140306-N-RI884-034As the oil industry races to put modern platform support vessels and anchor handling ships into layup, the eight-ship “tug and salvage” T-ATS(X) program is getting kinda tough to justify. Why build new ships if the Navy can buy suitable hulls for far less?

Right now there’s plenty of ships on the market that would make sensible candidates for a T-ATS(X) replacement. Read the Fall 2015 newsletter from Marcon International Inc, entitled, “OSVs on the Edge of the Abyss“, and you’ll understand why I’m all for buying a fleet of useful, cost-effective and tow-ready agents of (cough, cough) Distributed Lethality. Platform Support Vessels have never been so available:

In the Gulf, OSV tonnage by the veritable mile is now tied to the docks, and when there isn’t enough room quayside, many have dropped anchor out in the bay or up the nearest bayou. Some OSVs are in warm lay-up hoping for work while others are laid up “cold-iron” with all power off and doors chained and padlocked

If anything, the market for platform support vessels (PSV) has gotten more favorable for buyers over the past few months. And what’s even better is that the PSV market has plenty of never-used/newbuilding ships out there that stressed operators are looking to keep off their books. Heck, I think there are even a few ice-classed utility ships for sale that are ready for Polar service–for pennies on the dollar!

The prospect of buying a whole bunch of lightly-used oilfield support ships for cents on the dollar is hard to resist. The U.S. Navy might be thinking along similar lines. Last month the Navy released a little-noticed RFI to evaluate the purchase of up to nine existing platform support-like vessels.

Dissecting the PSV RFI:dd963grounding1-1

Inside the Navy’s Justin Doubleday called to discuss that RFI, and I had the pleasure to tell him that the Navy would be wise to purchase a handful of these tough and useful “do anything” ships now, before oil prices come up and the evil ‘ole 2020s suck all the life out of naval procurement. The resulting story is behind a paywall, here, but I’ve got a few snippets I can discuss in a little more detail:

According to the sources sought notice, the Navy prefers buying U.S.-built ships classed by the American Bureau of Shipping, but the service will consider foreign-built ships classed by another organization, too. It adds that the Navy is seeking information vessels with a maximum age of 20 years.

According to Hooper, the Navy could be even more aggressive in pursuing newer ships commissioned within the last decade.

“Go for 10 years,” he said. “The market is big enough.”

As you can tell, there were a few things I didn’t like about the RFI. First, there’s no need to buy twenty-year-old platforms. 20-year-old platforms will be hard-used and, by 2030, they’re going to be falling apart. Let’s get platforms that can last beyond the 2020s.

Second, the Navy wanted to buy up to nine of these ships at the leisurely pace of two a year. I get it–the Navy can only absorb so many ships so quickly–but the best deals are going to be gotten now, while the price of oil is low. In four years, this glut of ships will have passed into memory. Buy ’em now, and slot them into the yards when possible.

And finally, there was no attempt to match the market with likely requirements. Everybody who might have a surplus platform supply vessel with an interesting value-added moon pool or helicopter deck or undersea crane or extra berthing spaces–or any operational goodies at all–is going to read “lowest cost” note, shrug, and take a pass, while every fly-by-night second-hand ship-dealer cackles with glee as they rush to propose their creaky, cruddy scrap-bound castoffs as the “lowest cost technically acceptable” solution. And then, once the Navy gets these rusty low-cost hulls, the MSC will turn around and spend a lot of money to modify, repair and, oh, add moon pools to ’em.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the minimum requirements list, but it might be smart to offer a few tailored RFIs shaped to meet some additional user requirements.

Those caveats aside, I’m really glad the MSC is putting aside the idea of privatizing this tug and salvage mission. Privatization has been proposed before, and I could see certain stressed owner/operator companies trying to propose similar schemes again:

Hooper said some commercial operators will suggest the Navy lease their vessels, rather than buying directly. But he advocates for buying the vessels outright.

“I just would caution the Navy that owning the vessels offers more flexibility for them and it gives them the extra security of having the asset and being able to control the asset itself,” Hooper said. “It might cost more but I think they would get their money’s worth if they purchase.”

Putting contracted ships in harm’s way is a recipe for trouble and will only generate business for maritime lawyers. Be glad the Navy has put aside the privatization option.

What Next For T-ATS(X)?F/A-18aircraft recovery

I have been a good friend of the T-ATS(X) program. I love the T-ATS(X). In fact, I wrote a large piece on the value of the tug and salvage fleet (Surface Navy: Don’t Defund the Salvage and Tug Fleet) advocating for the T-ATS(X) program. And all last year, though I don’t have skin in the game, I stumped for T-ATS(X), alienating all my friends who favor the more exotic “shooter” platforms (“if you fund a survivable ship, but can’t get those disabled ships off the battlefield, they’re…not survivable, right?”). Hopefully it helped. At any rate, somehow, somebody in Congress decided to accelerate the program, and the legislators put first-ship funding into the FY-16 budget.

The program certainly fills a potential shipbuilding hole–Marinette Marine built the Powhatan Class (T-ATF-166) Fleet Ocean Tugs, so my operating assumption was that the T-ATS(X) program would, in time, serve as a sort of “risk-reduction/off-ramp” consolation prize for the luckless yard that loses LCS business or a works program for stressed oil service-oriented shipyards.

Either way, a newbuild program would be most welcome.

And I’m all for it. So why not do both?

Can We Buy And Build?140407-N-YU572-086

In the current security environment, the prospect of getting more boats quickly is hard to resist. I’d love to see the Navy build the T-ATS(X) AND pick up a lightly-used fleet of do-anything platform supply vessels.

According to Military Sealift Command (MSC) stats, the tug/salvage fleet are some of the most highly used/lowest cost platforms available to the Navy. The MSC can’t lose with these platforms.

The Navy yet may do both. There’s some room to maneuver. MSC has a fleet of nine chartered platform support vessels in their “Submarine and Special Warfare Support” division. So it would be a perfect time to recapitalize that fleet and let the “special” users have–for once–the convenience of operating from government property. There are real benefits.

Let’s just take one aspect–if the ships are US-owned, then special operators can put various comms, ISR and other “neat and integrated” modifications on the hulls, doing things that special operators just can’t do with a chartered vessel (one could even change the color scheme so they don’t “look Navy”, but there’s probably a rule against such practices).

And, as I said, above, right now there’s plenty of ships on the market that would make sensible replacements for the MSC’s shadowy fleet of nine chartered irregulars.

But the Navy needs to decide a few things first. Is the Navy up for maintaining two (or more) fleets of similar vessels? Why not combine the tug and salvage fleet and the Special Warfare Ship fleet under a single hullform family?  The tug and salvage and the Special Warfare Ships have similarities and mission overlap. After all, the sub and special warfare mission profile holds some similarities with that of the Tug and Salvage fleet–I mean, the T-ATFs have housed Special Operators just as the Sub and Special Warfare platforms have lent a hand in rescue/salvage operations ranging from the USS Guardian (MCM-5) grounding to the location/confirmation of the Ehime Maru. Surely the primary users can modify a basic “class design” to suit their particular needs.

But that would mean years and years of design and delay (Yes, NAVSEA, I’m looking at YOU!). That’s why the Navy would be wise to pick a few interesting core requirements for certain missions and see if there are a few more specialized platforms out there that meet the particular missions of interest. As for the rest, well, to be honest, I think the Navy might be in for a bit of a surprise at just how many of these plain-jane commercial workboats offer some really neat modern gear.

Many of these commercial ships, Hooper continued, have also been built with modern technologies and advancements in areas such as the handling and recovery of small vessels.

“It’s an unparalleled opportunity,” Hooper said. “If you do a new build, there’s a chance that you have what should be very a simple and very cost effective platform becoming a larger, more expensive, unwieldy program that doesn’t field a ship for a while.”

Buying ships now gives America an opportunity to do a lot of things that just aren’t getting done. For the Navy, these good surplus ships can solve a whole host of presence, support, experimentation, and other pressing needs. Heck, kick in a few hulls for Admiral Rowden and his sailors will be shooting rockets and operating other LCS-esque modules off ’em in no time.

New Missions Are Coming!

New missions are coming, and versatile ships from the oil patch can serve to mitigate risk. For example:

The role of recovering vehicles will only increase, Hooper says, as the military continues to experiment with unmanned technology.

“If history is any guide, the last time we had a technology advancement as big as unmanned vehicles was during the jet age,” he said in an April 7 interview with ITN. “Jets were crashing all over the place. It’s going to be the same thing with unmanned vehicle recovery.”

Frankly, we’re talking about more than just a salvage role here. Unmanned ships opens a new–and largely ignored–mission requirement for the Combat Logistics Force. All those fancy unmanned vessels we’re planning on launching and operating are great, but…they ain’t gonna tend themselves. To bend a time-honored logistical maxim, unmanned craft may not need beans, but they sure will need “black oil and bullets”. Stout oilfield supply-like platforms would be perfect for that mission.

Buying ships now gives America an opportunity to do more. They can support innovation–rather than waiting for an LCS or a DDG to test various new articles, use a spare PSV for early-stage experiments (Put a rail gun on it!) Use some for presence missions! Flood armed tugs into the South China Sea. No Maritime Militia is going to like rubbing up against a tough, armed PSV. And if Rowden wants to make every platform a shooter, then, well, let’s give him more platforms to shoot from.

At the end of the day, PSVs are practical, virtually disposable, and enormously useful. Let’s hope the Navy takes advantage of the oilfield slump, purchases a good handful, builds a few others, and sends them all off to handle the myriad of new missions that lurk in the seas of tomorrow.

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In Press: Fat Leonard Is Still With Us

by admin on April 10, 2016

Leonard-Francis-0918Though it is now back-page news, the Glenn Defense Marine/Fat Leonard scandal is still with us.

Greg Moran, of the San Diego Union Tribune, has been doing a great service, following this case as it winds through the local courts, transforming from a paper-selling “prostitutes and corruption” scandal to less exciting court-reporter fare. But somewhere in this story–back when the Glenn Defense Marine scandal was front-page news–Greg put in some FOIA requests for documents that are, now, getting granted.

They are interesting:

The 69-page report from the Naval Audit Service found widespread problems in how the Navy administers contracts for port services. Because of those weaknesses, auditors concluded the Navy can’t be sure it received full value on all of the servicing contracts it examined, which totaled $686 million.

I’ve talked about this clash of competing waterfront cultures before, here, so Mr. Moran called to chat:

Craig Hooper, a defense analyst who has followed the “Fat Leonard” scandal, said the audit identified a longstanding problem as the Navy has turned more toward contractors, and not provided enough scrutiny over them.

“We’ve had this process where we’ve pulled away contracting support, and said to the Navy, go out there and be forward deployed, be present in these areas,” he said. “But the support for doing that hasn’t been forward deployed to the same extent.”

He said the Navy has to be more aware of who it is dealing with.

“Getting money out of naval vessels is a science port operators have practiced for centuries,” Hooper said. “Everybody has their hand out. You have to recognize what you’re getting into is a very rapacious culture.”

port klangIn short, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the combination of overtasked, poorly-trained (often not in country) contracting officers, pressured supply officers, and a ship that’s gotta stay forward and “on schedule” is a breeding ground for, ah, costly in-port irregularities.

Put another way, Fat Leonard could only get as fat as America’s overwhelmed and oft-downsized Navy contracting support let him get.

It isn’t like the Navy didn’t already know they were getting fleeced in Port. Everybody who had ears knew a Fat Leonard had or was going to happen–but, with an infuriating sense if inevitability, nobody did anything to prevent this from happening. In my initial blog post on this scandal, I wondered if this news was getting suppressed somewhere in the naval bureaucracy:

There are probably quite a few earnest souls out there whose careers were crushed simply for suggesting somebody do some digging. Their stories would be interesting for investigators to hear.

Turns out there were a few earnest souls out there. In the very last graf of Greg’s article there’s a hint of wider awareness of shady goings-on at the waterfront:

This was not the first audit to call attention to problems with ship servicing work. The audit noted that three previous audits in 2010 and 2013, before the Francis case broke, identified poor checks and balances and bad internal controls over such contracts.

As I suggested before, management of waterfront contracts was a known problem for years. And what did we do about it?

Nothing.

Why?

That is the real story. Why didn’t the Navy fix known waterfront problems? Why couldn’t the organization act on a known–and serious–deficiency? I don’t think it’s necessarily a criminal oversight. It may speak more to a lack of energy, where already overwhelmed back-office folks can’t–or won’t–change things to prevent waterfront malfeasance. An under-resourced, overtasked community that can’t say “no” will work until catastrophic failure. That failure was Fat Leonard (and some other first-round scandals-to-be-named-later).

Frankly, I think one answer to this constant problem for forward-deployed navies is to bring back large-crew tenders to help combatants beat back the highly-evolved rapacious instincts of waterfront service providers. But, hey, that’s a story for another day–for when the slow-dripping Fat Leonard scandal pops back onto the front page.

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In Press: New Tools Demand New Homefront Doctrine

April 1, 2016

How, exactly, will the MV-22 Osprey–and other new Navy/USMC gear–help at home? It’s a valid question–Waaay back in 2010-11, when the MV-22 first started to shoulder aside the West Coast’s enormous inventory of venerable, obsolete CH-46 Sea Knights, I started urging the military to get real about evaluating the MV-22’s suitability for HA-DR operations typical […]

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Mulling Australia’s Next Submarine:

March 16, 2016

Australia has happily discovered that, for high-end subs, this is a buyer’s market. In Australia’s Collins Class Replacement Project (SEA 1000), eager German, French and Japanese sub venders are offering some top-tier submarine models for some pretty good terms. With all three platforms technically “solid”, I won’t go into technical differences here (look anywhere else […]

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Kill off the Old-School Carrier Air Wing

March 1, 2016

In the coming “Age of UAVs”, the influential Cold War-era Carrier Air Wing is set to become something of an old-school anachronism. Now, such sentiment is anathema to most of the exalted flyers in the leather-recliner ready-room set, but, well, the robots just don’t care. To a robot a deck is just a deck, and, […]

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UAV Advocates Should Cheer The Navy’s Tanker Plan

February 2, 2016

It looks like the Navy is getting an UAV mid-air tanker. That’s great–it forces the Navy to really incorporate a UAV into the daily grind of carrier operations. It’s the fastest route to UAV normalization, and it offers a spiral route to something far more interesting. The little kid in me would have have loved […]

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Talking LCS Testing in Popular Mechanics

February 2, 2016

Just a quick note that erstwhile freelancer Kyle Mizokami reached out to talk LCS testing, and the result was this: “Combat tests help remind us that in battle, winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” Dr. Craig Hooper, Senior Analyst at Gryphon Scientific and blogger at NextNavy.com told Popular Mechanics. “Many ships fail their first […]

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Warfighting Navies Need Fleet Trains

January 15, 2016

No gallant surface warrior wants to hear this, but it is high time for the US to build (or acquire) a few boring surface ship/sub tenders and fleet train support elements. America needs these assets. Look at the aged, 37-year old USS Emory S. Land (AS 39)  and USS Frank Cable (AS 40). They were […]

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Congratulations Mr. Stackley!

January 7, 2016

Mr. Sean Stackley, the long-serving, low-profile Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, has served in his post for seven years and five months. He has beaten Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long-standing record tenure as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Seven years and four months–from March 17, 1913 to August 6, 1920–I […]

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Salvaging Sub Tech From A Sinking Rolls Royce?

December 30, 2015

I have a real soft spot for the soon-to-be-dismantled Rolls-Royce Holdings (slow-moving, ossified, and un-repentant 19th-Century holdover that it is).  And though I would hate to see Rolls sold for parts, some creative disassembly of Rolls Royces’ sinking Maritime Division will be required for the company to survive. And that’s a shame. The ocean-focused division […]

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