By Jim George
Combat Logistics Force Program Manager, Military Sealift Command
On this day in 1917, USS Maumee (AO 2) made history when she became the first ship to refuel another vessel at sea. This remarkable achievement made it possible for six U.S. Navy destroyers to sail to the United Kingdom without the need to stop at a port.
At the time, at-sea refueling – known as underway replenishment – got the Navy into the fight during World War I. In the 97 years since, underway replenishment techniques and technology have become increasingly capable tools to deliver not just fuel but food, ammunition, spare parts and even the mail to every single Navy combatant ship at sea. Delivery at sea means that Navy warfighters save a great deal of time – time they can spend carrying out exercises and other missions, rather than pulling into a port. It’s no exaggeration to say that the 31 ships of the Navy’s Combat Logistics Force (CLF) are key to the Navy’s ability to operate worldwide – projecting power where it matters, when it matters.
The CLF’s remarkable capability stems in large part from its people, the more than 3,000 Military Sealift Command civil service mariners (CIVMAR) who crew the ships. Most bring years – sometimes decades – of professional maritime experience to the table, which is critical to safe and efficient underway replenishments. Even today, the process requires extreme precision as two ships the length of multiple football fields sail completely parallel at 150 feet apart, sometimes in rough seas for hours on end. It is a testament to their know-how that CIVMARs make underway replenishments look easy, and maintain the process as the logistics backbone of our Navy.
And the demand for underway replenishment services is high. Averaged together, each ship in the CLF operated for 166 days, or 45 percent of fiscal year 2013, at sea. In that time, CLF vessels made 3,211 deliveries, including 118.8 million gallons of jet fuel. That’s enough to fill a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet roughly 59,600 times. All this, from ships that make up just 11 percent of the Navy’s 289-ship Battle Force.
Part of that capability is due to the ships themselves. Purpose-built platforms matter a lot, and like other Navy ships CLF vessels are designed to do specific job sets.
Take the newest Lewis and Clark Class, for example. Designated T-AKEs, these ships can carry 756,000 gallons of fuel (on top of their own gas tanks) and more than 8,300 tons of other cargo. They’re very good at routine underway replenishments, and we’ve also learned that they are valuable assets during emergency situations. They’ve contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom anti-piracy operations in 2009, humanitarian relief to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and humanitarian relief to the Philippines just last year. An MV-22 Osprey landed aboard USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE 5) for the first time during exercise Bold Alligator 2012, a proof-of-concept operation that demonstrates T-AKEs can tackle additional mission types.
With top-notch platforms and top-notch people, Military Sealift Command is proud to be the Navy command responsible for resupplying our Sailors at sea. Today, in particular, we’re honored to continue a tradition of excellence and innovation for our Navy, worldwide.