Monday, May 28, 2012

Fifty Shades of (Haze) Grey

Frigate USS Moinester at Anchor, Med 1981


Now hold on...put away the Manual of Courts Martial, postpone the keel-hauling and give me a chance to explain...

The Military Sealift Command* is in the business of providing the Fleet and our allies' naval vessels with fuel, water, food, mail delivery, and just about every kind of logistical support. MSC does other jobs as well, but our bread and butter is the underway replenishment (UnRep) of warships, either by Connected Replenishment (ConRep) or Vertical Replenishment (VertRep). A look back through the photographs I've posted over the years will show both of these techniques in use; we practice a lot, and can transfer impressive amounts of fuel and cargo in short order to thirsty and hungry combatants.

Our major customer is, of course, the U.S. Navy; I'd estimate that at least 7 out of 10 Unreps we conduct out here in the Gulf of Aden (GOA) involves the transfer of fuel and stores to an American destroyer or frigate. These ships are notorious for having small bunkers and high-performance engines that gulp down DFM (Distillate Fuel Marine, essentially high-test diesel fuel) at astounding rates of consumption, and their helos drink plenty of JP5, or "jet" as well.


The problem with the USN ships is that they all look alike, or at least all the ships of each type look pretty much like their sister ships. When Arleigh Burke comes alongside, the only way to tell her from John Paul Jones is to check her "pennant", or hull number--otherwise these ships are virtual carbon copies of each other. Nearly sixty carbon copies. Likewise the frigate Taylor is pretty much indistinguishable from Elrod or Kauffman; ditto the cruisers Normandy and Leyte Gulf. A fleet of cookie-cutter warships, our surface combat force is divided into exactly one class of each type of ship...and the same rule applies in general to aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare vessels as well.

Yawn. The luster of being a ship enthusiast and photographer begins to dull when all of your "customers" look alike. I suppose I could just take one photo of a destroyer and "photoshop" different hull numbers on it...who could tell?

Guided-Missile Destroyer USS Charles F. Adams in Gitmo 1983
It wasn't always this way. When I joined my first frigate, 'way back in 1981, the Navy's surface force consisted of a half-dozen different classes of guided-missile cruiser (both nuclear and conventional propulsion, or CG and CGN), at least as many 'makes' of destroyer and guided-missile destroyer (DD and DDG), and five distinct classes of frigate and guided-missile frigate (FF and FFG).

A walk along the Norfolk piers was a safari of ship classes, with quite a few variations in class and even unique hulls, one-off warships or survivors of elderly classes. In fact, it wasn't unusual even in that era to see ships alongside that dated back to World War II and the Korean War!

This began to change with the Reagan years. The President and Navy Secretary John Lehman were committed to updating and improving our naval forces across the board, and under their direction the Navy began to acquire newer and vastly more powerful ships and submarines. As the eighties wore on into the early nineties, the variety of cruisers and destroyers to be seen pierside and at sea began to decrease; the Fleet started to resemble the homogenous force that sails today. Half-a-dozen cruiser classes vanished to be replaced by the incredibly capable Ticonderoga/Bunker Hill class ships, and entire classes of DDs, DDGs, and frigates were decommissioned, sold off to other countries or "expended" as targets during naval wargames. Many of these ships were quite young as hulls go; the entire Spruance and Knox classes, capable ships with decades of useful service remaining, simply disappeared to make room (physically and financially) for the new Burke class DDGs, while the Virginia-class CGNs were little more than fifteen years old when they began to be decommissioned.

By the beginning of the 21st century the deed was done. Today we have one class each of the DDG, CG, and FF types...and the last of the frigates are soon to fade away, to be replaced in a very limited manner by the new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS).

{{Informed readers may note that I refer to the Perry-class frigates as FFs rather than FFGs. This is due to the removal of all the remaining FFGs' missile armament back in the early 2000s. A cost-saving measure but, in my opinion, a potentially expensive one -- the Perrys now deployed to hot-spots around the world now have NO anti-aircraft or anti-ship capability beyond their point-defense "Phalanx" mounts and 76mm guns. And our potential enemies know this. Our leaders might want to remember that Less Capable Does Not Mean In-Capable, and that some defense is better than none.}}


Yes, I understand the advantages conferred by standardization of types and classes; the Navy's logistical juggernaut need only funnel a certain, fixed variety of components and their associated paraphernalia to the ships of the fleet. When we had five classes of destroyer on-line, there were five separate parts pipelines supplying them all, ditto the multiple cruiser and frigate classes--and the supply of ordnance to a dozen missile systems and five major calibres of gun armament required a tremendous and complicated logistical track. Additionally there is a great savings in manpower and facilities when you only need train Sailors to operate six weapons systems rather than seventeen. Building all of the cruisers, all of the destroyers to a couple of designs makes perfect sense in this context.

And it IS true that these ships are orders of magnitude more capable than the older classes that they replaced; having experienced service in a cruiser and witnessed the power and precision of modern weapons and sensor systems I would look rather foolish if I were to claim that our force is not better-equipped as a result of the changes I've broadly outlined above (I do have one argument regarding this point, but will save it for a future post). In fact, I am quite pleased to concede that a single Bunker Hill- or Burke-class ship carries more firepower, and can apply it more flexibly, than any single hull has ever done before. They truly are magnificent fighting machines, and crewed by trained officers and Sailors they can effect control of an enormous area of the sea, air, electronic and space battlefield.

It is possible that I have exaggerated somewhat the potential for boredom experienced when a powerful USN warship is approaching our starboard side and preparing to connect, but it is true that I take fewer photos these days as American ships draw close to Unrep. I have literally thousands of images of the cookie-cutter Fleet on my hard drive, and the unless something unusually dramatic is happening I just don't feel the impulse I once did to capture Arleigh Burkes, Bunker Hills, and Perrys.

Perhaps I suffer from overkill. In any case it must be obvious that my complaint is purely based on personal aesthetic preferences. But not to despair; there IS an antidote to shipspotter's ennui...


You'll recall my estimate that 7 out of 10 Unreps we conduct are with American warships; the good news is that the other 3 involve combat ships of other nations. There are plenty of them out here in the GOA, involved in anti-piracy patrols either as part of the "Combined Maritime Force" or despatched independently by their governments for escort and protection of merchant ships. British, Dutch, Turkish,French, Spanish, Belgian, German, etc...I'd estimate that at any time there are twenty warships of Allied nations in this region, and at least a dozen "independents", such as Russian, Chinese and Iranian vessels. The independents tend to rely on their own logistical ships (I suspect the Iranian frigate begs for fuel from the ships they escort--oh, that's mean, Tom!), but all of the Allied warships, eventually, end up alongside an MSC oiler for fuel, fresh water and stores.

For the naval enthusiast with camera at the ready, this constitutes a target-rich environment.

Nuclear Guided-Missile Cruiser USS South Carolina in the Med, 1988

I find that there is a special excitement in that first visual detection of an unidentified warship; when distant video on the radar screen resolves itself into a masthead just above the horizon, and examination through binoculars reveals its naval provenance. Sometimes our first indication that there is a foreign warship near comes when a strange helo flies by and we puzzle over its markings. Perhaps the "stranger" materializes full-blown from a fogbank or sandstorm, like a wraith from beyond in some monochrome film. But always there is the thrill of the unknown; there is someone else out there, a man-o-war with unknown intent, and it is a small part of my job to resolve the ambiguity and report to my Captain not only what type of vessel it is but a reasonable summary of its class and nation of origin.

I have to admit that I'm pretty proficient in this task; ever since my early years in the Fleet I've been fascinated by warship technology and design, and have spent a great deal of time and effort becoming familiar with the identification features and flags of most of the major classes of combatants world-wide. Recently I even wrote a small booklet on the subject of warship identification, a guide to the classes of ships one might encounter on patrol or transit in this region of the world. Strictly an amateur effort ("Warship ID for Dummies"?) but it has been well-received by bridge watchstanders and captains aboard several ships.

The major drive in my fascination with this topic is the sheer variety of approaches utilized by different countries in what one might expect to be a pretty standardized mission; the design and construction of a warship. While merchant ships worldwide are built to a half-dozen layouts, when it comes to combat ships the number of themes and variations thereof are staggering! As I am quite sure I have written at least once in the past year or so, we all do the same things but do them differently, and therein lies the nub of the matter--with a fairly constant international naval review in progress I can dismiss the cookie-cutter aspects of our own Fleet and concentrate on the amazing variety of men-o-war to be seen out here in the busy waters of the southern approaches to the Red Sea.


I am attaching images of a few of Joshua Humphrey's most recent "customers" as evidence of the variety of warships to be found battling the Somali and Yemeni pirates in this area. We have two Spanish ladies, the frigate Reina Sofia and patrol ship Infanta Elena, two very different examples of the Armada Espanola. There is the powerful and very professionally-handled Portuguese frigate Corte Real, of the ubiquitous "Meko" hull and potent sensor and weapons fit, the French Nivose, a chunky patrol vessel with a hull reminiscent of a World War II corvette and impressive endurance (with a maximum cruising range of 10,000 nautical miles at 15 knots she could reach Rio de Janeiro before exhausting the DFM we provided the other day). All of these vessels are strikingly different from each other in both their designs and their capabilities; each bringing a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, doctrines and tactics, to the fight.

SPS Reina Sofia Unreps from USNS Joshua Humphreys

Reina Sofia Unreps from USNS Joshua Humphreys

SPS Infanta Elena

Infanta Elena Alongside USNS Joshua Humphreys
FS Nivose


It is the study of these differences, and the array of technologies and techniques that they bring to the modern synergistic naval battle, that keeps me interested in these vessels and their officers and crews. It is the multiplicity of design elements, and the decisions made as they came together on the builder's ways, plus all the myriad changes and adaptations to a constantly changing battle environment, that draws my photographer's instinct to record them to best advantage. And it is my love of ships (some might say obsession), and of the kaleidoscope of types, classes, modifications and variations on the theme of the modern man-o-war, that keeps me glued to the eyepiece cups of my binoculars, waiting for that mast or wisp of stack gas on the razor's edge of the horizon; waiting for the slow appearance of yet another "stranger" to study, identify, understand and admire.

*This is the organization's old name, actually--NOW we are known as the Military Sealift Fleet Support Command--but that is WAY too many syllables for a common mariner like me! The new title appears on the letterhead, but not many of us are using it yet in casual conversation. The acronym--MSFSC--is even less popular with the rank and file. It's easier to say "I work for MSC"...

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