Editor’s Note: “Roll-On/Roll-Off” transportation, or RO/RO transportation, stands for a method of cargo transportation. This is primarily used for vehicles, heavy machinery, and other wheeled or self-propelled equipment. This system enables drivers to load and unload these vehicles and equipment onto and off a vessel. Doing so makes the process more efficient and convenient. (Source International Sea & Air Shipping)
The United States of America is in a bit of a boat building crisis at the moment, and its aging fleet of Cold War era logistics ships are long overdue for replacement and retirement. As a stop gap, the U.S. Maritime Administration and / or Navy Sealift Command, should investigate arming and deploying slightly modified civilian roll on roll off transport ships.
This concept of utilizing non-military assets for war time purposes is not a new one. It was thoroughly by the Royal Navy both in World War II and the Falkland War. The US Marines utilized civilian transport vessels through a program called Military Prepositioning Ships to move hardware all over the Western Pacific in the 1980s. As recently as 2019 the US Naval Institute published an article on converting bulk freighters into floating auxiliary missile batteries for networked-fleet battlespace.
In an ideal world the U.S. ship building industry would be able to build and deploy, in a timely manner, a functional and effective solution to the problem of moving military hardware across the ocean. Until the shipyards can wright themselves, U.S. military logistics leaders need to take a serious look at immediately deployable solutions.
Functional and Effective
Functional and effective will always be better than new and “improved.” That being said, old and poorly maintained is far worse than either.
In a Forbes article by Criag Hooper succinctly outlines a glaring problem being faced by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) and the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) it supports. Namely, that the ships used to transport USMC hardware are over fifty years old, in disrepair, and desperately in need of replacing. If you’ve been following the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) boondoggle and know anything about the government naval procurement process, you’ll know that there isn’t a working solution on or even over the horizon.
As a thought experiment I started researching a possible solution to this very real problem facing MARAD and its ailing USMC support fleet. Early one morning when I should have been asleep, I happened across “An Incomplete List of Murphy’s Laws of Combat Operations” on a MIT.edu server. Number 7 stood out.
7. If it is stupid and works, then it isn’t stupid.
As you have probably guessed, I am about to put forth a stupid idea.
Use modern civilian RORO (Roll On Roll Off) cargo ships to deliver military hardware and personnel. The CCP PLA Navy has been conducting exercises doing exactly this in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan. The U.S. Marines were doing the same in the late 1980s with the MPS (Maritime Pre-Positioning Ships) program through Navy Sealift Command while running equipment from Okinawa to Korea for training exercises.
Before the critics weigh in that we can’t use civilian hardware in a warzone I would like to point out that the British did exactly that with their Q-ships in WWII. Tramp steamers fitted with naval guns destroyed 14 U-boats and damaged 60, over the course of 150 engagements with only 27 of the 200 vessels of the Q-ship fleet lost.
They did it again during the Falklands war in the 1980s. A pair of RORO merchant ships were converted be helicopter and Sea Harrier transports.
USMC Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper flipped this model on its head to utterly destroy (and embarrass) the Pentagon’s fleet during the Millennium Challenge 2002. He did this by using a wide variety of civilian aircraft and commercial ships outfitted with cruise missile launchers as well as mobile, land-based systems. Coupled with suicide small boats attacks similar to what happened to the USS Cole, the simulated US Navy fleet was immediately overwhelmed.
This brings up the next logical question. What about surviving an attack from modern over the horizon weapons? I can almost guarantee that a 54-year-old MARAD cargo ship is not going to fare any better than a modern civilian cargo vessel when hit by any of the five primary antiship missiles used by the PLA Navy. Especially considering their practice of firing them in waves. I’d also like to point out that the MARAD fleet will likely be operating with escorts if moving through contested waters.
So, let’s say a decision maker bites off on this idea. How do we go about prepping a civilian vessel for military operations?
First, we’ll buy about tens of millions of dollars’ worth of gray paint and rent a dry dock. The ships could likely be modified in the water, but naval architects will want to crawl the hull and make necessary engineering changes where able. The cost estimate for paint isn’t hyperbole either. The paint job for a U.S. Coast Guard 210-foot medium endurance cutter cost anywhere between 2.2 and 2.5 million once labor and supplies are factored in.
Second, planners will need to talk to the logistics Marines that will be receiving the hardware being transported. The RORO solution is useless if the end user can’t utilize it. Do the ships need to be made amphibious to accommodate beach landings? If not, how shallow or austere will the ports be where they’re offloading? Can floating docks be carried on and deployed from the ROROs to reach shallower beaches? Will ramps suffice or will it need cranes with 70-ton safe working loads? How many and what kind of aircraft will be landing on their upper decks?
During the D-Day landing, floating roads linked the artificial harbor (Mulberry) to shore. Could or should such assets be added in anticipation of using more commercial-derived solutions for logistics?
Program planners and managers should look at the aforementioned USMC MPS program and the lessons learned there. With current technology, what can be improved upon and what can be done away with?
Third, how heavily should they be armed? The Lewis B. Puller only has .50cal machine guns while the Whidbey Island has a pair of 25mm cannons, a pair of CIWS mounts, and a Rolling Airframe missile battery. The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) published an article in 2019 titled Converting Merchant Ships to Missile Ships for the Win, where they propose using civilian cargo vessels as remote missile batteries to support combat fleets. An older USNI article from 1997 outlines the idea for Arsenal Ships, which may as well be the precursor to the merchant vessel missile battery write up.
There is a growing catalogue of military systems that have been fitted into intermodal shipping containers, or onto street legal flatbed trailers. Everything from point defense guns and SAM sites, to command and control “bunkers”. Whatever deck space that isn’t being utilized for flight decks can be made to accommodate these containerized systems. If push comes to shove truck mounted weapons can be tied down on deck and networked to targeting radars bolted on the ship’s mast. In the early 2000s Marines mounted the AN/TWQ-1 Avenger, a stinger equipped HMMWV truck, on the deck of their MPS vessel. While it didn’t have targeting radar integrated with the ships CIC (Combat Information Center), it did have a communication line for verbal instructions.
I bring up defensive systems because the U.K. Royal Navy declined to arm the two ships they converted to be helicopter carriers during the Falklands war. On May 25 1982 a pair of air launched Exocet missiles struck one of the vessels causing massive fires and its eventual sinking. At the time there was a lot of argument over whether an auxiliary support vessel was even legal. In the end, the Royal Navy deemed it would take too long to install the systems and the ship departed without them.
Where American assets are concerned legality is a problem to be solved after the fact. To quote a Marine veteran of the Iraqi invasion, “When the shooting starts, NO ONE cares about legal.”
Lastly, and most critically, avoid mission creep. Anyone who has ever used a multi tool knows that it does one or two things ok and is pretty much useless for all the other things it claims to be capable of. Trying to turn one of these ships into a floating helicopter repair depot, that doubles as an armor and troop transport, with twin batteries of 64 vertical launch cells is absurd. At that point we might as well take a page from Hollywood science fiction producers, and kit-bash a couple guided missile destroyers with a Nimitz class carrier. The proposed vessels need to transport military vehicles, and support a half dozen helicopters down range for extended missions. That means substantial roll on roll off vehicle decks, some landing pads, jet fuel tanks, and extensive spare parts storage. Depending on the deck configuration a rudimentary hangar could be built for all weather aircraft maintenance.
If you need a more modern example of this kind of program, look at the blocking vessels used by the Navy for escorting their ballistic missile submarines. They’re converted platform supply vessels normally seen operating all over the world in offshore oil fields. Operated by contracted civilian crews and manned by Coast Guard personnel for defense and Naval Vessel Protection Zone enforcement, the blocking vessels guard the subs as they transit to and from port. These armed and maneuverable “bullet sponges” serve as the last line of defense if an adversary makes it past the multiple layers of smaller faster screening boats.
The bottom line is this; converting and arming a civilian asset is not only an old idea, but an old practice.
Where does the “functional and effective” part of the argument come in?
A tool, be it a weapon or vehicle, needs to be functional and effective above all else. The LCS program is a prime example of a tool being the exact opposite. The MARAD fleet may have been effective in the past, but it is obviously not functional now.
While not as sexy or headline grabbing as building a new class of ship to replace the old, converting industry refined platforms is far more cost effective, if done correctly. That means having the end users, the wrench turning enlisted members and their immediate leadership (senior enlisted and junior officers), present at every stage of development. They need to be advising on every aspect of the ship they will be directly involved with, from the beds and heads, to tool storage and maintenance spaces.
Any military member on the receiving end of a new piece of gear can tell you right off the bat if the engineers who designed it ever talked to the people that would be using it. Why do you think so many Marines and civilians prefer using polymer Magpul brand rifle magazines over the folded steel standard issue STANAG types?
This paper comes from roughly 12 years’ experience working for and with the Coast Guard, the Navy, and civilian maritime interests.
My first unit out of basic and secondary training was MFPU (Maritime Force Protection Unit) Kings Bay where I served as gun crew aboard one of the converted platform supply vessels guarding submarines. They were very good at what they did. Which was obscuring the submarine’s vertical launch tubes from view and serve as a platform for several 25mm cannons and .50 caliber machine guns. From there I moved to the west coast for counter narcotic missions where I helped interdict and personally move tons of contraband and people to and from US Coast Guard cutters while at sea.
Like many Coast Guardsmen I did it aboard a 50 plus year old cutter that stuck to its limited mission sets throughout its lifetime. As a civilian I worked with the only launch company in the Puget Sound for a year transporting people and cargo to and from commercial ships in various sea states and weather conditions. I spent a year in a US Navy SESEF facility trouble shooting complex and patchworked CIC systems. As a reservist in Seattle, I boarded several cruise ships and deep draft cargo vessels with USCBP on enforcement missions. In short, I have seen what large ships can do up close and how they’re adapted over and over again through their lifetimes.
Converting Merchant Ships to Missile Ships for the Win
By Captain R. Robinson Harris, U.S. Navy (Ret.); Andrew Kerr; Kenneth Adams; Christopher Abt; Michael Venn; and Colonel T. X. Hammes, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
January 2019 Proceedings Vol. 145/1/1,391 https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2019/january/converting-merchant-ships-missile-ships-win
Arsenal Ship Survives . . . for Now
By Norman Polmar
November 1997 Proceedings Volume 123/11/1,137
An Incomplete List of Murphy’s Laws of Combat Operations
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if it was only a new perspective on how not to do something.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010 he became an Operations Specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard USCGC Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell.
Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand, to machinist, to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.