Not withstanding some of the recent examples of new ships, naval vessels are generally characterized by strong construction, a degree of armor, extensive compartmentation, enhanced firefighting systems, high speed, and other features designed to allow a ship to fight, take damage, continue fighting, and survive. Commercial vessels lack most of those characteristics and would be ill-suited for combat scenarios.
Consider, though, that the majority of combat scenarios we can reasonably anticipate will involve lower end threat levels and somewhat more permissive environments. For example, putting small forces into African nations, staging anti-terrorist raids, conducting rescues, clearing mine fields, etc. would all involve combat with little risk to an offshore staging/basing vessel. For that matter, even more intense combat scenarios would often be conducted in a protected, reasonably permissive environment under the watch of an Aegis escort and/or friendly air cover.
If we are willing to accept a reasonable degree of risk, many of these functions can be filled by commercial type cargo/barge vessels at a fraction of the cost of naval vessels. I’m not suggesting that commercial standard vessels should replace naval amphibious ships or operate in extreme forward, high threat environments. I am suggesting that commercial vessels could supplement our naval vessels in many scenarios at a fraction of the cost. In concept, the USS Ponce which has been fitted out as an Afloat Forward Staging Base is an example of this type of vessel except that it is a full fledged naval vessel. Given that it was due for retirement anyway, the low cost conversion to an AFSB was warranted. The Navy has indicated a desire for additional AFSBs but budget constraints have derailed those plans. Commercial vessels might well be able to fill the AFSB roles in many scenarios at an affordable price. Heck, forgoing a single multi-billion dollar new construction amphibious ship would fund several commercial AFSB type ships. The Navy has got to face the reality of constrained budgets for the foreseeable future and selective use of commercial vessels offers an alternative way to maintain as much capability as possible.
If the requirements for combat and damage control are removed from consideration, as we’re discussing here, what’s left is, for all practical purposes, a commercial barge or cargo vessel, is it not? One could easily imagine a small fleets of commercial vessels providing the backbone of a permanent African presence, supplementing the standing Mid East forces, and assisting in presence and patrol duties in select areas around the Pacific.
Barges, in particular, offer a great deal of capability, under the right circumstances, for next to no cost. Consider the photo of the barge in this post. It’s quite large and was designed by Cross Marine in
as a floating hospital complex for use in remote regions. Picture it as a base for Special Ops, helo units, UAV intelligence gathering, small unit basing, a mothership of sorts for small patrol craft, etc. Utah
|Cross Marine's Hospital Barge|
The possible uses for commercial vessels and barges are virtually unlimited and offer a viable, low cost option to supplement naval capabilities during these budget constrained times. It’s worth thinking about!