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Downsizing and Austerity in the Decade after Vietnam

As the war in Southeast Asia escalated in the mid-1960s, the navy had seen its share of the defense budget shrink as more and more funds were allocated to replace the much greater attrition of equipment experienced by the army and the air force. When Adm. Elmo E. Zumwalt, Jr., became chief of naval operations in 1970, the war was winding down and with it the size of the U.S. Fleet. A combination of block obsolescence and mandatory budgetary cuts was forcing the navy to retire large numbers of World War II vintage warships. Since coming to power in January 1969, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon had overseen the removal of 223 ships from the navy list with more ships scheduled to be deactivated in the coming months.1 Especially vulnerable were the older aircraft carriers whose role as antisubmarine platforms was no longer considered viable.

The navy desperately needed to replace its aging fleet of oilers, but funds for new construction were severely limited. Understandably, those moneys that were available had to be earmarked for the construction of modern fighting ships that would be capable of combating the growing threat from the Soviet Union. Although the navy had repeatedly asked Congress for money with which to procure new tankers, there never seemed to be enough funds available to replace the aging noncombatants still in service with MSTS. Of immediate concern were the fourteen T2 tankers constructed during the height of the Second World War that accounted for 16 percent of tonnage available to MSTS. By the late 1960s, the maintenance and overhead costs of these ships were climbing exponentially and their continued operation was no longer cost effective. The navy recognized the need to retire these ships and recommended that they be replaced with nine modern tankers in 1967, but funding was again denied.2

In 1968, the Department of Defense conducted a study that affirmed the need to procure 25,000-ton (deadweight) tankers for the navy. Although commercial interests considered this size too small for effective use in competitive markets, a conditional award was made for


the construction of nine such tankers in the following year. The ships were to be bareboat chartered to MSTS for an initial period of five years with options to extend to twenty years. The operator could not complete the needed financial arrangements, however, and the award had to be terminated in early 1969.3

The Military Sealift Command Takes Over the Replenishment Load

After World War II ended, American shipyards did little to improve productivity, develop new technical capabilities, or remain competitive in the world market. By 1970 many well-known shipbuilders had gone out of business and those that remained had abandoned any thought of investing in new plants or equipment. In a repeat of their experience in the 1930s, American shipping companies aided by the powerful maritime unions lobbied Congress and the White House for aid and made large contributions to both political parties during the presidential election of 1968.4

These efforts paid handsome dividends in the spring of 1970 when President Nixon asked Congress to set aside $199.5 million in the coming budget to provide construction subsidies for nineteen new merchant ships. Before the year was out, Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1970--the first major piece of maritime legislation since the act of 1936. Enacted as a means of overcoming the obsolescence of the U.S. merchant fleet, the new legislation contained a provision similar to that passed in 1936, which offered to provide federal aid in the form of a differential construction subsidy and included funds to construct thirty ships a year for ten years. Like its predecessor of 1936, the Merchant Marine Act of 1970 was expected to increase employment within the shipbuilding industry by creating new jobs. The bill was also expected to reduce the nation's balance of payments deficit--now a major political consideration--by $2.9 billion dollars.5

As the intended legislation was making its way through Congress that summer, changes began to take place within the Department of Defense. In August 1970, the Military Sealift Command (MSC) was established taking over the functions previously handled by the navy's Military Sea Transportation Service. Although many of the ships operated by MSC were still owned by the navy, henceforth they would be manned by civilian crews only.

In addition to peacetime cargo operations previously handled by MSTS, the Military Sealift Command was assigned the mission of providing the sealift requirements of the armed forces in a national emergency. Not long thereafter, in February 1972, MSC issued a request for proposals from commercial operators to build and charter nine 25,000-ton tankers based upon a "leveraged lease." Contracts were finalized in June 1972 with two special-purpose corporations,


Marine Vessel Leasing Corp. and Marine Ship Leasing Corp., for construction and bareboat chartering of four and five 25,000-ton diesel-propelled tankers respectively.6

The new tankers, known as the Sealift class, were "transport" oilers designed to provide fuel transportation services in ports that were too shallow to accommodate the larger, 38,000-d.w.t. ships preferred by commercial operators. They were designed to commercial standards established by the U.S. Maritime Administration and built according to American Bureau of Shipping standards. The new ships were 587 feet overall, displaced 34,100 tons under full load on a draft of 32 feet, and were designed to cruise at 16 knots. The new tankers could carry five different petroleum products simultaneously and were equipped with four high-capacity electric pumps to permit rapid operation while discharging cargo ashore or at sea.7

The first two vessels, Sealift Pacific and Sealift Atlantic, were delivered in August 1974 and entered service under MSC colors. The remaining seven, Sealift Arabian Sea, Sealift China Sea, Sealift Indian Ocean, Sealift Mediterranean, Sealift Caribbean, Sealift Arctic, and Sealift Antarctic, were delivered the following year. Originally designated as T-AOs, were the T signified MSC operation, they were later reclassified as T-AOT in keeping with their role as transport oilers (the low speed of these vessels limited their ability to function as naval auxiliaries).

In 1971, Admiral Zumwalt proposed the use of MSC ships for direct support of the fleet at sea. Heretofore, these civilian-manned ships had only been used for point to point transport of cargo. To determine the feasibility of this concept, Admiral Zumwalt directed the formation of a special study group to recommend how the navy could better utilize the MSC fleet to save both manpower and money. The high cost of training personnel after the advent of the all-volunteer navy made it imperative that seagoing personnel be assigned to complex warships of the fleet whenever possible. The study concluded that significant savings could be achieved if civilian mariners could be substituted for uniformed navy sailors in fleet support ships.8

In 1972 a joint U.S. Navy-Maritime Administration project called "Charger Log" was established to test whether or not a union-crewed merchant ship could provide some or all of the fleet support services normally provided by navy oilers. Extensive trials were conducted using the civilian manned merchant tanker SS Erna Elizabeth equipped with both alongside and astern fueling gear to test the feasibility of augmenting (not replacing) the service force with ships of the merchant marine. Owned by the Hudson Waterways Corporation of New York, the 661-foot, 35,000-ton tanker was similar to the "jumboized" Mispillion-class (AO-22) oilers then in service. During the


The Sealift Indian Ocean was one of five Sealift-class transport oilers ordered by the Military Sealift Command in 1972 as replacement for its aging fleet of World War II vintage T2 tankers. (U.S. Naval Institute)
The Sealift Indian Ocean was one of five Sealift-class transport oilers ordered by the Military Sealift Command in 1972 as replacement for its aging fleet of World War II vintage T2 tankers. (U.S. NavalInstitute)

twenty-nine-day test period, the Erna Elizabeth successfully conducted thirty-eight underway refuelings using both the alongside and astern methods with no less than eighteen different ships. Although the project demonstrated that cruisers and destroyers could be refueled from a merchant tanker, the operation took much longer to complete due to the single hose deployed as compared to the two sets of hoses (two hoses port and starboard) on a fleet oiler that could be used to simultaneously refuel two combatants. (This same conclusion was reached in 1925 as the test with Arizona described in chapter 3 indicated.) Included in the testing was a demonstration of the capability to refuel a carrier. This exercise was conducted with the John F. Kennedy (CV-67) using the two hose rigs the ship normally carried for fueling her escorts rather than the astern rig carried by the Erna Elizabeth. In terms of alongside time, a normal three-hour carrier refueling from fleet replenishment ships using five fueling hoses would take more than seven hours alongside a merchant tanker with only two hoses.9

The mission received a congratulatory "well done" from the CNO, but created a storm of protest when the maritime unions--who sought additional political influence--made it clear they wanted to extend the plan beyond on-station resupply of navy oilers or emergency refueling of combatants. This generated great concern by many within the navy who worried that this would get out of control and would eventually cause all underway replenishment to be turned over to a low-bid contractor, thereby reducing the navy's underway replenishment capability to something like the jury-rig days of World War II.


This concern was heightened by several technical papers published on the subject that stressed the tremendous reduction in construction and operating costs that would accrue by replacing the navy's expensive UNREP ships with merchant vessels. Ignored was the critical value of minimizing the time spent conducting underway replenishment during wartime.10

At the start of the trials, Admiral Zumwalt was hoping to be able to contract out the navy's UNREP needs to U.S. steamship lines as a means of diverting construction funds that would otherwise be needed to replace the navy's aging oilers.11 However, the operational difficulties demonstrated by Operation Charger Log militated against this approach. Nevertheless, the success of Charger Log contributed to the establishment of the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force (NFAF) wherein some fleet support ships (initially oilers, but later stores ships, tugs, and salvage vessels) were turned over to the Military Sealift Command for operation by civilian sailors. Though operated by the MSC, these ships sail with navy task forces under the operational control of the fleet commander. Fleet commanders are subsequently billed by the MSC on a per diem basis for the support services of these vessels. The NFAF ships in excess of the needs of the fleet are placed in a reduced readiness with a concomitant reduction in crewing.

The navy oiler Taluga (AO-62) was the first fleet-support ship to be placed under MSC control. Decommissioned on 4 May 1972, she was transferred to the MSC and redesignated T-AO-62.12 After her transfer, the ship underwent a thorough overall that included refurbishment of equipment, gear, and refueling rigs, modification of crew quarters, and the removal of armaments. She entered service with a crew of 105 civilian mariners hired by the government augmented by a sixteen-member naval complement. The latter, being familiar with navy doctrine, procedures, and encryption equipment, handled all communication functions.13

On her first assignment as a naval fleet auxiliary, USNS Taluga deployed to the Pacific providing direct support to the Seventh Fleet where she conducted 160 underway replenishments. Her first master, Capt. Lawrence Nasset, received numerous awards and letters of commendation for his highly successful efforts in transforming Taluga from a navy-crewed to a civilian-crewed vessel.

Twenty years later, Captain Nasset elaborated on this accomplishment: "After an initial training period and shakedown, our civilian mariners did just as well, and in many instances, actually did the job better and faster than the all-navy crews who had done it before. "You see," he added, "it's a lot easier to train an experienced mariner, often former active duty Navy, than it is to take a brand spanking new seaman or seaman apprentice and teach him or her the fine points of underway replenishment."14


The New Cimarron Class

By the mid 1970s, the number of ships in the U.S. Navy had declined dramatically and was in the worst material condition in over fifty years.15 While the centerpiece of the surface navy was now the Carrier Battle Group (CVBG), only thirteen aircraft carriers remained in service--the lowest number since before the start of the Second World War. Although the concept of mobile logistic support was now a fully accepted doctrine, the navy had only four Sacramento-class fast combat-support ships fully capable of meeting the wartime requirements of a Carrier Battle Group.

To provide additional multiproduct UNREP for the CVBGs the navy had to depend upon the AOR/AO-51-class replenishment ships, which were considerably smaller, slower, and had less cargo capacity for ammunition. Of these, the three Ashtabula-class oilers of World War II vintage were thirty years old. Although they had been reconstructed and enlarged ten years earlier, their propulsion machinery had remained unchanged. Though all three should have been supplanted by more modern ships, the paucity of funds available for new construction mitigated against replacement. While the Ashtabula (AO-51) was decommissioned in 1982, the Caloosahatchee (AO-98) and the Canisteo (AO-99) remained in commission throughout the 1980s!

The AOs were still needed to backup the multiproduct UNREP ships as shuttle oilers, but this was a less-critical role as they did not require high speed or large exceptional cargo capacity. Nevertheless, the majority of navy oilers had been constructed during the World War II program and were rapidly nearing the end of their useful lives. The decision to convert some of these ships in the mid-1960s in lieu of new construction came back to haunt the navy as it was now faced with the need to replace a large number of auxiliaries in the face of escalating construction costs and limited budget.

Fortunately the nadir in spending for new construction ended in 1975 when the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Sea Power recommended that Congress proceed with a thirty-five ship per year shipbuilding program over a five-year period.15 Although plans were formulated for a new class of oiler, the limited funds available created a design that except for speed was extremely austere. The new ships, designated the AO-177 class, were significantly smaller than the previous Neosho class and were the only non-wartime AOs constructed with single shafts (table 26).16 A proposal to give the class a miniature multiproduct capability by lengthening the ship to add cargo holds for ammunition and stores was endorsed by ComPacFlt but rejected by the Office of Naval Operations. Funds for the first ship were requested in the FY 1975 program, but were not approved by Congress. Two ships--AO-177 and AO-178--were


Cimarron (AO-177) Class Characteristics

Length, overall   591' 6"
Length, between perpendiculars   550'
Beam   88'
Draft   35'
Displacement, light ship   8,200 tons
Displacement, full load   26,500 tons
Cargo capacity:  
      Fuel   120,000 bbls
  Dry stores or cargo lube oil   29,000 cu ft
  Refrigerated stores   2 containers
Propulsion equipment (steam)   Geared turbine
Shaft horsepower, rated   24,000
Design speed, sustained   20 knots

SOURCE: Miller, Hammett, and Murphy, "The Development of the
U.S. Navy Underway Replenishment Fleet," 20.

subsequently authorized in fiscal year 1976. The lead ship was laid down on 18 May 1978, at the Avondale Shipyards, Westwego, Louisiana. Christened the Cimarron, she was launched on 28 April 1979 becoming the second oiler to bear this name when commissioned 10 January 1981.

Combination Fueling/CargoRig

The shortage of multiproduct replenishment ships in the early 1970s led to the development of an improvised system for dispensing fuel from ammunition and stores ships that allowed them to transfer fuel to smaller combatants. Neither type of ship had cargo fuel, but each could share its own fuel with destroyers and frigates in an emergency. The lack of sufficient numbers of AOEs or AORs precluded the deployment of these types in support of any of the surface warfare groups, which were generally composed of destroyers and frigates. The old saw that necessity is the mother of invention proved to be true when Rear Adm. John Johnson devised a practical solution to the shortage of fuel-carrying UNREP ships based on the modification of existing cargo transfer gear on ammunition and stores ships. As commander Task Force 73 (the service force of the Seventh Fleet) in 1973, Admiral Johnson had to contend with the problem of how to provide logistic support for the two Seventh Fleet destroyers deployed to the Indian Ocean for an extended period of time. The answer was to turn the Kiska (AE-35) into a mini multiproduct ship by adding two cargo reefer boxes as deck cargo and outfitting her with a jury-rigged fuel station. The latter was achieved by temporarily rigging a 7-inch fuel hose to the starboard side cargo station--the one closest to the ship's fuel receiving raiser. The highline was used as a span wire, and fuel hose saddles were supported from a wire whip from a nearby hauling


Cimarron (AO-177) as she appeared after commissioning. (U.S. Naval Institute)
Cimarron (AO-177) as she appeared aftercommissioning. (U.S. Naval Institute)

winch or a fiber whip from a nearby gypsy. Fuel was pumped from the ship's own fuel bunkers to the receiving ship alongside using the fuel-transfer pump normally carried aboard the AE. The pumping rate was considerably less than that of a fleet oiler and, while workable, contained many drawbacks.17

As a result of this success, Admiral Johnson was able to get all AEs and AFSs in the Pacific equipped with fueling gear for their cargo delivery stations and saw to it that the AEs carried portable reefer boxes to hold cargo provisions. Later, when Admiral Johnson was commander, Naval Surface Forces Atlantic, he did the same with their AEs and AFSs.

A major shortcoming of this system was the four or more hours it took to convert the station for the fuel transfer function. While rigged for fueling, the station was unavailable to transfer ammunition or cargo limiting these operations to the two remaining cargo stations and restricting the options and capabilities of the replenishing ship in the event of equipment failure. Other problems included the need to manhandle the heavy hoses over the bulwark and the complex rigging arrangements required. These deficiencies led to the development of a specialized combination fuel and cargo station designed specifically to meet the needs of the navy's UNREP fleet,


which could be shifted from cargo to fuel or fuel to cargo in five minutes or less. The first of these installations was placed on board Kiska and was successfully deployed in mid-1984 providing a significant improvement to the underway replenishment capabilities of these ships.18


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Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation