Sunday, June 9, 2013

Changing Course II

USNS Alan Shepherd

"Amateurs talk tactics; professionals talk logistics."
(Military quote attributed to practically every great general who ever lived)

It's a familiar scene; a resupply rendezvous on the open sea between three grey vessels. The replenishment ship takes "tactical control" of the two warships, then directs them to their stations while maintaining a precise course and speed so that the two combatants can orient correctly on the formations' "guide".

Soon heavy wire-rope cables will physically join their hulls and fuel will pulse through massive hoses; all the while the heavy beat of rotor blades fills the air as a heavy-lift helicopter conveys cargo from flight deck to flight deck. Forklifts position enormous "lifts" of palleted cargo for transfer while line-handlers, winch operators, supervising Boatswain's Mates, and helo control officers perform the industrial ballet by which navies are refueled and resupplied at sea.

Puma 06

Puma 06

Puma Vertrep of USS Carter Hall and USS San Antonio

Suddenly the fueling, the cargo transfer are complete; at a signal from the supply ship the small formation disperses as the combat ships separate and "proceed on duties assigned". In minutes they disappear over the horizon on their various missions and the replenishment unit comes about, shaping course for the next rendezvous, the next scheduled event. There are other "customers" out there that need fuel, food, ammunition and mail.

HMAS Toowoomba

PNS Tippu Sultan

Puma 06 and USS San Antonio

Another UNREP completed, another mission accomplished. Such a dance of machinery and people does not happen by accident; as in any complex undertaking the pieces do not fall automatically into their places to make it all "work". The event must be carefully scheduled, coordinated, and plotted days and even weeks in advance to ensure a successful resupply at sea. All the players must understand their roles in the play, all the materiel and equipment must be prepared, tested and staged, and every possible contingency--weather, shipping traffic, mechanical breakdown, and even enemy action--must be prepared for lest the operation fall apart in mid-execution, endangering ships, aircraft, and lives. There must be a solid, universally-agreed-upon, well-briefed plan.

My plan.

The rendezvous with and UNREP of USS Carter Hall and USS San Antonio in the Gulf of Oman a week ago, which the accompanying photos illustrate, was my masterpiece in the older sense of the end of my apprenticeship and the true beginning of my new career as an Operations Chief with Military Sealift Command (MSC). To bring three mighty ships and their crews together with one purpose I had to negotiate with my opposite numbers aboard them; I had to understand their requirements and limitations as well as our own in order to prepare my briefings and plots. I had to consult 'Shepard's Captain, officers and helo crews repeatedly to ensure that the developing concept of operations was workable, and their feedback was invaluable as I trimmed the rough edges from the plan.
Then, with the "customers" on the horizon, I had the duty of actually driving the process, communicating intents and last-minute information and orchestrating the entire event.

The old saying that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy" could be well applied here; there were minor problems in the execution of the UNREP, and some improvisation was required, but in the end we had an effective, safe transfer of stores and fuel and all objectives were met; I even had the pleasure of receiving a "well done" from our Captain as the party ended.

I'm proud of my accomplishment, and also humbled by it; my "lessons learned" from this particular event fill three pages in my wheelbook, and though the UNREP went off well I am more aware than ever of the responsibility I bear for this and future operations. The learning process has only begun, and I look forward to the challenges to come.

I think that this change of course in my life and career came at just the right time.

Tom Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Alan Shepard

USS Carter Hall

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