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Future of fast supply ships questioned

Jul. 31, 2014 - 09:18PM   |  
Support Questions: The fast combat support ship Bridge transfers supplies to the German destroyer Hamburg and US aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, while the cruiser Hue City waits its turn. The Bridge is scheduled to be taken out of service in September as an economy measure.
Support Questions: The fast combat support ship Bridge transfers supplies to the German destroyer Hamburg and US aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, while the cruiser Hue City waits its turn. The Bridge is scheduled to be taken out of service in September as an economy measure. (MC2 Ryan McLearnon/ / US Navy)
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WASHINGTON — While lawmakers routinely question the Navy about aircraft carriers, submarines, cruisers and other warships, it’s rare that the lowly combat logistics force comes into the congressional viewfinder.

But on Wednesday, the future of the ships that bring ammunition, fuel and food to fighting ships at sea came under scrutiny, even as the Navy wrestles with whether to take some of its most capable support ships out of service as an economy measure.

“I am concerned that the replacement of our fast combat support ships with slower, less capable support vessels will negatively impact the logistics operations of our naval fleet and render our forces less capable during times of conflict,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower subcommittee, said during a hearing on the topic.

Forbes is concerned with Navy proposals to inactivate two of its four fast combat support ships, the largest and most capable supply ships that serve the fleet — and also the most expensive to operate. The ships, which are considerably faster than other supply vessels, are routinely assigned to support fast carrier strike groups.

Navy planners in the Pentagon have proposed inactivating two of the ships, designated T-AOEs. One of them, the Bridge, is scheduled to leave service in September after an active career of only 16 years. Another, the Rainier, would go in September 2015.

The ships would be replaced by two slower kinds of ships, T-AKE dry cargo ammunition ships and T-AO fleet oilers.

But fleet commanders are balking at the proposals, and Forbes shares their concerns.

“From a warfighting perspective, from how we operate and exercise, from one-stop shopping from one ship as opposed to bringing along two slower ships, I just think keeping the T-AOEs is a very practical way to go,” he said.

Scott DiLisio, director of the Strategic Mobility Combat Logistics Division in OpNav, the offices that report directly to the chief of naval operations, acknowledged the time it takes to supply a carrier would be extended without the T-AOEs — four hours with the single ship, six hours using the T-AKEs and oilers.

“It may not be the preferred capability, but the existing force is actually matched up pretty well to do those types of replenishments at sea,” DiLisio said. He noted the Navy has not yet rendered a decision on the issue.

“As I'm sitting here today, we've not made that decision. We're still discussing it,” he said.

The fleet has 14 T-AO oilers, DiLisio said, enough to take care of fuel resupply needs. He also noted that while there would be more ships to protect without the T-AOEs, it might also be easier in a wartime situation than in peacetime operations.

“It's actually the inverse of what you might think,” DiLisio told the subcommittee. “In peacetime, the oiler demand is actually higher because we disperse the force in a greater regard across the globe.”

But, he said, “when you have a wartime scenario, you're very focused, which allows you to keep a smaller number of tankers in the mix. … Even if we were to get rid of the two T-AOEs, we would have enough tankers to perform the missions we need to with little to no surge. We'd be right on the number.”

While there are no plans to design new fast combat support ships, the Navy already is working on a new class of fleet oiler, dubbed T-AO(X), to succeed the existing Henry J. Kaiser-class ships.

“Basically, we're pretty happy with our current oiler,” DiLisio told Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. “What we're looking for is something new. Something as fast as we could get it, that could do multi-product [supplying] and continue the workforce development that we currently enjoy.”

The new ship, DiLisio said, should cost between $680 million to $690 million.

“I don't think we need to go any higher than that to meet our current requirements,” DiLisio said. “And we’re not far from a 2016 start with the current requirements we have. We’re very comfortable with it.”

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