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The United States Needs Mobile Afloat Basing

Lieutenant Colonel James W. "Wes" Hammond III, USMC (Ret.)

(Note: Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © (2017) U.S. Naval Institute / submitted essay was titled, "Mobile Afloat Basing for Naval Maneuver Warfare—The Distinctly American Solution. Mobile Afloat Basing for Naval Maneuver Warfare—The Distinctly American Solution."

For the first time in decades, U.S. naval supremacy is being tested. As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson noted, “changes are shifting the character of naval competition and warfare, and are being exploited, to varying degrees, by a range of competitors.”1 Planning is refocusing accordingly, to build our capacity to fight a naval campaign against a competent adversary and sustain—and if necessary
re-establish—dominance at sea.2 This represents a shift from primarily forward presence and power projection ashore that employ rotational forces. 

To achieve the rapid innovation and capability development that are necessary today, logistics and basing will be key, especially mobile-basing capabilities that proved so successful during the last contested sea-control era. Amid the dazzling accomplishments of integrated carrier, submarine, surface ship, and amphibious operations, we often overlook the combined effect of the extremely efficient logistics infrastructure that was created before and during World War II. Yet on this firm foundation, swift and highly lethal naval maneuver warfare was generated and sustained. The overwhelming sea power victory of the Navy during the war was in many ways a product of forward and mobile logistical superiority that enabled highly capable combat forces to unleash unrelenting power on, over, below, or from the sea.

Early Mobile Fleet Support 

The transition of navies from wooden to steel ships and from sail to steam power significantly increased the logistical requirements of naval forces, particularly in terms of fuel resupply and maintenance for servicing and repairing the more complex mechanical components of modern ships.3 Secure bases, both in home waters and overseas, became more strategically important. In addition, a fleet train of auxiliary vessels—colliers (later oilers and tankers), stores ships, tenders, repair ships, and others—that could accompany the fleet increased its sustained readiness, availability, range, and operational mobility.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 highlighted the criticality of forward naval expeditionary logistics for the Navy. For example, the maintenance of an effective blockade of the Spanish fleet bottled up at Santiago de Cuba required a nearby base. A battalion of U.S. Marines seized Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and this advanced base provided a secure anchorage for coaling, maintenance, and resupply of ships. The resulting destruction of the Spanish when they attempted to sortie was made possible in large measure by the ability of the Navy to maintain battle readiness so close to enemy forces.

The results of this “splendid little war” also increased the nation’s overseas responsibilities, particularly in the vast oceanic regions of the Pacific. In turn, these global commitments greatly compounded logistical requirements. Lacking the Royal Navy’s chain of strategic coaling stations, the Navy required a distinctively U.S. solution. In a 1904 article in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “The Movable Base,” Civil Engineer A. C. Cunningham argued that these new conditions “suggest a movable base which can be taken to the scene of operations, and which should supply all of the essentials of a completely fitted base of the permanent type.”4 The around-the-world cruise of the Great White Fleet, while it included a small fleet train, reinforced to a generation of naval officers the unhealthy dependence on foreign-controlled bases.

These lessons were further reinforced during World War I. While discussing the value of repair and maintenance ships during that war, in a 1932 Proceedings article Captain Earl P. Jessop detailed the employment of a repair ship operating out of Brest, France. He highlighted the operational importance for effective naval maneuver of a competent fleet train that would “furnish the kind of mobility which is so essential to the shifting locale of major war operations, and by the same token permanent facilities at an advance base may be of small use, when the scene of operations moves from its vicinity, as compared to the usefulness of mobile facilities which will operate at full efficiency in temporary locations.”5

Between dry-dock and shipyard work, in the interwar period tenders and repair ships provided the capacity to maintain peacetime readiness at the fleet’s major bases. They also accompanied annual fleet exercises that tested emerging concepts. Planning for a potential war in the Pacific, specifically through the development of War Plan Orange, compelled the Navy to find a means to fight without a secure, prepared base close to the potential fleet action and far from the West Coast or even Hawaii. Successive iterations of the plan, supported by wargaming and fleet exercises, over decades resulted in consistent agreement on the need for mobile afloat service stations and prepackaged depots that could be quickly transported to austere ashore sites.6 Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Leahy highlighted the product of this innovative process in 1937: “We have more than any other nation developed our ‘Mobile Base.’ We have repair ships, tenders, store ships, hospital ships, refrigerator ships, etc., etc., which are a part of the fleet.”7

During the 1920s and 1930s, the maintenance and repair capacity of the fleet train consisted of approximately 23 active destroyer tenders, submarine tenders, seaplane tenders, and repair ships, plus 4 or 5 more in reserve status.8 Two floating dry docks were built at the turn of the century: the Dewey, supporting the Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines; and a similar dock to support forces in the continental United States, that moved with the fleet to Pearl Harbor in 1940. In addition, during the 1930s the Navy built and experimented with a more mobile floating dry dock. Completed in 1935, ARD-1 could lift ships up to 2,200-ton displacement, i.e., ships up to the size of destroyers at that time. When towed to an advanced base, the auxiliary repair dock was self-sustaining with internal pumps, crew accommodations, power, maintenance shops, and cranes “to accompany a fleet into remote waters.”9 After World War II, however, these prewar preparations were characterized as woefully inadequate.10

Watershed Moment

Admiral Raymond A. Spruance noted that while mobile logistics support was not a new idea, it underwent a tremendous expansion and development during the war.11 The sudden transition to war at the end of 1941, the expansive distances of the Pacific theater, and the early losses required the Navy to sustain the fleet’s combat effectiveness as far forward as possible. The prewar fleet train was not sufficient for this task, and the product of shipbuilding programs would take time to launch and arrive in theater. Initial plans called for the establishment of expeditionary shore facilities at advanced bases to provide necessary logistics in the forward areas, including maintenance and repair capabilities. Construction battalions erected prepackaged base sets in forward areas—land-based shops, machinery, buildings, warehouses, fuel tanks, piers, airfields, hangars, and so on. As Rear Admiral W. R. Carter later explained, however, these bases quickly “found themselves so far in the rear” that they raised serious questions about the effort and “the amount of shipping required to build them.”12

The Navy had practiced and used underway replenishment by oilers as early as World War I, and at-sea replenishment from colliers for coal-burning ships had been experimented with even earlier. But it was during World War II that the capability came of age and contributed considerably to the fleet’s mobility and striking power. It provided a means to sustain the fleet for extended operations far from Pearl Harbor, U.S. West Coast bases, and the growing expeditionary advanced bases being established along and near the initial defensive line from Hawaii through Samoa and to Australia.

When the Central Pacific campaign started, a more extensive mobile logistic force was needed to more closely accompany the fleet as it conducted operational maneuver operations against Japanese fleet bases. The service force providing this forward afloat sustainment was greatly expanded and included a significantly increased number of new-construction and converted tenders, repair ships, floating dry docks, provision and cargo ships, ammunition ships, refrigeration ships, hospital ships, oilers and tankers, station tankers, water-distilling ships, survey ships, salvage ships, submarine rescue ships, lighters, barges, tugs, floating cranes, floating barracks, floating workshops, degaussing craft, dredges, net tenders, and more. The service forces’ elements moved forward rapidly as the fleet offensive progressed, operating shortly after advanced bases were secured at atolls and sheltered waters in the Gilberts, Marshall Islands, Admiralty Islands, Marianas, Caroline Islands, and eventually in the Philippines and the Ryuku Islands. This mobile afloat solution, once available, proved to be more agile support than the expeditionary advanced bases ashore and “more economical in manpower and costs and more effective in servicing the fleet.”13

A key element of this force included floating dry docks that were towed from base to base as the U.S. power projection into the Japanese defensive zone rapidly progressed. These ranged in size, with the largest capable of lifting up to 90,000 tons to conduct maintenance and repairs on the largest ships in the fleet. By the last year of the war, the service force supporting the Central Pacific campaign consisted of hundreds of ships and an even greater number of smaller service and yard craft. It operated in four functional squadrons along with a supporting aircraft wing. 

An afloat mobile logistics force squadron operated at anchorages in atolls and other advanced bases. Rotating fleet task groups and individual ships were provided with maintenance, supply, medical and personnel services, and other logistical functions. An underway logistics support squadron, the forerunners of today’s Combat Logistic Force (CLF), operated in close proximity to the main battle fleet conducting underway fuel replenishment. During the last nine months of the war, underway replenishment equipment and procedures were also developed for transferring munitions from ammunition ships and provisions from stores and cargo ships. These enhancements gave the fleet extraordinary endurance and sustained lethality by comparison with the beginning of the war. The underway logistics support squadron rotated empty ships back to the afloat mobile logistics force squadron for rapid resupply. Salvage ships and tugs also operated forward to assist with stabilizing damaged ships.

A transportation squadron controlled and coordinated the numerous Navy and civilian ships transiting and distributing supplies and equipment from the United States to forward expeditionary and mobile advanced bases. A “harbor-stretcher squadron” supported development of atolls and anchorages that rapidly maximized the potential of austere mobile advanced base sites. This in turn enabled fleet anchorages with survey services, dredging, obstacle clearance, development of a small airfield, emplacement and maintenance of antisubmarine nets, and so on. Finally, a dedicated utility aircraft wing enabled the rapid transfer of high-value provisions and supplies, key personnel, and the evacuation of critical casualties from nearby airfields. Airfields at the advanced bases also supported air-defense squadrons, radars, and antiaircraft guns, reinforcing organic force-protection sensors and weapons of ships in the area.

Increasing Readiness

The fleet train, along with the entire fleet, greatly expanded during the war. On 15 August 1945, the maintenance component of the afloat-based mobile base logistics force had expanded to 96 tenders and repair ships in commission, along with another 96 specialized tender and repair ships that supported aircraft, landing craft, salvage craft, electronics, and more—a six-times-plus increase, not counting the additional 33 ships then under construction or conversion. Overall the number of auxiliaries in the fleet had grown from 75 active ships to 1,267, including ocean tugs, salvage and rescue ships, hospital ships, oilers, stores ships, ammunition ships, and cargo ships (along with yard and service craft to support advanced base operations). More than 150 floating dry docks of a range of sizes supported anchorages at more than 400 advanced bases.14

This capacity to effectively service forces in the forward-operating area improved the readiness of the force and enabled it to exert continuous, unrelenting pressure on the enemy. In fact, as Admiral Spruance highlighted shortly after the war, mobile logistics support allowed the combat fleet to conduct its rapid movement westward and, starting in January 1944, to operate continuously in the forward area without returning to Pearl Harbor or the West Coast.15 Fundamentally, this vast logistics capacity enabled the fleet to generate overwhelming operational tempo and a series of dilemmas for the enemy that shattered his cohesion through a multiplicity of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions. Along with closely coordinated joint operations, these naval operations created a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation for the Japanese that also define highly effective naval maneuver warfare.16

In large measure, this operational tempo resulted from the critical logistical functions of supply and maintenance. If combat ships had had to transit back to fixed bases and shipyards located thousands of miles away—Pearl Harbor, San Diego, or Sydney—the fleet’s available combat power would have been drastically reduced and a competent enemy could have reacted more effectively. By employing advanced bases such as those at Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands, Guam, and Manus Island in the Admiralty Islands, time lost for ship availability was greatly decreased. For example, using the center of the Philippine Sea as the operating area, a ship repaired at Ulithi Atoll could be back in combat 3.5 times faster than if it had to return to Pearl Harbor, and 5 times faster than if had to return to the West Coast. The mobility of these bases also increased their flexibility.

The magnitude of the naval victory in World War II and changes in U.S. foreign policy had a profound impact on future fleet requirements. Naval supremacy had been achieved, and the Axis nations’ navies were on the bottom of the seas or interned. With the lack of a highly competent naval competitor bent on sea control, the Navy did not require the same level of naval maneuver capability. 

Moving Support Ashore 

Leveraging its naval supremacy to use the sea as a base, the Navy maintained security on the sea and influenced control ashore.17 Further, U.S. foreign policy in the postwar era embraced global engagement for peacemaking and deterrence, while the military used numerous overseas bases and alliances to support its expanded role.18

During the Cold War, economic efficiencies and strategic opportunities compelled the Navy to become increasingly dependent on shore-based shipyards and repair facilities. With sea control assured, the emphasis for naval roles and responsibilities became power projection from the sea base. The location and availability of established fixed-base shore facilities made them readily accessible and supported these operations. The common threat from communist forces was acute, so the risk of denied access by allies in a crisis appeared minimal. To sustain a forward-presence posture, naval forces deployed on a rotational basis using the secure seas for assured movement. This dynamic over time guided the fleet’s design. As the recent Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work summarized in 2006, “the need for . . . a large ‘fleet train’ simply disappeared” and “the sea became more an avenue for movement than of maneuver, and defense and naval planners began to emphasize seabased mobility forces over seabased forces capable of operational maneuver.”19

The Combat Logistics Force continued to be developed, increasing the effectiveness of on-station, rotational forces. Improvements made in CLF ships’ transfer equipment enhanced on-station times. The greater speed of CLF ships allowed them to operate more closely with the fleet. In addition, new types of vessels were introduced with the ability to store and resupply larger quantities and multiple commodities (fuel, ammunition, and stores) from a single ship. Improvements in underway replenishment equipment allowed for faster and safer transfer of fuel, ammunition, and provision by hoses and lines. The adoption of helicopters increased the speed and safety for transferring some supplies, particularly ammunition and stores.20

The fleet train did not disappear immediately. Tenders and repair ships supported the fleet in port in much the same way as they had before the war. When the Korean War broke out, some ships that had been retained in reserve were recommissioned. Because of their proximity to the combat zone, fleet maintenance and repairs, along with resupplying underway replenishment forces, “were handled as practicable by the floating base at Sasebo [Japan] and by its smaller sister at Yokosuka [Japan], while overload requirements were contracted out to Japanese shipyards.”21 The same happened again during the Vietnam War, with the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay. In both cases, while mobile afloat capabilities were useful, an extensive mobile infrastructure was not economical. Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper noted in 1972, “the bases and shore activities established in the Western Pacific after World War II proved to be of inestimable value in eliminating the need for long transit times.”22 One smaller-scale use of mobile afloat services during the Cold War was support to the initial ballistic submarine program starting in the early 1960s. Three overseas fleet ballistic-missile advanced refit sites (employing a tender, a dry dock, and a number of supporting craft) established in Scotland, Spain, and Guam maximized the effectiveness of deterrence patrols.

Uncertain and Changing Access

Since the end of the Cold War, almost all the ships in the CLF and Mobile Logistics Support Force (MLSF) have been transferred to the Military Sealift Command. In addition, the MLSF was virtually eliminated with only two submarine tenders, two salvage ships, and three fleet ocean tugs remaining in service. Work observed in 2006:


By not replacing them with new mobile logistics force ships, the battle fleet largely lost the ability to sustain itself in forward combat theaters without ready access to forward ports. This dependence was only exacerbated by the inability of the CLF to replenish missiles fired from the now ubiquitous vertical launch missile systems found on U.S. surface combatants; once a ship had fired its missile load, it was compelled to return to a port to rearm.23

As threats to access continue to increase, the Navy’s dependence on its efficient overseas, fixed infrastructure model for maintenance and resupply of the CLF is becoming a significant liability to the fleet’s combat effectiveness. The solution is certainly not a wholesale redeployment of the 1945 fleet train, but the lessons of the past provide vital insights. The Office of the Chief of Naval Operations Assessment Division (OpNav N81) analytical template based on 20-plus years of historical data will not provide much help in restoring the fleet’s naval maneuver warfare proficiency. Nor will it aid in developing the necessary logistics functions that can fully sustain the readiness, availability, range, operational mobility, and lethality of the fleet’s combat power for operations in future contested sea-control operations. Potential adversaries also are closely studying these same lessons as they develop their own sea-control and denial capabilities. True, deterrence will result not only from an enemy convinced of our combat fleet’s lethality, but also from his grasp of the multiple dilemmas and uncertainty he will face. These will be the product of the U.S. fleet’s resiliency, adaptability, and ability to sustain overwhelming and unrelenting operational tempo.

In assessing the lessons of naval logistics during World War II, Rear Admiral Henry E. Eccles noted that to maximize the fleet’s “striking power, flexibility, and mobility, our logistics support must have similar characteristics.”24 Similarly, the modern manifestation of a mobile logistics will require solutions that leverage emerging technology, increase survivability by creating a more amorphous forward basing infrastructure, and maximize the combat effectiveness and sustained lethality for a dispersed fleet conducting naval maneuver operations in a contested environment. Eccles also cautioned, “this desirable flexibility and economy of floating base operation can only be obtained as the result of sound planning done years beforehand at national and departmental levels” [emphasis in original].25

1. ADM John M. Richardson, USN, “The Future Navy,” white paper, 17 May 2017, 2, See also statement by Senator John S. McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 February 2017.

2. See VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Gumataotao, and RADM Peter Fanta, USN, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141, no. 1 (January 2015), and Concepts Branch, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate, “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment; Developing a New Naval Operating Concept,” Marine Corps Gazette, February 2016, 6–9.

3. For instance, during the war with Tripoli, the frigate John Adams was modified to shuttle supplies and men from the United States to the squadron operating in Mediterranean Sea. See James A. Field Jr., History of United States Naval Operations: Korea (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 78.

4. Civil Engineer A. C. Cunningham, USN, “The Movable Base,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 30, no. 1 (1904), 181–95.

5. CAPT Earl P. Jessop, USN (Ret.), “Repair Ships, Advance Bases, and Fleet Mobility in War Time,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 58, no. 8 (August 1932).

6. Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945 (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 24, 32–33, 75, 89–90, 147–49, 172, 189, 210–12, 351–52.

7. John T. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 141.

8. The fleet train also included during this period on average 7 to 8 fleet oilers (with another 10–11 in reserve status), 1 ammunition ship (with another in reserve), 2 stores ships (with another 2–3 in reserve), 1–2 hospital ships (with sometimes another in reserve), 2–3 cargo ships (with another 3 in reserve), 22 fleet tugs (with another 9 in reserve), and 6 submarine rescue ships converted from other types of vessels.

9. Department of the Navy, Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II: History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps, 1940–1946, vol.1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947), 209.

10. Hal M. Friedman, Digesting History: The U.S. Naval War College, the Lessons of World War Two, and Future Naval Warfare, 1945–1947 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010), 13 (citing thesis by Lieutenant William Hahn, USNR [SC], November 1945).

11. Ibid., 187 (citing Admiral Spruance’s address to the Royal United Institution, 30 October 1946).

12. RADM Worrall Reed Carter, USN (Ret.), Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil: The Story of Fleet Logistics Afloat in the Pacific During World War II (Department of the Navy, 1952), 60–61.

13. Peter V. Nash, The Development of Mobile Logistics Support in Anglo-American Naval Policy, 1900–1953 (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009), 115.

14. Duncan S. Ballantine, U.S. Naval Logistics in the Second World War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947), 287.

15. Friedman, Digesting History, 187 (citing Admiral Spruance’s address to the Royal United Institution, 30 October 1946).

16. For more on the concept of maneuver warfare, see Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1, Warfighting (Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 20 June 1997), 72–76. For more on the differences between naval maneuver and naval movement, see MCDP 1-0, Marine Corps Operations (Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 9 August 2011), 2-20–2-22; Robert O. Work (colonel, U.S. Marine Corps [Ret.] and former Deputy Secretary of Defense), Thinking about Seabasing: All Ahead, Slow (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2006), 59; and Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), “Naval Maneuver Warfare,” Naval War College Review (summer 1997).

17. See Samuel P. Huntington, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 80, no. 5 (May 1954), 483–93.

18. For more on the development of U.S. post–World War II basing policy, see Elliot V. Converse III, Circling the Earth: United States Plans for Postwar Overseas Military Base System, 1942–1948 (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, August 2005).

19. Work, Thinking about Seabasing, 59.

20. In fact, the U.S. Army Air Forces pioneered the use of helicopters during World War II to support maintenance. Six Liberty ships were converted into floating aircraft repair depots during the last year of the war. These ships also carried and had a landing platform to accommodate two Sikorsky R-4 helicopters that ferried parts and mechanics to austere airfields in the Marianas, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Okinawa in support of B-29 and P-51 groups.

21. Field., History of United States Naval Operations: Korea, 380.

22. VADM Edwin Bickford Hooper, USN (Ret.), Mobility, Support, Endurance; A Story of Naval Operational Logistics in the Vietnam War, 1965–1968 (Washington, DC: Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, 1972), 231.

23. Work, Thinking about Seabasing, 124–25.

24. RADM Henry E. Eccles, USN (Ret.), Operational Naval Logistics (Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2003), 55 (reprint of 1950 edition of U.S. Naval War College, Department of Logistics, Newport, RI).

25. Ibid., 91.


Colonel Hammond, a 1982 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy,  commanded the Marine Detachment on the USS Simon Lake (AS-33), served in Operation Desert Storm, and commanded an artillery battery with the 15th MEU during the amphibious landing into Mogadishu, Somalia, in December 1992. Before retiring in 2005, he was an analyst in Headquarters Marine Corps’ Strategic Initiative Group and director of the Commandant’s Staff Group. He currently works as a DoD analyst and consultant. He has published  a number of articles in Proceedings and the Marine Corps Gazette

Published: Tue Apr 03 14:02:28 EDT 2018