Mulling the T-AO(X) Pre-Solicitation:

by Craig Hooper on November 9, 2010

After calling for the recapitalization of our aging MSC oiler fleet, it is great to see the T-AO(X) program move ahead. I do like what I see, but….the pre-solicitation notice is missing a few things–and that means the Navy is missing an opportunity to get good ideas from industry for free.

Here’s what I see: First, the T-AO(X) may end up being the death knell of the fast, mil-spec multi-product station ship. As the theory goes, the T-AOEs are just too expensive to build and operate–and, worst of all, the existing T-AOEs will need to be replaced precisely when the U.S. will be facing some tough financial straits.

But the T-AOE replacement plan has sorta been perched waaaaay out on the margins of the 30 year shipbuilding plan, comfortably undefined.

This notice suggests that crimp time is upon us. We are, by now, used to the idea of a T-AKE working with a T-AO to service carrier strike groups. But…I feel that this is the first document that hints the “cheap” two-hull option–the civilian spec T-AKE and the T-AO(X)–will soon be the only option for carrier strike group resupply.

As the T-AO(X) presolicitation notice says:

The Navy is preparing to conduct an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) to refine the key attributes of the T-AO(X). The AoA will conduct various tradeoff analyses to determine the optimal solution in terms of cost, cargo capacity, speed and overall number of T-AO(X)s required to meet Fleet requirements.

Alternatives will examine various quantities of bulk petroleum products (JP-5 and DFM); dry stores/packaged cargo, fleet freight, mail, personnel and other miscellaneous cargo to determine the optimum cargo capacities. A range of dry cargo capacities at least 20% greater than the T-AO 187 Class should be considered. The FY11 30 Year Shipbuilding Plan indicated that the Combat Logistics Force (CLF) would transition to a force composed of only two classes of ships, the T-AO(X) and the T-AKE. The AoA will evaluate T-AO(X), when operating with a T-AKE, as a possible replacement for the T-AOE 6 Class.

I didn’t think the 30 year shipbuilding plan was that adamant about the T-AOE. It…almost looked like the T-AOE was included. But..This notice sure sounds like the Navy really wants to see a dynamic civilian-spec duo replace the four one-stop UNREP vessels. Me, I’d like to see that analysis–not that I think it will shift the analysis one way or the other, but…it would be neat to see what the naval blogosphere thinks.

So, as far as specifics, here’s what the T-AO(X) presolicitation (copy is here) wants from interested contributors. What’s missing?:

A. Primary ship characteristics.

  1. A range of dry cargo capacities at least 20% greater than the T-AO 187 Class should be considered.
  2. Speed tradeoffs between 20 and 26 knots should be considered.

b. operational concept (if different than current T-AO 187 class),

c. technological maturity of proposed components,

d. environmental compliance aspects,

e. respondent’s experience in design, development, and production of similar/equivalent ships,

f. Total Ownership Cost (TOC) reduction concepts, including but not limited to

  1. Energy conservation/efficiency
  2. Intra and inter-ship commonality with U.S. Navy fleet
  3. Manning/workload reductions
  4. Maintenance cost reductions
  5. Technology advancements relative to current T-AO 187 Class

Looks pretty good. But I think it misses the mark on a few items:

No recognition of the growing MSC mission-set: This notice seems to be ignoring the ugly little fact that MSC vessels are being asked to accept an ever-expanding mission portfolio.

It might be nice to see what potential builders think. What would they add?

No recognition of likely future threats: Over time, these vessels will be forced to operate in contested, potentially sub-infested waters. Does the world of 2025 merit making some additional investments in quieting, submarine decoy measures and point defense for missile attack? What about shock and survivability?

We need to think harder about how MSC ships are going to be operated in a maritime conflict. They will be at risk. They will be at the front lines. They will be targeted.

Is the maritime battlefield of 2025 a place where we can really expect civilian-spec MSC vessels to survive?

No recognition of utility for international partners: With the Navy putting a premium on empowering international partners–and with a real need to sell stuff overseas–I find the failure to consider bringing in a few international partners rather perplexing. Australia, Canada and others are going to need (or are currently planning to build) new oilers/alongside replenishment vessels.

Replenishment ships are hot right now; capitalize on that interest. We can compete on the international market–and with the dollar expected to drop significantly, it’s foolish not to try, anyway.

To Conclude: There is a growing divide between those countries who have decided to keep their fleet auxiliaries largely mil-spec and our decidedly less-so logistical train. Before the Navy fully commits to a pure civil-spec logistical support fleet, America must think harder about the future, and ponder the combat utility of tiny civilian compliments sailing in civilian-spec replenishment platforms.

With that in mind, it would be nice to open this presolicitation notice up a little bit, so industry can help the Navy ponder the future and find the best solution. It may well be that an ample supply of cheap civilian-crewed, civil-spec platforms is the best, most flexible option. Let’s just take another look!

But I fear that the folks in charge are peacetime-oriented accountants, really committed to building a replenishment force to serve a peacetime-tempo Navy for the lowest operational cost possible.

And I don’t see that as wise given the contested maritime commons that loom dead ahead.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

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leesea November 19, 2010 at 1:07 pm

EdF very right about construction standards. New NFAF ships are boult to ABS Naval Auxiliaries standards.
The advantage I see to SLEPing current Kaiser is that the timelne to completion is lessened. IOW SLEP’d Kaisers will get them back into service sooner than T-AO(X) comes to IOC, and that gets the USN more T-AOs.
Good info about CNA doing AoA.I hope they consider several smaller aka handy size tankers of foreign design. The US does NOT have a monopoly when it comes to “those” design firms. I think that some of the new formations like Influence Squadrons and GFS could use a smaller mulit-product ship like the Berlin Type 702. Again there will be only so many T-AKE to go around and they like the T-AOE are UNREP Navy centric.


Ed F November 19, 2010 at 9:54 am

I think there is a significant misunderstanding in terms of the cost/benefit of civil vs. milspec auxiliary. What do you mean by “milspec”. Milspecs for ship building have been replaced by the Naval Vessel Rules, an attempt to put some sanity into the NAVSEA “technical warrant holders” gold plated requirements. Its not gotten to where it needs to go, but there are way too many in the NAVSEA organization that rely on rules developed when battleships were the newest development in shipbuilding.
Commercial specifications are, in many areas, far more robust than what you are calling milspec. They are much better in the area of structural requirements, corrosion prevention (a huge problem for Navy ships), structural fire protection, environmental management, and the list goes on. Weapons systems are a different issue so you need to be far more clear when you discuss these issues.

Yes, the UNREP ships will be high value targets, but they will be the same target no matter who mans them….

As far as SLEPs for the T-AO 187 class, the price tag for “double hulling” the cargo areas was estmiated at over $120M each if accomplished in a competent foreign shipyard. That estimate did not include machinery upgrades due to obselescence. In the US yards you mentioned, the number would be at least triple that figure.

The AOA that will be conducted by CNA will consider several different variants, inlcuidng a mix of smaller AOR like ships and larger “fleet oilers”, foreign designs, and even build and charter. The Navy recognizes that the LCS were designed so they have to be replenished every other day with fuel.

The hybrid crew concept that is discussed above is in place on 3 ships MSC operates – MSC drives the bus (provides engineering, deck, and stewards functions) and sailors operate the “combat systems”.

By the way it looks like the Navy will be tasking MSC with operating the amphibs – CNO discussed this last week and it looks like there will be a hybrid crew there also. Probably significant cost savings and huge improvements in operational availability.


leesea November 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm

perecptions vary depending on who you worked for, words have definition. NFAF is exactlyh what it stands flor. CLF covered a multitude of sins.

Craig take a look at MSC’s website for this wiring diagram:
The NFAF PM-1 program title has been around for about 20 years. Remember that MSC is dual hatted to both CNO and TRANSCOM for tactical and strategic sealift missions. To see the scope, breath and history of MSC goto this slide from COMSC latest newsletter:

Tim Colton has suggested more shipyards could bid on T-AO(X) but surely NASSCO has the lead. An RFP should NOT be tailored to one source of supply or so the Defense acquistion regs say.

I raised the idea of SLEPing the Kaisers (which would get more oilers in the fleet sooner and add up to the true numbers needed. Tim said:”There’s more than a dozen yards that could do Kaiser modifications, some better than others, of course. Going round the coast, you’ve got Atlantic Boston, Atlantic Philly, BAE Norfolk, Metro, MHI, Earle, Metal Trades, BAE Jax, Tampa, BAE Mobile, Signal, AMFELS, NASSCO, BAE San Diego, BAE San Fran, Cascade, Todd. NASSCO would have no advantage in this crowd.”

My suggestion is to SLEP one or two Kiasers per year/coast. While the X ship gets through the acquisition process and starts builiding with IOC as much as 5 years away.


Craig Hooper November 15, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Great comment, Leasea!

Sorry about the terminology….I persist in using the CLF term because, as I have written before, I like using “Combat” in the title, because, well…I think the ships of the NFAF are around to provide combatants logistics support. NFAF kind of makes me think somebody at MSC is just playing PC wordgames and, frankly, moving the MSC farther from the idea that they are, um, well, supposed support combatants. NFAF makes the mission comfortably abstract, you know?

I think people have looked at the idea of making the Kaisers double-hulled in a SLEP process and kinda freaked out at the expense.

If not NASSCO, who else might build these things?


leesea November 15, 2010 at 5:52 pm

News flash to USN the CLF does not exist anymore. MSC NFAF ships perform all the former funcions of the CLF. Ok I gpt that off my chest.

There are many questionable points to the T-AO(X) solicitation. First off, what analysis determined their POL capacity (unspecified) you know the “O” in ship type. Oh BTW is that number larger than the single hull or double hulled Kaisers? There is a I recall a 20,000 bbl difference.

The Kaisers routinely lift dry/reefer cargo and NEED a much larger capacity for those products, why not be specific or at least give a range? Lumping this all into the 20% bigger rqmt strikes me as clueless?

Next one of the biggest DLS not apparent to USN blue suiters: the Kaiser while desgned to be 20 kts ships never quite made that due to the engines which NAVSEA bought. Maybe the RFI should have been more specific in that as well?

You know this could be done in a two step method. Upgrade/SLep the current single hull Kaisers one or two per year while going through the long process to build new replacements. Seems like that would get more fleet oilers to the fleet sooner to me?

You know that cargo ships are framed differently from oilers, why do some assume it will be easy to make a T-AKE into an oiler? Is that also pre-supposing that NASSCO will win?

The T-AKEs limitations are already known. No Ro/Ro decks, lack of open deck areas, staggering stern sheets. Should the USN not think about modifying the Lewis & Clark class in the out-years.

My biggest concern is that once again the USN is looking for too few too large ships. There are going to be plenty of smaller naval formations which do NOT need the capacity of T-AKEs and T-AO(X). The USN must take a hard look at other navies auxiliaries and at the head of the list is the German Berlin class Type 702. Medium sized, multi-product, flexible decks good for more mission types. And there are many others possible foreign designs.

My favorite suggestion is why NOT have Armed Naval Auxiliaries? The RFA has been doing such for decades, why not ANA some of the NFAF ships? CIVMAR crews and NAG on the weapons. Sailors can operate CIWS.


Craig Hooper November 14, 2010 at 12:26 pm

You are oversimplifying–and I desperately hope that you know you are oversimplifying.

What’s the condition of the CWIS inventory? How many are available? Where are those mounts that we actually have? When was the last time we trained to put CWIS aboard a replenishment oiler? When was the last time MSC crews worked with an embarked CWIS?


Bob Jones November 13, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Craig said:

“Does the world of 2025 merit making some additional investments in quieting, submarine decoy measures and point defense for missile attack?”

Well yes Craig. The T-AKE has those things, and the T-AO(X) will really probably be a T-AKE stretch job. T-AKE has “quieting” aka vibration isolation equipment mounts. When you say “submarine decoy measures” I will assume you mean “torpedo decoy measures” (unless you truly expect the tanker to decoy itself as a submarine) . . . and then you should notice the two shiny holes on the port side of the stern sheet (back left for you) where the SLQ-25 NIXIE system deploys from. If you actually look at the specs you will note space and weight reservations for CIWS mounts. Drop them in place, hook up 60 Hz power and firemain and they are ready to rock.

So, to conclude: T-AKE has the things you contend it needs and T-AO(X) will as well . . . what was your point?


Craig Hooper November 12, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Yeah, I think that’s where we’re headed–some sort of a blend between pure oiler and amphib for the low-threat environment… Displacement yet to be determined.

Frees up the conventional amphib fleet for cuts, though.


CapnVan November 12, 2010 at 10:14 am

When you’re looking at the Zuiderkruis (I assume), are you thinking in terms of a trade-off with a pure fleet oiler for additional fleet capability, or are you looking more at a mothership for operations that are likely to take place “when cruising the jagged edge between peace and full-on warfare,” as you aptly put it?

I ask because I’ve been thinking about the LCS program recently, and have been wondering about the Singaporean Endurance class. (In large part because my feeling is that the problem the USN has is that they really don’t know what they want out of LCS, and I suspect they’re trying to hedge their bets on all fronts. Not necessarily a successful system.)

I’m wondering if a near-30k ton vessel would be the best choice for that kind of “operational” asset. (Using operational vs. tactical vs. strategic.)

My thinking’s very much a work in progress. Feel free to elaborate or comment.


Craig Hooper November 11, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I think the Dutch JSS would be a very interesting option–it blends the role of amphib and auxiliary and is milspec. Comes in at a bit more than 600 million US…


CapnVan November 11, 2010 at 4:01 am

Hey Craig,
I think your points are well-taken. (Although, in the paragraph ending, “point-defense to contend with the one-off missile or the proverbial Hail Mary,” what would be a Hail Mary?)

But I think your point about the advisability of adding CIWS to auxiliaries is very reasonable. They’re not overly expensive systems in and of themselves, self-contained, and I can’t imagine that a ship of a T-AKE or T-AO’s size would need much redesign to handle one or two.

“The cost/benefit of civil vs. milspec auxiliary is a delightful thought-question. It begs more in-depth analysis–and a wider public debate, too!”

That’s the question, isn’t it? How much would silencing add to the cost of a vessel like this? And then, to what degree? I suppose it would be theoretically possible to design an oiler that cruises as quietly as an Ohio — something tells me we’re not in the market for a $10 billion T-AO.

Please let us know if you come across anything in this area — I agree with you; I think it’s fascinating.


Craig Hooper November 10, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Great question!

Sure, in a no-holds-barred blue-water battle, logistical ships will die quickly, regardless of their hardening. But that said, I’m interested in the contingencies. First, I am convinced we’re going to see a lot more squabbling at sea over the next decade or two–probably not involving America directly, but likely involving one or more of our allies. In that sort of a fractious ocean, it pays to be a little bit more robust in the likely event one of our auxiliary vessels wander too close to the action. Also, if we build with the idea that this vessel might serve in coalition navies–in particular those that stand a serious risk of engaging in a maritime confrontation–then modest milspec might be a good thing.

In addition, as we expand the operational envelope of the MSC Fleet, the potential for these vessels to get sent into harms way may grow. That’s where I believe some consideration of mil-spec options might be useful–silencing and good decoys to help avoid the threat posed by an isolated sub, or point-defense to contend with the one-off missile or the proverbial Hail Mary.

Also, I feel that, at present, these valuable ships are ideal targets for asymmetric assault–I mean, if we loose two or three, then the Fleet faces a serious logistical challenge. Hardening might make it too hard for asymmetric adventurers to ply their trade.

But then again, more hulls (even if they are basic, civil-spec ships) offer a margin of security too! The cost/benefit of civil vs. milspec auxiliary is a delightful thought-question. It begs more in-depth analysis–and a wider public debate, too! But barring a big AoA, I think, for auxiliaries, the real advantage to modest milspec comes when cruising the jagged edge between peace and full-on warfare.



CapnVan November 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Who would be the potential blue-water threats you’d envision in 2025? Or put a different way, who would be the threats that you’d envision where a mil-spec oiler might be able to survive when a civil-spec oiler wouldn’t?

I’m not sure I’d be able to offer a cogent opinion on the matter, I’m just curious.


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