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MSC ships offer blueprint for cruiser lay-ups

Mar. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The cruiser Port Royal will be one of 11 cruisers put into reduced operating capacity under a cost-saving plan that could borrow procedures from Military Sealift Command.
The cruiser Port Royal will be one of 11 cruisers put into reduced operating capacity under a cost-saving plan that could borrow procedures from Military Sealift Command. (MC3 Diana Quinlan/Navy)
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Cruiser crews going into lay-up in the coming years could be cut by two-thirds and share berthing and galleys with other ships if the Navy follows an established model that has cut costs by more than 80 percent.

The Pentagon on Feb. 24 announced a plan to place 11 of 22 cruisers and three dock landing ships in a reduced operating status, a proposal that leaves a number of unanswered questions as the Navy works out the details.

Yet this much is certain: Don’t expect to get an easy tour if your ship goes into lay-up. Much of the crew will rotate to fill gaps at sea and critical billets ashore.

Sources familiar with the plan said leaders are likely to adopt elements of the the Military Sealift Command model, which has made an art of reduced operating status over the past two decades.

MSC, whose fleet support ships are mostly crewed by civil service mariners, regularly cuts crews to about one-third their size to save money and extend service life when the ships are pierside for long periods. MSC is adept at getting the ships mission-ready on short notice, typically in five or 30 days depending on activation status, said Christopher Thayer, director of contractor operated ships.

Thayer is responsible for 80 MSC vessels — 15 of which are maintained in ROS. His fleet oilers and cargo ships typically have a crew of about 30 contracted mariners. Still, with just a handful of crew members (mostly snipes) to maintain equipment, his vessels are able to pass inspection and shipping standards. Crews also conduct periodic dock trials and bulk up for biennial sea trials.

Efficiency is the name of the game. For example, most of Thayer’s ROS ships are based in Norfolk, Va. He has fewer than a half-dozen crew members on four ships, and 11 crew members on a fifth. But all five crews reside on the last ship, the only one to maintain a hot galley and berthing areas.

Since engines are laid up, crew size is determined largely by turnaround time. The key is to keep the right number of personnel on board to make sure replacements and repairs don’t exceed the activation time line.

This approach provides “substantial” maintenance and labor savings, Thayer said. He pointed to the Bob Hope-class large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ships, which range from11 to 16 years old but average less than four years’ run time on their engines. The estimated engine lifespan is 50 years.

While lay-up is normal for the LMSR fleet, this status is not always a strategic matter. Some MSC ships have been placed in this position because of financial constraints, Thayer said, as was the case recently for the T-AO fleet replenishment oilers, which keep strike groups sailing with fuel, food, ammunition and supplies.■

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