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Haiti: Early Seapower Lessons

January 20, 2010

USNS Grasp (T-ARS 51)

Setting Naval Priorities

Outside of major combat, disaster response and relief is probably the best indicator of how well a Navy may react to an emergency. Second perhaps to the hospital ship Comfort, the most important ship in the Navy operation at present (in my own opinion) is the salvage ship USNS Grasp (T-ARS 51) . The ship is needed desperately in these initial stages to open up the earthquake ravaged ports, according to the Journal of Commerce:

The USNS Grasp, a rescue and salvage vessel of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, arrived Monday with Army divers to assess underwater obstacles and damage that have closed the seaport at Port-au-Prince. The vessel had been off the coast of Belize and diverted to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to refuel and collect food and relief supplies before heading to Haiti.

Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said reopening the port is crucial. He said the first priorities were quickly reopening the Port-au-Prince airport and clearing an overland route from the neighboring Dominican Republic but scale of the disaster requires resumption of seaborne shipments.

It is the carriers and amphibious ships getting all the headlines, but low-key littoral vessels like the Grasp are the backbone of the Navy, and their efforts along with the Seabees, the Coast Guard and others should not be overlooked.

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Lessons from the Marines

I was reading the following article from Information Dissemination, who has been just all over the Haitian relief operation, not just viewing it from a naval perspective. In this article Raymond “Galrahn” Pritchett gives us “Maritime Observations of Operation United Response“, where he expounds his thoughts on the use of Marine Amphibious ships:

Worth noting the Nassau ARG deployed Monday with USS Nassau (LHA 4), USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19), and USS Ashland (LSD 48). The ARG has long been scheduled to deploy to the 5th and 6th Fleet AOR, but can always be tasked to go anywhere. It is worth noting the deployment for a different reason though, because when looking at the amphibious ships on the East Coast, the absence of the San Antonio class LPDs raises questions…

Big deck amphibious ships are flexible and extraordinarily useful, but they are so expensive that the Marines simply can’t field enough of them. I would argue that the 22 MEU response to Haiti is an excellent example of the kind of strategic speed that makes amphibious ships important, but the emphasis of amphibious ships in the Marine Corps existing maritime force structure doesn’t give the Marines a response capability with tactical speed. If Marines are the countries 9/11 force – tactical speed does matter.

Galrahn doesn’t seem to care for Marines in the Joint High Speed Vessel, despite these being able to provide the “tactical speed” he insisted as a requirement for such missions. They are also quite roomy and comfortable for long distance operations, as we reported on  recently. Also interesting was mentioning of the LPD-17 ships, concerning which have you read this? Just a rumor mind you but not surprising in the least considering the class’ troubled past.

I think it also worth mentioning the term “Base Ship” used in this article. Not meaning to sound like I am putting down the use of these giant ships, notably the helicopter carriers, I still insist every ship in your fleet doesn’t need to be a “base”. Such large warships, because they are so capable should be considered motherships, at least until we can build or convert some less pricey versions. Because they are so capable, you can safely deploy fewer of them, but you still need essential small warships as escorts and to tread in dangerous waters where a large and irreplaceable exquisite warship would be at risk. But for the littoral ships and JHSVs, this is their natural environment.

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The Essentials of Naval Airpower

Helicopters are proving essential in lifting supplies and as airborne ambulances. The USN isn’t the only fleet deploying carrier airpower to Haiti. Defense News reports that the Italian light carrier Cavour is headed to aid the earthquake stricken Island:

The Cavour will transport Italian Navy helicopters, tracked and wheeled Army vehicles, and hospital facilities that offer two operating theaters.

A company of Army engineers is included in the contingent, as well as 550 Cavour crew members and medical staff, and force protection personnel from the Navy, Army and Air Force. Italian Carabinieri military police will also be on board.The Haiti mission is the Cavour’s first since it gained full operational capability last June. The 27,600-metric-ton vessel is 237 meters long and 39 meters wide.

 Almost any small warship with a flight deck can take advantage of the VTOL abilities of the chopper work horses. Up to 20-24 planes are carried, which also includes 8 Harrier V/STOL strike jets.

A very versatile ship, she can also perform amphibious operations, according to Naval Technology:

A strong feature of the ship is its high flexibility in operational terms. It is able to carry out the functions of an aircraft carrier as well as the transport of wheeled and tracked vehicles, for both military and civil missions. The aircraft hangar can accommodate 100 light vehicles or 24 main battle tanks for amphibious missions. The The ship can also support four LCVP landing craft. There are two 30t elevators for aircraft and two 15t elevators for armaments.

Up to 600 troops can be transported as needed. For a Navy on a budget, this is not an insignificant capability.

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The Dire Need for Small Ships

David Axe has an interesting story about Colombia’s version of the US Navy’s hospital ship Comfort. These are two 70 ton  “surgery barges” originally designed as troop transports, headed to disaster stricken Haiti:

A small river barge offers some advantages over bigger, deep-water ships. At the moment, the greatest obstacle to delivering aid to Haiti is access: the seaports are wrecked; the airport is clogged. Any vessel that can circumvent the large ports and gain access to shallow-water seaside communities can bring aid to bear faster.

It’s for that reason that the U.S. Navy needs to buy more catamarans to handle future crises. Then-Military Sealift Command boss Admiral Robert Riley told me three years ago the Navy was considering using catamarans as the basis for hospital vessels. But that hasn’t happened yet, and 40,000-ton vessels like Comfort still dominate.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. leesea permalink
    January 21, 2010 12:44 pm

    NO NEVER would I ask for an MLP (its highly specialized for Marine transport and LCACs) – hope not what is needed.

    Would a dockship or clear deck Flo/Flo be handy yes especially WHEN the amphibs leave the ares. A Blue Giant of Dock Express 10 class would be nice to have.

    The USN might figure that out later when the realize how many boats they will be leaving behind. Get some barracks barges APL etc on the ship and splashed off Haiti. Put the ACU, ACB, MES, support facilities onboard another barge along with POL and provisions barges. Sure it would work, would the Navy do that? I doubt it?~

  2. B.Smitty permalink
    January 21, 2010 7:05 am

    You know Lee, having an MLP down there right now would’ve been nice too. It doesn’t need to be loaded, carried or assembled. It could sail down under its own power.

  3. January 21, 2010 6:55 am

    This crisis has shown up something that I thought I had imagined (due to my lack of specialist knowledge.) But there seems to be a gap between amphibious assault ships and pre-positioned cargos ships. The USN doesn’t seem to have a ship that is purely to carry cargo to a beach in bulk. The RFA has the BAY class and the USN has its LSDs but they are more offshoots of the assault forces. And more importantly these aren’t very large. A 40,000 ton vessel capable of carrying containers and outsize cargos with a small well deck for LC, lighters, and ACU. (The ability to crane containers directly to the well deck. And a Chinnok/ CH53 capable flight deck.

    I have been greatly annoyed that the left leaning media have used the crisis to yet again bash the US.

  4. leesea permalink
    January 20, 2010 7:15 pm

    The JHSVs are intended to discharge at an “austere port” that is not a beach, but could well be an RRDF. The Swift has in fact done that off Africa last year. She was moored alongside the pontoons and an amphib had its ramp down on one end, and an LCU had its ramp down on the other end. So IF there are enough INLS pontoons, any of the above ships can be worked.

    It is going to be a long time before temporary piers are set up, maybe 3 wks or more. Much depends on troops and pontoons getting there.

  5. D. E. Reddick permalink
    January 20, 2010 5:38 pm

    Mike,

    JLOTS the video can be seen over at EagleSpeak. It’s 3:09 in length. Eagle1 also has several other posts regarding JLOTS and other naval / marine logistical tools at EagleSpeak.

  6. ArkadyRenko permalink
    January 20, 2010 5:17 pm

    Alas, JLOTS comes from heavy lifting ships, not lightweight high speed vessels.

    Now, if you could build a landing craft that would be carried by a highspeed vessel, then use that craft to ferry other supplies, that is something to be pursued.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 20, 2010 4:40 pm

    JLOTS?

  8. Joe K. permalink
    January 20, 2010 3:37 pm

    B. Smitty,

    Like I said, not an open beach.

  9. B.Smitty permalink
    January 20, 2010 2:13 pm

    Joe K.,

    HSVs could offload to a floating causeway or RRDF, if one was present. Of course they are just now being mobilized, so won’t be online for a while. And an RRDF will still require lighterage to get to shore.

  10. Joe K. permalink
    January 20, 2010 1:06 pm

    Mike, you do remember the JHSV requires an open dock to be able to offload/upload supplies, not an open beach.

    And if the ports are closed off because of damage, then they can’t do anything but float.

  11. B.Smitty permalink
    January 20, 2010 1:02 pm

    Helo lifting supplies just won’t cut it. They need sealift support until local facilities can be restored.

    I also don’t think more catamarans are the answer, unless they are part of an overall JLOTS strategy. If the port is destroyed, catamarans won’t be able to offload either without something like INLS, or diverting to another nearby port.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    January 20, 2010 12:34 pm

    Mike Burleson said : ” They are also quite roomy and comfortable for long distance operations”

    That simply isn’t true, no matter how often it gets repeated here or there. Sorry.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 20, 2010 9:06 am

    Jed asked “where is the RN ???”

    Sadly, not there:

    Royal Navy flotilla withdrawn to cut costs, weeks before Haiti disaster

  14. Jed permalink
    January 20, 2010 8:56 am

    Distiller said: “Sending a CVN is ok, but hand-loading water bottles onto SH-60 is not”

    But the world is not perfect, this is disaster response, not pre-planned operation and you go with what you have available at the time. Do you really think in the long term that it makes any difference to the population of Haiti whether they are getting hand loaded water bottles thrown from an SH60, or pallets of the bloody stuff from the back of a CH53 ???

    No, medium to long term its the ability to create and distribute millions of gallons of clean water to stave off the spread of disease, which could kill even more than the quake itself. So helicopter size and capacity, and capabilities of U.S. and other forces is just a red herring.

    There is no International Rescue on Tracy Island sat waiting with its wonder-tech to do immediate response – ThunderBird 2 is not coming to the rescue, so lets just try to make the best possible use of what is available.

    More worrying to me as a British citizen – where is the RN ???

  15. Distiller permalink
    January 20, 2010 6:51 am

    In my opinion what is really seen in this operation is how important interoperability is. And that tribal warfare within the Forces has to end, even if this means the end of the grown structures. Is it a coincidence that the Chairman of the JCS is an Admiral and the whole operation is sea-heavy, while ignoring the rapid response capability of air drops? Who told SecDef Gates that being hit on the head by a water bottle is more dangerous than dying of thirst or drinking crap water? And riots? Come on! Just drop enough bottled water and MREs that there is no need for rioting. The Navy was/is as fast as she possibly can, but this was/is not an operation that utilizes all the capabilities of the U.S. Sending a CVN is ok, but hand-loading water bottles onto SH-60 is not. Why weren’t palets of water flown ashore? Which brings me to the next issue: SH-60 are not good cargo helicopter. If there were real interoperability in the Forces we’d see Army UH-72 and Air Force HH-60 on the carrier, not just a handful of SH-60. And another thing: The DoD decided the Navy CSA is not needed. Now, here it shows it is! Vinson would be far more effective with cargo-CSA squadrons flying in 24/7 and helicopters doing the onshore delivery. Of course with just a handful of Greyhounds remaining it’s not possible! A comment on the small is beautiful angle: No. If the sea wouldn’t be calm, but 4 or 5 you’d be happy to fly off a 40.000ts ship. And finally: Applaus for the aux units like salvagers and crane ships! These highly important units can use every bit of media attention they can possibly get. And hopefully more money to keep their unique capabilities from dying!

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