2013-03-05 by Robbin Laird and Murielle Delaporte
This past Saturday, we attended the christening of the latest US Navy ship at General Dynamics’s NASSCO shipyard in San Diego.
Fully loaded, the new ship will displace more than 80,000 tons – yet it isn’t an aircraft carrier.
Instead, the USNS Montford Point is the first of a new class of Navy ships, a Mobile Landing Platform, in essence a deployed port at sea.
The ship adds to the ongoing revolution in what is called “seabasing,” the idea of supplying and sustaining military operations directly from ships at sea without requiring ports or staging bases on the land, a revolution which is being made possible by new ships, new aircraft, and new ways to use existing capabilities as part of the evolving seabase.
Because the seabasing revolution is not tied to any single platform, one might miss its significance. There is “disruptive change” going on, but it is more about the evolution of the seabase than it is about a single platform in the seabase.
There are several building blocks either already deployed or on their way that are reshaping the amphibious warfare “Gator Navy.”
Traditionally the Navy’s amphibs acted like a Greyhound bus whose major function was to carry Marines TO the fight. Today, the Gator Navy is becoming a distributed expeditionary strike force, able to engage on multiple operational levels, ranging from security, to disaster relief, to humanitarian operations, to various warfighting scenarios.
We have written before on AOL Defense about some of the new elements:
First, on the aviation side, is the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, a hybrid of helicopter and propeller plane with unprecedented capability to operate off of either seabases or land bases. The V-22 makes possible the integration of forces in new ways that create what we have called the “Tsunami of Change.”
Second, the Marine Corps’s short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, will bring to the fleet new Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C5ISR capabilities) which the Gator Navy has never previously enjoyed without the involvement of the large-deck carrier. The Marines consider the F-35B to be a command, control, and information warfare aircraft, which enables the entire Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) to operate more effectively.
Third, the new USS America class, a large-deck amphibious ship optimized to operate large numbers of F-35Bs and V-22s (albeit at the cost of its capacity to carry landing craft), can provide flagship coverage for a dispersed sea base.
Now comes the USNS Montford Point.
As we approached the ship from San Diego harbor, we passed several more conventional Navy ships, such as Arleigh Burke destroyers, LHA helicopter carriers, LPD amphibious transports, and then, looming in front of us, was this 80,000-ton giant.
As we looked at the ship, the big gaping hole in the middle is where the change has come: The ship is built on the foundation of an oil tanker which NASSCO built for British Petroleum, but instead of tanks you have open space for loading and offloading at sea.
The ship is designed to have a mix and match functionality for support to the fleet. Modules will be developed to optimize it for particular missions.
For example, the first module to be developed will the Montford Point to simultaneously load three assault hovercraft (called LCACs, short for Landing Craft, Air Cushion).
But the ship can be configured to support disaster relief, such as the Japanese tsunami; to support assault operations, with many vehicles on board; or as a floating support system for aviation, ground forces, or other naval forces, for example small minesweeping craft.
It can clearly function as support for higher intensity assault operations or a more sustained operational tempo.
The third and (possibly) fourth ships in the class will be part of the evolving distributed operations command and control capabilities as well. C5ISR will be distributed across the seabase and not simply concentrated on a single point, a revolution that the F-35 will certainly accelerate.
The Mobile Landing Platform ships will be operated by Military Sealift Command, whose commander, Rear Adm, Mark Buzby, underscored their flexibility in a recent interview with us.
Along with his other new asset, the T-AKE cargo ship (also built by General Dynamics NASSCO), the Mobile Landing Platform will allow for more flexible operations.
As the Admiral put it, “new modules to support other missions could be added to support a new generation of Sailors and Marines who have not even been born yet. One could easily envision this ship serving as a repair ship, a hospital ship, an aviation depot/support ship, or a dedicated LCS [Littoral Combat Ship] mothership in the future — given the appropriate mission capability package was developed and fitted. It’s 800 feet of ‘use your imagination.’”
The Admiral was underscoring the MLP’s capability to grow even more capability in the future.
The new ship is a platform which will become more effective over time as new modules are added.
But the only mission capability package that is approved and being built to date is the Baseline capability, which is included in the $500 million cost of each MLP.
This Baseline module enables the Navy’s workhorse transports, the Large, Medium-Speed, Roll-on/Roll-off Ships (LMSRs), to offload at sea (via a ramp) onto the MLP, which can then in turn load up to 3 LCAC hovercraft to transport equipment ashore. The baseline package includes a raised vehicle platform (no covered storage), LCAC mooring ramps/support facilities, ship-to-ship vehicle ramp, and fenders.
For Military Sealift Command, the MLP’s ability to stay at sea for long periods will allow it to support a wide range of missions requiring extended on-station time.
And a ship like this, one that can be tailored to a wide variety of missions not pre-determined by the limits of the ship itself, will be in high demand.
Mission capability packages will be designed, constructed, and placed aboard the ships over time as needs are identified and funding available.
The only additional capability package currently under development – and not yet fully approved or funded – is the Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB) package which could include an aviation landing area (multi spot) and hanger capacity of some size. Package would also likely facilitate small boat launch/recovery facilities, and messing/berthing for additional personnel.
It also should be noted that for such a large ship, only a relatively small crew is needed to operate it.
The core crew of 34 sailors can be augmented – even while already underway — with other manpower appropriate to the specific deployment tasks. The 34 crew who operate the ship day to daywill assist in offload operations, but additional personnel will be required to come aboard MLP during cargo operations to run the deck and moor the LCACs. There is, however, no berthing on board for the additional personnel.
After the interview with the Admiral, our colleague Ed Timperlake (a key participant in the Buzby interview), commented that the “mission of the ship is logistics, but it is engagement-agnostic.”
This engagement-agnostic function of the ship fits in well with the “Pivot to the Pacific” strategy, in which the full spectrum of operations facing a seabase must not be confined by prior policy planning but should respond to operational demands and realities.
The USNS Montford Point will be part of 21st century innovations in concepts of operations, and the types of ships to be procured in the years ahead need to be central to the evolving concepts of distributed operations so central to global operations.
The logistical side of the operational equation is often ignored, but it is clearly the tail that wags the dog.
And this tail – the USNS Montford Point – could foster change beyond even the traditional understanding of the seabase.
James Strock, the seabasing guru at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, underscored the kinds of innovation this ship can foster:
We’ve already been down to talk to the Army Chief of Transportation at Fort Lee, Brigadier General Stephen E. Farmen. The Army has host of ocean going watercraft. We need to test if Army LCUs or Army Logistic Support Vessels could do a 90-degree ramp-down marriage to the MLP for possible equipment transfer,” Strock told us. “We need to see if the Navy’s landing craft utility, the 1610 Class LCUs, could they do ramp down, what we call athwart- ship, 90-degree approach, on the MLP for at-sea transfer…..Can you bring a Joint High-Speed Vessel alongside the MLP, slew its ramp 45 degrees, and do at-sea transfer between JHSV and MLP?”
The combinations become endless as you look at all of the various Army watercraft, and as you look at other Military Sealift Command assets, and all the various multinational capabilities,” Strock went on. “The lance corporals and the gunnery sergeants are going to figure a lot of this out. The petty officers, the gunnery sergeants, the seamen, the lance corporals, these are smart people. They’re going to find ways to make stuff work together that we haven’t even thought about at the start of the effort.
There are two other parts to the story of USNS Montford Point which need to be highlighted as well.
The first is how the ship came about and the second is the link to the heritage of the name itself.
The ship is an example of a new way to build ships. When the Navy initially put together its design requests, the ship was going to cost north of $1 billion per ship. Given that logistics ships tend to be at the end of the line in priorities for funding, this put it in the kill zone. It was on the way to the junk pile of ideas that would have been good but didn’t make it pierside.
Enter the NASSCO team working closely with the Navy to find a way to make this ship a reality.
The end result is that the Navy is getting three ships, each of which meets about 80 percent of the initial concept’s requirements for less than half of the initial projected cost.
In an exclusive interview for this article, NASSCO CEO Fred Harris sat down with us to discuss how this achievement came about.
Above all, Harris emphasized the need for a close coordination between the design and manufacturing processes to achieve an effective outcome. “By combining  a mature design with a well-designed manufacturing process with  assurance that the materials to build the ship were available and with  skilled workers, the USNS Montford Point could be built in a timely and cost-effective manner,” he told us
There were two other aspects of the success in building the ship that were notable as well.
The first is the importance of having built oil tankers for BP and using that experience to shape the Navy program. “I took Navy officials with me to visit the BP tankers and to ask them what they liked and didn’t about the ships,” Harris said. “And we took their evaluations and our experience in building the tankers as a powerful baseline in which to improve the USN [US Navy] version of this ship.”
The second is the important role which South Korea played in the construction of the ship itself.
NASSCO has had a close working relationship with both South Korea and Japan. For example, said Harris, “the ship has a deck of one and one-half inches thick of steel. Normally, we would need 6 passes to do this, but the Koreans had a technology to do it in one pass. With the Korean technology, we were able to reduce cost and raise quality and performance at the same time.”
If one is concerned about competing in the Pacific with the Chinese, then working more effectively with our Japanese and South Korean allies is a good thing. And here the first of its class has that cooperation built in.
The second aspect of note was the group for whom it was named and how the Commandant of the USMC handled that aspect of the ship’s christening ceremony.
The African-American Marines trained at Camp Montford Point, North Carolina, are of course legendary for their courage and their ability to fight Japanese in World War II and racism in the United States at the same time.
But talking to some of the more than 30-plus Montford Point Marines at the christening, it was clear that they were most interested in what the Commandant later did in the ceremony.
The Commandant emphasized the inclusion of the Montford Point Marines within the long and distinguished history of the USMC, and not their separation.
And towards the end of the speech, the Commandant put on the hat of the Montford Point Marines alumni, emblazoned with with the four stars of his rank, which drove whom the point that he was the Commandant of all Marines, without regard to race, creed, or color .
The Commandant also delivered the best line of the day: “Because of sequestration, I am cutting my speech by 10 per cent and will only speak for 9 minutes rather than 10.”
How did the Marines feel about the day and the coming of the new ship? This was well summed up by a comment which Maj. Gen. Walsh, Deputy Commanding General of the USMC Combat Development Command, made to us at the ceremony:
The christening of the USNS Montford Point (MLP-1) is a significant step in realizing the 21st century naval capabilities that Marines and Sailors from generations past could only dream about,” Walsh told us. Through the innovation and foresight of previous Navy and Marine Corps leaders and our industry partners, we are now integrating innovative capabilities like USNS Montford Point into our Maritime Prepositioning Squadrons that will allow us to achieve operational concepts like seabasing and ship-to-objective maneuver.
As Marines, the icing on this cake is naming this wonderful ship ‘Montford Point‘ in recognition of our Montford Point Marines, the first African-Americans allowed to enlist in our beloved Corps during our Nation’s utmost time of need, and who were so deservedly honored last year with the Congressional Gold Medal. This ‘pier in the ocean’ has all of us very excited!
The photos accompanying the article were taken by Robbin Laird and Murielle Delaporte on March 1st from a boat in the port and on March 2nd while attending the christening ceremony.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on AOL Defense.
- The first 4 photos show the USNS Montford Point seen the day before the ceremony from a ship in the harbor.
- The fifth and sixth photos show the ship on the day of the christening.
- The seventh and eighth photos show the Commandant of the USMC honoring the Montford Point Marines.
- The 9th photo shows a guide to the location of the ship.
- The 10th photo shows Fred Harris, the CEO of NASSCO, addressing the audience during the christening.
- The 11th photo shows Rear Admiral Lewis who is Vice Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command, discussing ship modularity and its impact.
- In the 12th photo, Rear Admiral Buzby, head of the Military Sealift Command, discusses the role of the ship in the fleet.
- In the 13th and 14th photos, some of the more than 30 Montford Point Marines in attendance are enjoying the end of the festivities.