Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Book of Joshua

Attention All Hands!

As of this evening I have been a member of Joshua Humphreys' crew for a month, and I am pleased to report that I've settled-in well to my new ship and duties. She seems a good vessel and well-founded; the crew is a happy one, the importance of which cannot be overstressed, especially in this operational theatre, and her officers and Captain are first rate.
 USNS Joshua Humphreys--a photo I took back in 2010

Joshua Humphreys is named for the Boston naval architect and shipbuilder who designed and oversaw the construction of the first six frigates built for the fledgling United States Navy (one of these fine ships, USS Constitution, is the oldest commissioned vessel still in service afloat, a testament to the skill of her creator). She is actually the second ship of the Fleet to bear the name; the first was a destroyer which served from 1920 through the end of World War II, even serving as a witness to the Japanese attack on Oahu in 1941.

The second of the 18-ship Henry J. Kaiser class of auxiliary replenishment oilers (AOs), Joshua is a bit of an anachronism. When she was finished in 1987 the Navy was surging toward the lofty goal of a 600-ship combat fleet set by President Ronald Reagan and Navy Secretary John Lehman, but with the radical reductions in the force brought about by the "peace dividend" of the early 1990s there were suddenly far fewer naval ships to support. As a consequence of this many older auxiliaries were scrapped; Humphreys was judged to be too young and potentially useful for this fate and was deactivated ("mothballed") in 1996.
And there, in the inactive ships facility in Philadelphia, she remained in suspended in-animation until in 2010 the call came for her services once again. Re-activated and with modernized power plant controls, she was then assigned to U.S. Central Command (CentCom) as the permanent duty oiler for the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Horn of Africa region, where she continues to serve today providing fuel to U.S. and Allied units operating in these waters as a mainstay of Task Force 53, the logistical arm of 5th Fleet.

I wrote "anachronism" above; the mix of old and new in Joshua Humphreys is obvious and sometimes jarring. Her replenishment rigs are the current standard,with shiny titanium winch drums and controls that her original designers (back in the 1970s) could only have dreamed of, but her internal arrangements distinctly old-fashioned; I read and sleep in my own large, clean stateroom but work on a bridge which resembles a nautical museum exhibit; digital readouts and LCD displays are tucked clumsily between bulky, old-fashioned gyro- and magnetic compass repeaters and other instruments that even with my considerable experience made my first trick on the helm a real challenge!

Not to give a wrong impression, though...I feel quite confident on the helm today, and have had my qualification as Unrep Helmsman confirmed by Captain Christian, the ship's Master. This is a point of pride with me; to be trusted to "drive" the ship when aircraft carriers and destroyers come alongside, keeping within tenths of a degree of the ordered course, is a prestigious if stressful honor. Of course, the extra money helps too...

Back to the good ship Humphreys; given that I spent over six years sailing in Arctic, I'm afraid that some comparison with my last ship is inevitable. And there are many differences between the Supply-class Fast Combat Stores ships (AOEs) and the Henry J. Kaiser-class AOs, in both mission and design philosophy. Arctic with her low, almost reptilian profile, was designed and built to naval standards, with vital control and living spaces spread through her and positioned for maximum survivability in a combat environment, and with her gas-turbine propulsion she can keep up with most of the warships she supports, running with the wolves if you will. Humphreys and her sisters, on the other hand, were constructed to a mercantile motif; in profile they more resemble the commercial tankers they are based on, and are arranged more for operation by a smaller crew with much more centralized facilities--all of her staterooms, offices and engineering spaces are located in an apartment building-sized superstructure set well aft.

Both classes of ship carry roughly the same amounts of liquid cargo (Distillate Fuel-Marine/DFM for ships and JP-5 for aircraft) but while the AOEs can deliver massive cargoes of stores and ammunition (hence the "E" in their designations--for Explosive Cargo), AOs have smaller holds and no ordnance capacity to speak of.

There are many other differences, some of which I am still becoming accustomed to. Not being built for high speeds or sustained flight operations (they have helicopter flight decks and the ability to refuel visiting helos, but no hangar or maintenance facilities to support embarked aircraft), the Kaisers are intended to operate independently of the Fleet, meeting with warships on the high seas (and well away from the threat of battle) to supply fuel and limited amounts of cargo via connected replenishment (ConRep) and vertical replenishment (VertRep) using those warships' own "whirlybirds".

I guess you could say that the AOEs (such as Arctic and her three sisters) are the thoroughbreds of this business while the AOs play the vital but less glamorous wagon-team role of carrying fuel to ships at sea, and while I certainly understand the differences between these ships and their missions and am enjoying learning the ropes here aboard Joshua Humphreys I DO occasionally find myself missing the wonderful speed, maneuverability and elan of my "ammo boats". Oh, I have no problem serving in T-AO 188--she is quite comfortable and has a great cadre aboard but I learned my trade on faster, more flexible hulls and I'll probably request assignment to one of them when my tour here is done.

John Paul Jones said that he wished to have nothing to do with any ship that does not sail fast. For my part I guess I just feel the Need for Speed.

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