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Use of “Mothballed” Naval Platforms to Create Semi-permanent Battle Islands and Staging Areas
Jose L. Delgado and Eviya Vitola
This article is the latest addition to the U.S. Army TRADOC G2 Mad Scientist Initiative’s Future of Warfare 2030-2050 project at Small Wars Journal.
The idea of a Seaborne Mobile Operating Base was first seriously considered when the United States entered Operation Desert Shield in the 1990s. During the ramp-up to the conflict, the U.S. was forced to request the use of allied bases, which proved to be politically sensitive and a security challenge in the case of Saudi Arabia. Alternatively, operational, pre-positioned semi-permanent bases in international waters could potentially curtail the amount of time necessary to react to contingencies in hotspots throughout the world. This proposed base concept could have virtually unlimited capabilities, and if appropriately implemented could provide more than just a floating air strip, but a town-sized base.[i]
A joint mobile offshore base (JMOB) concept for expeditionary warfare and humanitarian and commercial operations was subsequently developed in the 1990s by McDermott International, Inc. of Arlington, Virginia. The JMOB concept proposed five self-propelled units creating a one-mile long runway that could accommodate a fully loaded C-17.[ii] A technical report presented to the U.S. Congress in April 2000 identified that such a base was technologically feasible and could be built by the defense industry of the United States. However, in December 1999, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in response to a congressional mandate issued a report which delineated the impracticality of JMOBs, "the largest floating offshore structure ever conceived by maritime engineers", on the grounds of high cost and vulnerability to threats such as missile attack.[iii] In January 2001, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) stated that MOB "would not be capable of effectively replacing conventional sealift" because it provided an inferior delivery capability to the existing joint logistics over the shore (JLOTS) system. The report concluded that the estimated US$5 billion to US$8 billion JMOB project was less cost effective than other existing at the time solutions.[iv] [v]
In concept, a JMOB was envisioned as a modular floating base that could be deployed to an area of national defense interest to provide flight, maintenance, supply and other forward logistics support operations for U.S. and Allied forces. In the original concept, JMOB modules will were envisioned as having semisubmersibles which significantly reduced smaller wave-induced motions compared to conventional hulls. This modularity supported the widest possible range of air support, ranging from vertical/short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) aircraft using a single module to conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft using several serially aligned modules approaching 6,000 feet in length. In addition, original JMOB proposals accepted ship-borne cargo, provided nominally 3 million square feet for equipment storage and maintenance, stored close to 10 million gallons of fuel, housed up to 3,000 troops (a heavy brigade equivalent), and could potentially discharged resources to the shore via a variety of landing craft.
The basic strategy was to deploy semisubmersible "building block" modules which could be arrayed in a number of different modes of operation. Each module (See Figure 1) consisted of a box-type deck supported by multiple columns on two parallel pontoons. When transiting between operational sites, the module was de-ballasted and traveled with the pontoons on the surface much like a catamaran. When on site, the module was ballasted down so that the pontoons were submerged below the surface wave zone, thereby minimizing the wave-induced dynamic motions. The decks, which store rolling stock and dry cargo, are all located above the wave crests. The columns provided structural support and hydrostatic stability against overturning.[vi]
Figure 1: Building Block Module
These platforms could range anywhere in length from a single, 300 meter-long, module to multiple modules serially aligned to form a runway up to 2 kilometers long. All platforms would provide personnel housing, equipment maintenance functions, vessel and lighterage cargo transfer, and logistic support for rotary wing and short take-off aircraft. The longest platform (nominally 2 kilometers in length) could also accommodate conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircraft, including the Boeing C-17 cargo transporter. [vii]
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) investigated whether a MOB represented a credible technical capability for Naval and Marine Forces. This Program identified and managed an extensive series of advancements using the best of academia, industry, and government experts. An independent group of marine engineering experts from industry, the American Bureau of Shipping, and academia was tasked to review the Program and its products and render an opinion on MOB feasibility and cost. The resulting assessment report was provided to Congress in April 2000. A key conclusion was that all of the key technology issues identified at the inception of the ONR S&T program that put MOB beyond the state-of-practice were either resolved or evaluated sufficiently to conclude there were no inherent showstoppers. It was concluded that the use of Mobile Offshore Bases, ranging from one 300-meter long module to a 2-kilometer long platform consisting of serially-aligned multiple semisubmersibles, in the open ocean as a forward base appeared technically feasible. However, in early 2001 a study by the Institute for Defense Analyses concluded that the Mobile Offshore Base concept was less cost effective than alternatives such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, joint logistics capabilities and Large Medium Speed Roll-on/Roll-off (LMSR) sealift ships.[viii]
What if already existing platforms could be reconfigured and repurposed to meet the same objective? In theory, pre-existing, “mothballed” platforms with modifications for stability and functionality could serve the same purpose at a fraction of the original cost. These platforms could be re-engineered to facilitate modular coupling and the hulls could be further modified to improve hydrostatic stability. The resultant platform would result in a semi-autonomous, stable, secure and efficient JMOB that could support a whole host of military and humanitarian mission sets at a fraction of the costs associated with the original modular concept proposed in the 1990s.
Figure 2: Mothballed Category C Ships
The prepositioning of JMOBs in potential hotspots or areas that develop the need for extended military, humanitarian or research missions could also serve to cut expenses for costly logistical resupply. Particularly if these installations use emerging and existing technologies to generate power and farm oceanic resources to meet their logistical needs.
Case in point, using ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) technology in a platform of this nature could create enormous efficiencies by using the temperature difference between cooler deep and warmer shallow or surface seawaters to run a heat engine and produce electricity. Among ocean energy sources, OTEC is one of the continuously available renewable energy resources that could contribute to base-load power supply on a JMOB. OTEC can also supply quantities of cold water as a by-product. This can be used for air conditioning and refrigeration and the nutrient-rich deep ocean water can feed biological technologies. Another by-product is fresh water distilled from the sea.[ix] [x] This would also significantly lessen or eliminate the need for fossil fuels to power many of the energy needs of semi-permanent JMOB installations.
The use of OTEC technology can also facilitate the use of biological technologies, like aquaculture and hydroponics, to help feed the semi-permanent station. Deep ocean water contains high concentrations of essential nutrients that are depleted in surface waters due to biological consumption. The “artificial upwelling" produced as a byproduct of OTEC mimics the natural upwelling responsible for fertilizing and supporting the world's largest marine ecosystems, and the largest densities of life on the planet.
Non-native species such as salmon, lobster, abalone, trout, oysters, and clams can be raised in pools supplied by OTEC-pumped water. This extends the variety of fresh seafood products available for installation consumption and low-cost refrigeration can be used to maintain the quality of harvested fish, which deteriorate quickly in warm tropical regions. For example, in Kona, Hawaii, aquaculture companies working with the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) generate about $40 million annually, a significant portion of Hawaii’s GDP.[xi]
The NELHA plant established in 1993 produces an average of 7,000 gallons of freshwater per day. KOYO USA was established in 2002 to capitalize on this new economic opportunity and bottles the water produced by the NELHA plant in Hawaii. With the capacity to produce one million bottles of water every day, KOYO is now Hawaii’s biggest exporter with $140 million in sales.[xii]
This model could also expand the capabilities of the existent Army Prepositioning Afloat (APA) / Combat Prepositioning Force [CPF] Combat Prepositioning [PREPO] afloat by providing a semi-permanent staging area closer to potential conflict areas. APA, CPF and PREPO are made up of ships from the Afloat Pre-positioning Force (APF) of the Military Sealift Command (MSC). The flexibility inherent in the APF makes this force a key element in joint operation planning; the APF is capable of supporting the plans for an entire range of military operations.[xiii]
Pre-positioned cargoes aboard APF shipping also include the capability to provide humanitarian assistance with food rations, medical supplies, habitability sets (i.e., tents), potable water-making machinery, engineer support equipment, and motor transport. To enable the early delivery of combat power to a theater of operations, additional equipment such as tanks and artillery could be pre-positioned on JMOBs which would enable a quick transition from humanitarian assistance to kinetic operations. Elements of the APF may be temporarily moved to JMOBs to take up position close to a potential employment area, either to signal national resolve during an evolving crisis or enhance the timely delivery of supplies and equipment upon the decision to deploy a decisive force.[xiv]
Model Applicability to Real-World Combatant Command Scenarios
United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) is a Department of Defense geographic combatant command (COCOM). It is responsible for working with African nations, interagency and intergovernmental and international partners to strengthen and enhance regional stability and security by building partner capacity, responding to crises, and deterring and defeating transnational threats. Unlike other combatant commands, AFRICOM’s mission and theater campaign lines of effort extend beyond the traditional military roles and responsibilities of a regional combatant to encompass a whole-of-government, 3D (defense, diplomacy, and development) approach to security cooperation. Much of the command’s efforts on the continent are concentrated less on traditional warfare and “kinetic” operations and more on long-term decisive efforts such as training, equipping, and assisting African partner nation militaries and governments to better address a host of challenges, such as: conflict, insurgencies, disease, natural disasters, and post-conflict reconstruction. This holistic approach to regional challenges stems from Africa’s distinct and unique security environment, which requires a combination of defense and “soft power” tools to build regional capacity and mitigate the need and reliance on military interventions.
During his 2017 congressional posture statement, AFRICOM Combatant Commander, GEN Thomas Waldhauser, highlighted the logistical obstacles and resources constraints of executing USAFRICOM’s objectives, noting that USAFRICOM relies heavily on the European Command (EUCOM) for shared response forces and its European allies (Spain, Italy, and Greece) for force projection in support of its missions on the continent.[xv] Of note, he observed that “Africa’s security environment is dynamic and complex requiring innovative solutions” and that “while the command has been able to succeed in multiple efforts” its mission is impacted by the “inconsistent resourcing of key requirements and capabilities”, and remarking that Africa lacks a theater distribution network to support its forces. According to GEN Waldhauser, the command is in need of “an effective hub for consolidating cargo, replacing multiple commercial contracts” and “eliminating the use of heavy military cargo planes”.
Apolitical Basing Alternatives
Africans and the humanitarian community have both expressed concerns over USAFRICOM’s footprint on the continent; the presence of US military personnel on the continent is viewed by some as an “extension of colonialism”. Aside from AFRICOM’s forward operating base CJTF-HOA in Djbouti, USAFRICOM has typically relied on cooperative security locations (CSLs) to maintain access for its military personnel, while trying to minimize its footprint on the continent. The use of JMOB-like, mobile, and semi-permanent staging area in international waters could provide the operational platform necessary for a wide variety of military or humanitarian mission sets and would also alleviate many of the logistical challenges outlined by GEN Waldhauser.
Flexibility in Austere Operational Environments
“Africa’s security environment is dynamic and complex, requiring innovative solutions… while the command has been able to succeed in multiple efforts, its mission is impacted by the inconsistent resourcing of key requirements and capabilities…”
-- General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander, US Africa Command
Operation United Assistance (OUA), AFRICOM’s support to the United States Government’s response to the Ebola crisis in Liberia from 2014-2015, exposed the pitfalls of establishing an expeditionary base in an austere environment. Challenges included:
- complications in establishing operations in theater,
- unfamiliarity with operating from immature bases,
- lack of infrastructure such as viable airfields, roads, healthcare facilities,
- an insufficient electrical grid network,
- access to potable water,
- difficulty in identifying appropriate Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) sites,
- ETU construction delays. [xvi]
Often, complex humanitarian emergencies and crises that require a military intervention such as OUA, also call for rapid planning and execution, which can cause planners to overlook potential health risks and force protection measures. Deploying troops into an operational environment without proper safeguards unnecessarily places US forces and civilian partners at risk. A fully functional, self-contained JMOB could provide the necessary safeguards to ensure pre-coordinated solutions and logistic enablers to help address most (if not all of) the logistical, operational and technological requirements of the complex military and humanitarian challenges confronted by AFRICOM.
Mitigation of Force Protection Risks
AFRICOM faces considerable challenges in maintaining robust situational awareness of its 53-country area of responsibility from its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. AFRICOM’s 2017 security posture statement acknowledges the “tyranny of distance” imposed by the continent to the command’s responsiveness, noting “for personnel recovery, Africa Command relies heavily on contract search and rescue assets due to lack of dedicated assets to support operations” and that “African partners lack the capability and capacity to assist with personnel recovery missions”.[xvii]
A JMOB could mitigate some of these risks by providing a base for launching and recovering military strike or relief operations from a relatively protected environment. In this role (and based on its size) it could serve as a joint resource for basing and operating aircraft from all services. The JMOB would become the functional equivalent of a joint service aircraft carrier without the logistical tail necessary to keep it operational. If deployed off the African coast and appropriately configured, it could keep a significant swath of the supported territory within range of humanitarian or strike capabilities. The same coverage cannot be provided by aircraft or support personnel flying out of friendly airbases available in theater due to the political and physical challenges outlined above. Land bases cover an area by dint of their dispersion, while the JMOB does so by its diversity of resources and its potential mobility. Thus a JMOB, located in a single location at any given time, can provide dedicated coverage and support for extended periods of time.
If built, the JMOB could be employed as a large seaport or air base afloat at sea -- movable under its own power. Ideally, it could also be used in a more semi-permanent, prepositioned fashion to address support requirements that require significant time, such as humanitarian or extended relief operations in operationally difficult or austere conditions. There is general agreement that a capability of this nature is both necessary and required and the authors believe that the recycling of “mothballed” ships could potentially cut production costs and could make this concept viable. However, careful attention would have to be given to the design and modifications necessary to make the resultant platform operational in high sea states with minimal rolling motions while remaining logistically semi-autonomous.
The original JMOB design of the 1990s was envisioned to provide adequate bases where none currently existed, or where existing ones were not available during crises, either through enemy action or for political reasons. Previous feasibility studies concluded that building and operating JMOBs was technically feasible since it represented a modest extension of available engineering technology. However, the original proposals were found fiscally untenable and the concept was subsequently shelved.
The JMOB proposed in this article is likely just as feasible if work is conducted to resolve the technical issues associated with the nature and viability of the connectors and dynamic positioning systems, and the flexible bridges needed between the recycled hulls. Armed with advanced radars and weapons that can engage incoming ballistic or cruise missiles, the resulting JMOB could also be considered for use as a large missile defense platform at sea, a mobile, local defense area at sea used to protect nearby naval or commercial ships or an asset used to protect a larger theater region that includes land areas.
The JMOB could be used to support any missions that require a large sea base in the theater of concern. Because of its large size, the JMOB could be used for prepositioning military units at sea, with troops flown directly to the JMOB for subsequent deployment in the theater where they are needed. After the troops marry up at sea with their equipment and are subsequently deployed ashore, the JMOB could then serve as a logistics hub from which sustainment and force augmentation in the theater could be provided. It could also serve auxiliary functions, such as an in-theater hospital facility and a repair and maintenance depot. It could also provide a base for launching and recovering air strikes from fixed- or rotary-wing attack aircraft as well as for launching unmanned aerial vehicles and land-attack or anti-ship missiles.
Although previous cost and feasibility estimates for a modular JMOB design undercut the idea’s technical merit, a more careful study of the cost to benefit ratio of this recycled hull concept applied to operational environments like those in USAFRICOM or USSOUTHCOM would likely yield favorable results. Furthermore, the use of cutting edge technology to offset the long-term sustainability costs associated with a JMOB (as compared to the systems and technologies currently employed) will likely yield favorable outcomes which could potentially provide operational platforms that could be used to further develop other emerging logistical and scientific technologies.
The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, or USAFRICOM.
[i] Greer, W. (January 2001). . . .
[ii] Wilson, Jim (2003), , Cover story in , April issue. January 9, 2010, at the .
[iii] Paul Nagy. “ National Defense, August 2001.
[iv] . GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved 2018-02-18.
[v] . Retrieved 2018-02-20.
[vi] . GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved 2018-02-18.
[ix] Lewis, Anthony, et al. IPCC: Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, 2011
[x] DiChristina, Mariette (May 1995). "Sea Power". Popular Science: 70–73. Retrieved 2018-02-09.
[xi] Ponia, Ben. "Aquaculture Updates in the Northern Pacific: Hawaii, Federated States of Mirconesia, Palau and Saipan". SPCFisheries Newsletter. July 2006. Web Retrieved 2018-02-26. Available at: http://www.spc.int/DigitalLibrary/Doc/FAME/InfoBull/FishNews/118/FishNews11 8_58_Ponia.pdf.
[xii] Thomas, Daniel. "A Brief History of OTEC Research at NELHA". NELHA. August 1999. Web. Retrieved 2018-02-09. Available at: http://library.greenocean.org/oteclibrary/otecpapers/OTEC%20History.pdf
[xiii] Army Pre-positioned Stock (APS-3) (September 2012), GlobalSecurity.org, Retrieved 2018-02-27. Available at https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/aps-3.htm
[xv] United States Africa Command 2017 Posture Statement
[xvi] “Supporting, Non-Standard Mission Role: U.S. Operations in Liberia, 2014-2015, That Enabled The U.S. and UN Response to the EVD Outbreak”; U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, Alix Boucher; January 2018.
[xvii] “Private Contractor Used to Evacuate US Forces in Niger Ambush”; edition.cnn.com; Barbara Starr; 18 October 2017.