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With Navy strained, Sealift Command crews eye greater military role

ABOARD THE USNS SPEARHEAD IN THE GULF OF GUINEA — Greg Shergur is a radio technician aboard this Navy catamaran, but that’s just one of his jobs. The 35-year-old father of two from Virginia works flight operations when needed, and he sometimes mans mooring lines when the ship pulls into port.

The flexibility of civilian mariners like Shergur is one reason the Navy has handed over so much of its workload to the Military Sealift Command over the past 65 years, freeing up sailors to man destroyers, aircraft carriers and other warships.

The command is now poised for a greater role as the Navy balances growing demand from combatant commanders with fewer warships and a large number of unfilled sea billets. Civilians now work within military crews on warships in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Contractors hired by MSC will man a 630-foot cargo ship being modified as a floating base for special operators. And with fewer amphibious ships being built, civilian crews on new MSC vessels like this one are expected to work more directly with Marines and sailors. Some of the new vessels could even be designated as warships, depending on their missions.

“I see the ‘M’ in military Sealift Command growing,” Rear Adm. T.K. Shannon, commander of MSC, said in a recent interview. “And when I say the ‘M,’ I don’t mean doubling the number of active-duty naval officers on our staff. I see the type of work we are involved in growing in that military element.”

The trend echoes the growing role of civilians and contractors in other services and raises legal and ethical questions about their distinction from active-duty troops. It is already shifting the civilian mariner culture, some say.

“It is definitely changing,” said Salvatore R. Mercogliano, a professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University and an author of a book about civilian mariners in the Navy. “Because one of the things that had kind of been a trademark for MSC is to make sure there’s been kind of a clear delineation between military and civilian.”

That line has often blurred in the past. Civilian mariners augmented naval forces in both world wars and have often been targeted by enemies. Yet the decades after Vietnam saw an expansion of the civilian mariner role from mere materiel and troop movement into professional fleet support. More than 9,500 MSC civilian mariners now operate on roughly 110 ships across the globe, ranging from small tugboats to cargo vessels and a pair of 900-foot-long hospital ships.

Cost savings have been a driver of the transformation. Civilian mariners can work longer days — unlike sailors, they receive overtime — and spend longer durations at sea. Their crews are more efficient, and much smaller, than military crews.

“There’s an economic side to it. There’s an experience side to it,” said Mercogliano. 

The nature of recent U.S. operations has also played to MSC’s strengths. While international law prohibits auxiliary from participating in conflict with state forces, and MSC ships aren’t designed for warfare, the Pentagon has tapped civilian-crewed vessels for missions related to counterterrorism or piracy. The USNS GySgt. Fred W. Stockham, a roll-on, roll-off pre-positioning vessel, has anchored off the Philippines as part of a special operations task force. The USNS Lewis and Clark held captured Somali pirates on board in 2009.

Those missions have fueled anticipation for new entries into the fleet. The Navy is building three Mobile Landing Platforms, a ship designed as a cargo transfer point at sea and capable of holding amphibious landing craft and embarking Marine units. Two purpose-built Afloat Forward Staging Bases will follow the example of the USS Ponce, an old amphibious landing dock staged in the Persian Gulf and used for everything from surveillance to special operations and training. The MSC is meanwhile refitting former cargo ship MV Cragside as a base for special operators.

The Spearhead, the first of 10 Joint High Speed vessels designed for cargo and troop movement, is being tested to ferry small Marine units rapidly ashore and to work with allied navies or to interdict vessels in places where warships are available only intermittently.

There are more of those regions today. Heavy demand for warships in the Pacific is making it difficult for Navy commanders who need U.S. presence without big guns. They hope ships like the JHSV and the littoral combat ship, a small surface combatant, can fill the gap in waters around Europe, Africa and South America.

Enthusiasm for MSC comes at the expense of amphibious vessels, which have gone largely unfunded over the past decade. Shannon promotes the ability of the new ship class for supporting amphibious operations, an idea the Marine Corps tacitly embraced in a March strategy document.

“We are not out to replace, for example, amphibious warfare,” Shannon said. “We have a fantastic amphibious warfare capability within our Navy. But these new classes of ship under construction … are going to be involved in operations that lean towards the littoral environment where amphibious warfare takes place.”

The proximity of civilian mariners to those operations raises legal questions, Shannon acknowledges. The Navy’s placement of “hybrid” civilian-military crews in warships beginning in 2003 has already put civilian mariners off the coast of enemy nations during military operations. The USS Mount Whitney, an amphibious command ship and one of four warships with hybrid crews, controlled much of the NATO bombing operation in Libya in 2011. The Ponce, meanwhile, operates not far from territorial waters for Iran. The new ships entering MSC’s fleet could also be designated as warships, depending on their missions, MSC spokesman Tom VanLeunen said.

International law protects civilians and contractors who support operations without participating in them, a distinction subject to much debate over the past decade. Pete Pedrozo, a professor of international law at the Naval War College, says the difference at sea is one of operating a ship versus running a weapons system or making tactical decisions.

“Clearly things like command and control decision-making would be direct participation,” Pedrozo said. “Providing targeting data would clearly be direct participation.”

Some groups may not bother to make that distinction, Mercogliano said.

The 2009 confrontation between Chinese ships in the South China Sea and the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance vessel operated by MSC, showed how even a noncombat mission could turn dangerous. Crewmembers of the Impeccable turned a fire hose against one of the vessels when it came too close and barely escaped a collision as they tried to leave. China considers the region, near Hainan, off-limits to such missions.

For the Spearhead’s recent deployment, a crew of 25 civilian mariners led by a master operated the ship while a military detachment of about 50 sailors led by a Reserve captain performed its own operations, from standing watch on the deck to running radios and hosting exercises. Civilians and sailors often joined to moor the ship, and they ate together in the mess hall.

Shergur, the radio technician, is a pony-tailed former sailor who found MSC after leaving the Navy. Working with sailors is nothing new for him, he said.

“Because I know their lingo, I know their talk, I get along with them fine,” he said.

More mariners are arriving at MSC with Navy backgrounds, Mercogliano said. The command is requiring more certifications for mariners working on the newer vessels like Spearhead, and it is creating a new position on the bridge with former chief petty officers in mind, Shannon said.

In a way, the command’s return to a closer military-civilian relationship is a reminder of its roots. Civilian mariners worked much more closely with troops in both world wars and Vietnam, and many have been killed.

“We may see them as quote-unquote civilian ships,” he said. “The problem is the military doesn’t see them as civilian ships.”

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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