U.S. Navy in Desert Shield/Desert Storm banner


"You've got to consider coming from the sea because of the sustainability. Three or four ships carry as much beans, bandages and bullets as all the nation's airlift combined!" -- General A.M. Gray, USMC Commandant of the Marine Corps Testimony before Congress, April 1990

"The overall logistics effort to mobilize and support DESERT SHIELD/STORM was herculean, especially in the weeks prior to initiating hostilities. The superb performance of the logistics community deserves high praise." -- General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, USA Commander-in-Chief, U.S.Central Command Preliminary Report on Lessons Learned, 5 April 1991

SEALIFT INVESTMENTS OF THE 1980s. Following World War II the primary strategic sealift mission was to rapidly move men and equipment to Europe to defend against a Soviet/Warsaw Pact attack. The central front was 3,600 miles away and sealift would be provided by over 600 NATO merchant vessels and an active U.S. merchant fleet that still numbered 578 major ships as of 1978. Those 578 ships dwindled to 367 over the next 12 years.

The Iranian crisis and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s focused emphasis on developing rapid deployment forces to respond to contingencies in distant regions, such as Southwest Asia, in addition to the continuing NATO mission in Europe. Planners recognized existing and emerging short falls in sealift capability. Alternative fast cargo ship and prepositioning prograrns were evaluated with respect to possible contingencies in the 1980s and l990s.

Following a comprehensive examination of the alternatives the Maritime Prepositioning Ship (MPS) and Afloat Prepositioning programs were approved in 1980. In 1984, the Secretary of the Navy formally recognized the increased importance of strategic sealift and accorded it equal status with the Navy's three other main missions: sea control, power projection and strategic deterrence.

In all, $7 billion was invested in improved sealift during the 1980s. That investment purchased, modified or long-term leased: 96 Ready Reserve Force (RRF) ships, 25 prepositioning force ships, eight Fast Sealift Ships (FSS), two hospital ships, and two aviation logistics support ships.

SEALIFT DURING DESERT SHIELD/ STORM. Within hours of the initial deployment orders, Navy and civilian merchant marine sailors aboard Military Sealift Command's (MSC) sealift force ships swung into action. Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) loaded with Marine Corps supplies and equipment from Guam, Saipan and Diego Garcia headed for Saudi Arabia.

As in previous large logistic support operations during World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War, more than 90 percent of the heavy equipment, ammunition, fuel and other supplies for DESERT SHIELD/ STORM was carried by sealift. The strategic sealift mission includes both surge shipping during initial mobilization and resupply or sustainment shipping.

The first three ships of MPS Squadron TWO raced from their Diego Garcia homeport to reach Saudi Arabia 15 August, marking the first use of the MPS in an actual crisis. Within four days of their arrival in the port of Jubail, Navy cargo handlers averaging 100 lift-hours per day offloaded more equipment and supplies from the three 755-foot ships than could have been moved by 3,000 C-141 cargo flights. The 16,500 Marines of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), a component of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), arrived via the Military Airlift Command. They "married-up" with the MPS equipment and were ready for combat on 25 August-- the first heavy ground combat capability in-theater.

The five ships of MPS Squadron TWO brought the essentials to support the 7th MEB Marines for 30 days of combat-- food, water, fuel, millions of pounds of ammunition for aircraft, artillery and small arms, construction materials and medical supplies. The balance of the equipment for the 1st MEF arrived from Guam aboard the ships of MPS Squadron THREE. Delivering all the equipment delivered by MPS ships to the 45,000 men of the 1st Marine Division would have required 2100 lifts by C-5s, our largest military transport aircraft.

MSC's eight fast sealift ships (FSS), the fastest cargo ships in the world, sped eastward at 33 knots, carrying 24,000 tons of equipment for the Army's 24th Infantry (Mechanized) Division and the 1st Corps Support Command. Although normally on 96-hour standby, the first FSS, USNS Capella (T-AKR 293), was ready to deploy in only 48 hours. The next two FSSs were only a day behind Capella. A typical FSS load included more than 700 Army vehicles such as M-l Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and fuel trucks.

Ten afloat prepositioning ships (APS) carrying Army and Air Force equipment, fuel and supplies also headed for Middle East waters. Aboard the APS MV Noble Star the sprawling, 28-acre Fleet Hospital 5 was stored in over 400 international standardized containers. Those containers were soon offloaded in the first-ever deployment of a Navy fleet hospital.

MSC called on 40 Ready Reserve Force (RRF) ships to provide the surge sealift capability needed to sustain support for U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. Civilian mariners answered the call and crews were quickly assembled. MSC also chartered commercial vessels to support the flow of cargo to Saudi Arabia.

Because Iraq was laying mines in the northern Persian Gulf, MSC contracted the heavy-lift ship Super Servant III, to transport three Navy minesweepers plus the newly-commissioned mine countermeasures ship, USS Avenger (MCM 1), to the Gulf.

USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), 1000-bed floating hospitals, went from reduced operational status to fully-operational status within five days of the initial DESERT SHIELD deployment order. The two ships were quickly staffed by nearly 2,500 Navy doctors, nurses and corpsmen from Navy medical facilities on both coasts.

By September, more than 100 MSC controlled ships were supporting DESERT SHIELD. More than 100,000 U.S. military personnel and their equipment had been deployed to Saudi Arabia and the surrounding area in the first 30 days. Sea control-- assured from the outset by the U.S. Navy --made possible the safe rapid deployment of MSC ships and assured the availability of required civilian charter vessels at reasonable rates.

When Sealift Phase I--supporting the initial deployment--ended in mid-December, more than 180 ships were assigned to or chartered by MSC. The entire sealift operation had already transported nearly 7 billion pounds of fuel and 2.2 billion pounds of cargo --moving more cargo farther and faster than any other time in history.

Sealift Phase II--which supported the additional reinforcement of DESERT SHIELD forces --saw 220 ships come under MSC control. Winter storms and nearly 40-foot seas did not slow the largest sealift effort since World War II. By March, an average of 84 million pounds of cargo was arriving in Saudi Arabia daily. That average is even more impressive when contrasted with the 57 million pound daily average during the 37-month-long Korean conflict and the 33 million pound daily average to the Pacific theater during World War II.

In the last week of December, dozens of ships loaded U.S. Army equipment in Northern European ports. MSC moved more than 2,000 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, 1,000 assorted helicopters, hundreds of self-propelled howitzers and other equipment for the Army alone. Hundreds of additional aircraft, trucks and other combat equipment were also transported for the Marines and Air Force. Ironically-- but perhaps not surprisingly --only 4.4% of the dry cargo moved by sealift went to support naval forces. That total included tons of equipment for three Navy Fleet Hospitals, including ambulances, generators and other support gear. During DESERT SHIELD/ STORM, MSC also moved nearly 12 billion pounds of fuel and hundreds of millions of pounds of ammunition.

With the exception of the allied invasion of Normandy, during which-- after two years of preparation --more than 20,000 vehicles and more than 176,000 troops assaulted five beaches in two days, sealift for DESERT SHIELD/STORM, with no prior buildup at all, represents the largest and tastest sealift to a single theater in the history of warfare. It was also the farthest, with the average voyage covering nearly 8,700 miles.

Sealift moved 2.4 million tons of cargo during the first six months of DESERT SHIELD. By comparison, that is more than four times the cargo carried across the English Channel to Normandy during the D-Day invasion and more than 6.5 times that of the peak force build-up during the Vietnam War during a similar period. On 2 January 1991, at the peak of the DESERT SHIELD deployment, MSC had 172 ships underway.

The sealift deployment was not without difficulties. One of the Fast Sealift Ships suffered an engineering casualty on its initial outbound voyage. There were additional engineering difficulties encountered on breakout of some of the RRF vessels, due in part to shortfalls in maintenance funding during the previous year. There were not enough roll on/roll-off (RO/RO) configured ships to carry all the Army rolling stock. Despite these few problems, MSC got the job done.

MAINTAINING COMBAT READINESS. The material readiness of the ships deployed in support of DESERT SHIELD/STORM was sustained at an outstanding level. Measured in terms of overall readiness and significant equipment degradations reported on a day-to-day basis, approximately 90% of the ships were at the highest levels of combat readiness (C-l /C-2) at any given time. In fact, most of the ships were at a higher overall level of readiness at the end of the war than when initially deployed, demonstrating a high degree of self-sufficiency and staying power.

Navy aircraft exhibited similar readiness rates. Average mission capable (MC) rates were around 90% or better, with full mission capability (FMC) rates averaging near 85%. The typical aircraft carrier averaged only 15 to 20 off-ship requisitions per day. Such figures are outstanding considering the number of aircraft involved, consecutive high tempo flying days, and length of supply lines.

Overall fuel support to Navy ships was outstanding. MSC and Navy tankers provided timely responsive support to meet all routine and emergent requirements.

NAVY COMBAT LOGlSTICS. When DESERT SHIELD began in August, the top logistics priority was to ensure Navy ships in the Persian Gulf, North Arabian Sea and Eastern Mediterranean were ready for battle at a moment's notice. Additionally, ships making preparations for deployment from their U.S. homeports had tobe stocked with all the goods and hardware they (and their embarked Marines and airwings in the case of amphibious ships and aircraft carriers) would need to carry the fight to Iraq, half a world away.

Naval Supply Center (NSC), Norfolk, for example, was flooded with requests from ships gearing up for deployment. Dozens of Norfolk-based ships were scheduled for short notice deployment. The USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) battle group had to accomplish the normally 30-day process of locating and storing the supplies necessary for a six month deployment in just four days.

John F. Kennedy alone requested some 700 pallets of food. By the time she departed, in company with her escorts, NSC Norfolk had provided the group with 2 million fresh eggs, 185,000 pounds of hot dogs, 250,000 pounds of chicken and 400,000 pounds of hamburger. During the first two weeks of August, NSC's fuels division delivered 525,000 barrels of fuel oil to departing ships and squadrons-- more than twice the normal amount -- forcing the center to dip into its reserve supply. NSC did one month of normal business ($1 million) in two days during its furious effort to supply deploying ships and aircraft.

DESERT SHIELD/STORM presented a major logistics challenge: coordinating the movement of a huge volume of supplies and equipment in the smoothest, most expeditious manner. The Naval Logistic Support Force (NAVLOGSUPFOR) was established specifically to meet the DESERT SHIELD logistic challenge and relieve operational commanders afloat and ashore from much of logistics management burden.

Keeping up to 115 combatant ships battle ready was a full-time job. Most resupply operations were carried out at sea by combat logistic force (CLF) ships, who were in turn supplied through expeditionary forward logistics sites. The CLF ships deployed during DESERT SHIELD/STORM, along with various Military Sealift Command and Ready Reserve Force ships, had the monumental task of supplying six carriers, two battleships, two command ships, two hospital ships, 31 amphibious ships and 40 other combatants induding cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines and minesweepers.

Repair ships like the destroyer tenders USS Yellowstone (AD 41), USS Acadia (AD 42) and USS Cape Cod (AD 43) were deployed to fulfill another logistic requirement of sustained naval presence. Based in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Yellowstone provided critical repair and rearming capability to the fleet. During seven months on station Yellowstone alone completed more than 10,000 repair jobs on 30 U.S. and allied ships. The Navy men and women serving aboard tenders and other repair ships provided a wide variety of services simultaneously to as many as flve ships moored alongside or nearby.

The Navy women serving in non-traditional roles aboard tenders joined nearly 2,500 other women serving aboard CLF ships, Military Sealift Command vessels, the two hospital ships, and at fleet hospitals and aviation and cargo handling detachments ashore to play a crucial role in the Navy's contribution to DESERT SHIELD/STORM.

Jeddah was also the site of the Combat Logistic Stores Facility (CLSF). CLSF Jeddah gave replenishment ships assigned to the Red Sea the ability to re-stock, repair and re-arm without depending on the Suez Canal as their logistics link. The replenishment and maintenance effort both ashore and underway, kept battle groups on-station and ready throughout DESERT SHIELD/STORM, a key factor in keeping Iraq locked in.

To support the logistics mission, airfields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were used as bases for a Navy "logistics air force" of 25 dedicated helos and fixed-wing aircraft. One of those helos, an H-53 from HC-l, was among the flrst coalition force aircraft to land in Kuwait City after the liberation. Within two days regularly scheduled logistic flights into Al Shuaiba, the main port for the country of Kuwait, had commenced in support of Navy explosive ordnance demolition (EOD) mineclearing efforts.

Physical security against water-borne attack for three major ports in the Gulf region was a significant concern. LOGSUPFOR was responsible for coordinating the Port Security Harbor Defense (PSHD) force. Three PSHD groups-- each consisting of a Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare Unit that operates radar and sonar from the pier, a Coast Guard small boat security team and a Navy EOD diver unit --operated 24-hours a day from the beginning of the build-up. They protected the key ports of Bahrain, along with Jubail and Dammam in Saudi Arabia, as they received tanks, troops, ammunition and other supplies for U.S. and coalition forces.

Logistic support was also provided by sailors from Naval Mobile Construction Battalions, Cargo Handling Battalions, Navy Overseas Air Cargo Terminal units and Forward Freight Terminal units. Seabees and cargo handlers were among the first to arrive in Saudi Arabia. Within 48 hours of President Bush's initial order, detachments of cargo handlers, the "combat stevedores," were airlifted to participate in off-loading supplies and equipment from the MPS. That massive logistic effort involved moving more than 2,400 people and nearly 40,000 tons of equipment and supplies.

Offloading was just the beginning for the Seabees. They proceeded to build minicities in the desert, undertaking airfield expansion projects, setting up berthing facilities and ammunition storage points, and building roads and military barriers. They also erected the first 500-bed fleet hospital, and a 400-bed Army field hospital --an example of joint-service cooperation at its best.

NAVY SEABEES--"CAN DO" IN ACI'ION. The Saudi landscape was quickly dotted with structures which looked hauntingly like the quonset huts built on the World War II battlefields of Guam, the Philippines or any of the other places where Seabees have supported U.S. troops. The roads, runways, buildings, bunkers and tank barriers carved into the desert sand stand as monuments to the "Can Do" spirit which is the trademark of the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB). More than 5,000 Seabees-- 4,000 active duty and 1,000 reservists --answered the call to duty during DESERT SHIELD/STORM.

NMCB ALFA Companies completed road construction and paving, while BRAVO Companies repaired air conditioning systems and sanitary facilities, and installed electrical distribution systems capable of servicing a small town. CHARLIE Companies erected huts, built new buildings and made additions to existing buildings, strung thousands of feet of fencing and erected 20-foot-tall security towers and building revetments to protect vital communications equipment.

Seabees used modern construction materials to build aircraft hangars, maintenance shops, berthing and headquarters facilities. Many were constructed by new processes such as the K-Span arches produced by automatic building machines, allowing a building to be erected 80% faster than by conventional means. Fabric membrane structures called "sprung instant" or "clamshells" consisting of fabric stretched over a steel arch superstructure were also quickly assembled on concrete slabs. The Seabees also built numerous mock artillery pieces and tank turrets and placed them at strategic points to deceive the Iraqi military.

The Seabees used more than 7.5 million board-feet of lumber, 92,000 sheets of plywood, 11 0,000 feet of PVC pipe, 1.4 million feet (262 miles) of electrical wire, 50,000 cubic yards of concrete and 250,000 cubic yards of select fill during DESERT SHIELD/STORM. In all, Seabees of the Naval Construction Force built 14 galleys capable of feeding 75,000 people; a 40,000-man EPW camp; 6 million square feet of aircraft parking apron after moving 9 million cubic yards of sand and dirt to prepare the sites; and four ammunition supply points that held 2 billion of ordnance. Thev also maintained and improved 200 miles of unpaved desert four-lane divided roads that were used as main supply routes and built 4,750 other buildings.

Just after the ground war began, an advance party from NMCBs 5, 24 and the 3rd Naval Construction Regiment entered the battleground of Kuwait to prepare positions for the 1st MEF command units to move into the following day. The plan, which was not fully executed due to the unexpectedly short duration of the ground war, called for Seabees to repair the Al Jaber airfield for use by Marine aircraft, maintain roads within Kuwait, construct enemy prisoner of war camps and finally, move up to Kuwait International Airport to support the Marine divisions there.

Perhaps the Seabee's most important contribution was the part they played in what General Schwarzkopf called the "end run". One of the attractions of a flank attack against the entrenched Iraqis was the trackless nature of the territory to the west-- there were no roads big enough to support the large volume of troops and supplies required to successfully sustain an attack from that direction, so the Iraqis felt they could leave that flank unguarded. If an extensive road network could be quickly built from scratch, however, then such an attack would be feasible and make possible a crushing blow that would minimize allied casualties.

Building the road required to support the end run was made all the more challenging by the requirement to deceive the enemy because it necessitated last minute construction. Under the gun both figuratively and literally, the Seabees constructed more than 200 miles of road -a four-lane divided highway in the sand.

Return to Desert Storm introduction

About Us | Privacy Policy | Webmaster | FOIA request | Navy.mil | This is a US Navy website