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Old Gold Gets Recycled
by James Dunnigan
July 14, 2014

In late 2013 the U.S. Navy began converting a 30,000 ton container ship to serve as a seagoing base (MSV or Maritime Support Vessel) for SOCOM (Special Operations Command) commandos and support troops. Over $100 million is being spent to do the conversion. What’s interesting about this is that it’s an old idea. Back in 2004 the U.S. Navy was asked by SOCOM to look into the idea of modifying a container ship for use as seagoing base for Special Operations troops (Special Forces and commandos). This idea was apparently inspired by incidents in the past decade where SOCOM forces had been based temporarily on navy ships. Off Haiti in 1996 and Afghanistan in 2001 the Navy provided an aircraft carrier with most of its air wing withdrawn and replaced with Army or Special Operations helicopters and personnel. While this tactic demonstrated tremendous flexibility on the part of the navy it could not be done on a regular basis because it tied up one of the most valuable navy assets (carriers and their crews.) Then in 2001 the navy began converting four SSBNs (ballistic missile firing nuclear subs) to carry 154 cruise missiles as well as SOCOM commandos.  This includes commando equipment and special boats to get them ashore.

The 2004 SOCOM proposal was to buy or lease a container ship, paint it gray and fit it out with crew quarters, (similar to those used by oil platform crews) for up to 800 SOCOM operators and 200 support troops. The facilities on board would include command, medical, recreation and storage for weapons, ammunition and explosives, and so forth. All would all be built into standard modular containers, as the U.S. later did extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Container ships have power generating capability to support refrigerated cargo so there is plenty for military needs (especially communications).

The use of modified (on shore) containers would also provide some bolted together to serve as a helicopter hangar and flight deck. With this set up the ship could operate over a dozen SOCOM helicopters, especially the larger MC-47s and V-22. Other containers would hold at least half a dozen 12 meter (40 foot) rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB) and equipment for launching and recovering them. 

The concept had several major advantages over the traditional approach of building a new type of military ship. Commercial vessels, even ones the size of aircraft carriers (large tankers and container carriers), typically require crews of less than fifty rather than thousands for military ships of the same size. A large container ship used for military purposes could be operated by fewer than a hundred sailors compared to 1,100 on an LHD or 3,200 on a Nimitz-class carrier. It would also be easier to upgrade, as the modules could be removed and replaced independently.

The Military Sealift Command (MSC) would own and operate these ships using civilian crews. The navy would keep one or two of these ships ready at all times plus a reserve of special containers ashore for use on additional MSC-owned ships or those leased from commercial users.

The current MSV project uses a smaller (30,000 ton) container ship and will handle a few hundred SOCOM operators and support troops and less than a dozen helicopters plus some small commando boats.


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