited for merchant ships under the law of war.
EPF has the ability to embark warfighters with secure spaces and networks to conduct classified missions. The EPF today can be configured for different roles by equipping the ships with adaptive force packages. If future combat-related missions are anticipated, follow-on versions of the ship can be modified with a helicopter hangar and elevator between the flight deck and mission bay, strengthened decks for weapons mounts, launch and recovery systems for boats and unmanned systems, and a more robust total ship computing environment and command and control suite.
Distributed Medical Support
The Navy today has two large and highly-capable hospital ships. They were built as oil tankers in the mid-seventies and served commercially for a decade before being converted as hospital ships for the Navy, and have served for more than 40 years. These ships are large—70,000 tons and 894 feet long—and have a draft of 33 feet, which can limit the ports where they can call. They are manpower intensive and costly to operate.
And they can only be in one place at a time. One plan is to replace the hospital ships with the new hulls of the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP) design, which is trying to find a basic common design to replace gaining flagships, submarine tenders and other auxiliary ships. But even a new class of hospital ship based on the CHAMP design may not provide sufficient coverage for distributed operations in a global conflict.
The CSBA report recommends that the Navy consider a different mix of fleet medical capabilities for the future, including new classes of small and large hospital ships. “A larger number of hospital ships would support a shift to a more distributed maritime operations construct. Small hospital ships would transit to a zone between the intermediate and forward areas to receive patients via ship and aircraft (and depending on the location, directly recover personnel itself). A small hospital ship variant could treat patients onboard and then transit to an intermediate location, where patients could be transferred to a large hospital ship or transferred via aircraft (to include MV-22 and amphibious aircraft that landed alongside) to a transportation hub that would ferry them to a major shore medical facility. More economical than large hospital ships, the Navy could acquire more of these ships and posture them throughout a theater. Additionally, these smaller hospital ships would be more economical and responsive to operate in peacetime for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief or goodwill missions than larger ships.
The CSBA report states that “unit-level survival and medical capabilities should be boosted, and the Navy should consider a different mix of fleet medical capabilities, including a new class of small hospital ships (such as one based on the EPF or other design) and a new class of large hospital ships (such as one based on the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform), with priority given to more smaller hospital ships.”
Search and Rescue
Combat Search and rescue (CSAR) at sea is a subset of the larger challenge of finding and rescuing people in the water who have bailed out of aircraft or have had their vessels damaged or sunk. For all SAR cases, time is of the essence, and CSAR cases are often injured and in need of immediate medical attention. Likewise, medical evacuation involves getting wounded or sick patients to a facility where they can receive medical attention. The EPF provides both speed and versatility and with its shallow draft can get to the contingency area more quickly than current afloat medical platforms.
The EPF cannot assume all of the logistics functions that the report is recommending, but it can augment larger ships or support a number of these functions. For example, EPF could be configured to transport fuel, food, parts, munitions to dispersed units afloat or ashore, a role it is essentially designed for. EPF can embark maintenance detachments with the specialists, parts and tools that can travel to forward positioned ships and units to maintain, repair or replace equipment, instead of bringing those units back to a repair depot to be serviced.
With its flight deck and significant internal volume, EPF can be a link near the end of the logistics chain to get priority material to forward vessels of troops ashore using unmanned vertical lift aircraft. The Marines proved the value of using small UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] like the unmanned K-MAX helicopter to deliver limited loads instead of large aircraft such as the CH-53E.
EPF can deliver fuel bladders and pumps or water purification systems to forward operating bases, and can be configured to provide expeditionary maintenance and repair for forces such as detachments of unmanned vehicles or MK VI patrol boats in forward or austere locations.
Opportunities for Seafarers
The nation faces a shortage of more than 1,900 mariners during protracted operations. Additional civilian-crewed ships such as the EPF providing distributed logistics support would create more jobs at sea for US mariners, and help grow the number of qualified seafarers who are available in contingencies.
As a non-combatant, EPF can deliver and launch unmanned surveillance systems such as the Scan Eagle UAS [unmanned aircraft system] and Knifefish mine-hunting UUV [unmanned underwater vehicles], and could be a mother ship to large and medium sized unmanned surface vessels.
The study recognizes that the CIVMAR-manned auxiliaries would benefit from uniformed detachments to “bring knowledge and authorities on board the auxiliary to support its military functions, including operating C3 and Precision Navigation and Timing (PNT) systems, managing EMS emissions, using counter-ISR systems, and, if necessary, overseeing defensive armament.”
And while its status of a civilian crewed auxiliary vessel means that it cannot be armed, with the exception of some self-defense capabilities, the ship could be commissioned as a Navy warship with a naval officer in command, and it can be equipped with a number of compact weapon systems that can give EPF a punch, particularly when deployed in numbers as part of a distributed force.
High-Speed Transports Connect the Dots for Distributed Maritime Operations
Connecting the dots for distributed maritime operations means there are more dots to connect. That means the Navy–Marine Corps team will need more platforms to provide sustainment and maintain the force. The Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) is a useful tool in the tool box, offering the flexibility of supporting multiple and varied missions, and performing those missions quickly.
The purpose of the EPF is to provide intra-theater lift. A typical mission involves rapidly moving cargo or personnel with their vehicles and gear from one port to another within a theater of operations. It’s a role the EPF performs well. But if combatant commanders don’t need to perform a traditional intra-theater lift mission every day, they do have a wide spectrum of missions where the EPF and its unique qualities have been well-suited.
The EPF is actually a typical commercial high-speed ferry, which can be found in revenue service around the world proving high-frequency, scheduled, point-to-point revenue service. These all-aluminum catamarans carry people and their vehicles at speeds of 30 knots and faster. And as military services have discovered, these high-speed ferries, and the missions they can perform, are anything but typical.
These commercial designs normally used for relatively short voyages have been demonstrated to have military utility, but modifications have been required, such as the addition of flight decks, berthing spaces, military communications equipment and weapons storage areas. Here are some notable examples of commercial high-speed ferry designs in military service:
HMAS Jervis Bay (AKR 45) was a wave piercing catamaran built by Incat in Tasmania that operated commercially before entering service in 1999 with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), just in time to support INTERFET peacekeeping taskforce in East Timor. Jervis Bay was able to complete the 430 nautical mile (800 km; 490 mi) voyage between Darwin and Dili in about 11 hours at an average speed of approximately 45 knots. Jervis Bay delivered troops, transported humanitarian supplies and evacuated civilians much more efficiently than multiple C-130 Hercules flights, and made more than 100 trips providing a critical lifeline for the U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian operation.
Austal built the 2,111 ton, 331-foot Westpac Express in 2001, which operated on a charter to support the US Marines in the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility until 2018. It is now in commercial service in Ireland.
Benchijigua Express is a 415-foot trimaran fast ferry built by Austal in Western Australia, which is in service operating between ports in the Canary Islands. It is the basis of the trimaran Independence variant of the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS), built by Austal USA on a production line alongside the EPF.
United States Army Vessel (USAV) Spearhead (TSV-X1) was the Army’s prototype “Theater Support Vessel,” leased from Incat between 2002 and 2005.
HSV-X1 Joint Venture was leased by the Army Tank-Automotive and Armament Command and was delivered in 2001 to be operated jointly and alternately by the Army and Navy, with each service having control of the vessel for roughly six-month periods. Joint Venture was modified with the installation of a flight deck for military helicopters and a hydraulically-operated vehicle ramp for rapid loading and unloading of vehicles from a pier. The lease expired in 2005.
HSV-2 Swift was a commercial high-speed ferry and directly leased by Military Sealift Command (MSC) from 2003 to 2013, primarily as a proof-of-concept mine countermeasures and sea basing platform, and employed in fleet support and humanitarian partnership missions.
Eventually both the Army and Navy created a program of record to procure the Joint High Speed Vessel, which would be built in the US and delivered to both services for their specific needs, with the first ship to also be named Spearhead. The Army pulled out of the program, but the Navy continued to receive the 1,515-ton, 338-foot ships built at Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama. The first ship of the class was delivered in 2012, and there is now a total of 13 ships delivered or under construction.
The Australian shipbuilder opened its new yard for its US subsidiary at Mobile to build LCS, and trained their new workforce on building aluminum ships by constructing two 1,646 ton, 373-foot high speed catamarans for a new venture called Hawaii Super-Ferries, which planned to use the ships in inter-island service in the 50th state. The service would likely have been successful if it were not for a determined opposition which eventually shut down the company because of legal maneuvering around environmental impact studies. The two ships came to the Maritime Administration, and then the Navy. One of them, USNS Guam (HST 1), is replacing Westpac Express in Okinawa, and the other is in commercial revenue service between Maine and Nova Scotia.