For almost ten years, the Marine Corps–the Third Marine Expeditionary Force–and the Military Sealift Command have leased the Austal-built Westpac Express, a 331-foot long aluminum high-speed ferry. But with the emergence of the “Green Fleet” concept, and with the Navy and Marine Corps eager to highlight “green” initiatives, this puny vessel (a gas-guzzler in itself, no less) deserves to stand proudly with the Navy’s Prius, the hybrid-drive USS Makin Island, as one of the greenest ships in the non-nuclear Navy.
Why? Because the vessel transformed the way the Marines operated on Okinawa. Back in 2000, the Marines relied upon airlift to move about the Pacific.
But moving Marines by air was an unreliable (and wasteful) process that could take days–even weeks–getting Marines from one place to another (the 2,000 ton vessel can move some 950 troops and 550 tons of additional “stuff” in one lift–fast, making the Guam to Okinawa transit in 36 hours). Since the Marines didn’t own the jets, the airlifters would often get yanked away at the last minute, or, if the Marines looked for a private solution, a contracted US aircraft would have to wing it’s way–empty–from CONUS, usually–to shuttle Marines about.
It’s quite a statement that a humble $1.75 million dollar lease (for a two-month experiment) in mid 2001 has grown into a proud ten-year operational record. The fact that this logistical platform has been chugging along, out of the limelight for ten trouble-free years, is lost on most of the Navy community (the Marines, in particular, are loosing a pain-free chance to demonstrate their commitment to the SECNAV’s Energy-Saving initiatives. For a service that needs procurement support from the SECNAV, overlooking the Westpac Express is an inexplicable oversight. It’s something the Commandant should be repeating to everybody–as evidence of the Marine Corps’ unmatched commitment to wise strategic thinking).
But as far as he Green Fleet goes, it would be neat to look back at the records and estimate–roughly–just how much fuel the Marine Corps has saved using this vessel.
The Marines have data. According to Inside Defense (no link, sorry), the Westpac Express transported 4,400 troops and over 2,000 short tons more than 6,700 miles–reaching from Okinawa to Fiji to Guam and beyond. Janes’ says that the first 238-day “proof-of-concept” period in 2001 saved the Navy from paying for 217 C-17 airlifts from Okinawa to Guam, South Korea and Japan. In Green terns, that’s enormous.
The Marines liked what they saw. It didn’t take long for the Marines to see the value in Westpac Express, moving from temporary leases to a 3-year, $31 million-dollar lease in early 2002. It’s been leased ever since–converting to an American Flagged vessel, participating in it’s first humanitarian mission in January 2005, and so forth. If the most recent lease, inked in 2006, runs until Sept 2011, the $55.3 million dollar lease will have more than amply recouped the ship’s $45 million-dollar fabrication costs.
Aside from saving gas–the Westpac Express is quiet, too. We can’t quantify the cost/benefit of heavy-lift aircraft noise, but…that extra “Green” dividend from the Westpac Express should not be ignored, either.
The Westpac Express is also reliable. Even though, according to
a 2006 issue of Janes’ Navy International, the ship travels some 75,000 nautical miles a year, it has enjoyed an availability of 99.7%. Unlike it’s more popular sisters–the DDG-51 or the LPD-17, the ship hasn’t suffered structural warping problems, mast failures…or corrosion. Or engine failures. It just does the job of serving the combatant commander, day after day, week after week, year after year.
So, I throw this over into SECNAV Ray Mabus’ Green Fleet Office. Take note. Since entering the fleet in 2001, the Westpac Express has saved the Marines and the Navy an enormous amount of time, money and strategic position. Ten years ago, this unrecognized vanguard of the “Green Fleet” changed the way the Marines did business in the Pacific, and, as such, the Westpac Express deserves to be recognized as the Greenest ship in the non-nuclear Navy.