With the Military Sealift Command playing an increasingly important part in naval operations, is it right to ignore the potential for friction between MSC Mariners and Navy commanders? Is the state of MSC/Navy relations a “non-issue?” Before deciding, read this fascinating excerpt from Baltimore Sun reporter Robert Little’s October 28, 2007 story on the USNS Comfort in South America:

“When you see this great big white ship with a red cross sitting off your coast, it is a symbol. It sends a signal to these countries about what the United States is trying to do for them,” said Navy Capt. Robert Kapcio, who served as the Comfort’s mission commander and the top military officer on the ship. “They have to know this huge white ship was not cheap to send down there.”

…According to Nanartowich, publicity was so important to the mission’s success that in the Colombian port of Bahia Maliga, Kapcio, the Navy commander, ordered the ship to anchor a mile off the coast, largely to meet the expectations of the media waiting on shore. [Capt. Ed] Nanartowich [the ship's master] refused, citing the port’s narrow channel and dangerous cross-current, and Kapcio backed down, but not before taking the disagreement up with Navy officials in the United States.

“The political pressure has been just incredible,” Nanartowich said. “They don’t want to disappoint the television cameras.”

There’s a lot of under-charted “grey areas” in the MSC/Navy relationship that deserve greater scrutiny. In the press of a conflict or incident, there won’t be time to call Big Navy for guidance.

So…Are my concerns overblown? If not, then what would make the MSC/Navy partnership better?

Springbored!




Posted by Defense Springboard in Homeland Security, Uncategorized


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  • Byron

    Big Navy doesn’t like it when a merchant skipper tells them “Not only no, but hell no”, but they’ve learned to take their word for it. My dad was a radio officer for Lykes Lines during Desert Shield, and his ship was part of a convoy being escorted into the PG. The captain was trying very hard to keep comms with the convoy escorts, and not having a lot of success, as the chatter seemed to be one way. The first mate was working the charts, and all of a sudden went white as a sheet, yelling at the skipper to ring all stop and my dad to tell the rest of the convoy to come all stop. Captain comes to the chart table and HE goes white. Then commenced a very loud, very angry one way conversation with Big Navy: seems the escort had led them into a charted minefield provided to the merchant skippers by the Navy. It only took about 30 seconds before the escort rang up all stop as well. Took a while to unsort the goat rope, get a minesweep out and clear a path, but no one ate a mine, thank God.

    Moral of the story is no one got hurt. Americans worked together, if with a bit of yelling and screaming, but then, we’ve worked like that for a bit over 225 years now. And one side will always distrust the other, not to mention call into question each others seamanship skills and motivation. It also doesn’t help that the merchant marine makes a lot more money than the Navy. Answer? It is what it is, don’t look for it to change, at least until time and economics coupled with American hard headed-ness causes us to lose an American Merchant Marine.

  • Brine

    I don’t know if this is a systematic flaw or a set of isolated incidents, but we submariners have a very healthy respect for the seamanship skills of any professional surface mariner, vice us part time skimmers. This incident is an example of a senior officer failing to keep the big picture, and or not listening to the expert: you can’t have good PR if the ship grounds. I would imagine that while the senior officer presumably has his SWO pin and significant experience at the conn of navy ships he failed to take in account the significantly lower SHP to mass and general gross tonnage issue that the ship’s master, no doubt with an unlimited tonnage liscience and the commesurate experience, threw the flag based on. (Worst case the senior officer does not have that experience)
    The real problem I see with this is an OTC went UP his chain, when his principle assistant said no based on a saftey concern, because of political and photo shoot bennies. (I may missaprehend the org chart hear, but I think I am as close as makes no diffrence) I do not mean this as chriticism of the OTC, because we all people of dileberate prioritizations, my chriticsim is reserved for the culture that causes these levels of confusion in the prioritization table. It is to easy to sit back with 20/20 hindsight and blame an OTC or CO. We put too much time and effort into these experienced officers to not ask “What is wrong with the system?” when near misses like this happen.

  • Brine

    I don’t know if this is a systematic flaw or a set of isolated incidents, but we submariners have a very healthy respect for the seamanship skills of any professional surface mariner, vice us part time skimmers. This incident is an example of a senior officer failing to keep the big picture, and or not listening to the expert: you can’t have good PR if the ship grounds. I would imagine that while the senior officer presumably has his SWO pin and significant experience at the conn of navy ships he failed to take in account the significantly lower SHP to mass and general gross tonnage issue that the ship’s master, no doubt with an unlimited tonnage license and the commensurate experience, threw the flag based on. (Worst case the senior officer does not have that experience)
    The real problem I see with this is an OTC went UP his chain, when his principle assistant said no based on a safety concern, because of political and photo shoot bennies. (I may missaprehend the org chart hear, but I think I am as close as makes no difference) I do not mean this as criticism of the OTC, because we all people of deliberate prioritizations, my criticism is reserved for the culture that causes these levels of confusion in the prioritization table. It is to easy to sit back with 20/20 hindsight and blame an OTC or CO. We put too much time and effort into these experienced officers to not ask “What is wrong with the system?” when near misses like this happen.

  • Brine

    Apoligies for the double, now triple post ye ol crackberry and I are still learning how to post when back home.

  • sid

    At what point will the USN have outsourced its principal missions to the extent that it loses its identity as a military force focused on warfighting as the central “core competency”?

    Although plans call for the Navy to buy another ship similar to the America — which will form the “America class,” a spokeswoman with Naval Sea Systems Command confirmed — the second ship could nonetheless be radically different. It could have a similar design, but not be a warship. Instead, the second America could be built to civilian standards, not military; have a civilian crew and master; and operate under Military Sealift Command.

    Under that scenario, it would have no built-in weapons, likely have a radically different internal design from the first America and be operated more like an MSC auxiliary than a Navy warship.

    Guess this kind of thing works well for an “Employer of Choice”…

  • http://fredfryinternational.blogspot.com Fred Fry

    This is even more complicated when you consider that not all USNS support ships have MSC crews instead being crewed by civilian contractors.

    I was on a USNS survey vessel and we were in the PG when the regional MSC Admiral called the Captain demanding that they get out of the area that we were operating in. Our Captain responded that he took orders from the Naval Oceanographic scientists onboard and not him. Apparently the admiral did not take the response that well.

  • sid

    The Baltimore Sun article Springbored provides in his post above illustrates what I mean:

    Despite the tremendous surgical capability the ship brought to the region, many patients were turned away because local health systems weren’t equipped for follow-up care and the ship’s schedule didn’t allow for enough recovery time onboard.

    When the ship leaves, so does all the capability. A more modular setup could redeploy the more in demand surgical assets, while leaving behind more rudimentary follow-on care.

  • sid

    My #1 New Year’s Resolution:

    To ALWAYS Enter Coherent Comments In The USNI Blog…

    That last belonged elsewhere.

  • Brine

    Sid,
    I think most of us journal type blog readers will realize that comment goes to the sea basing and how big questions. *shrug* Maybe I’m an exception but I would guess most of us care about the big issues more than just the rice bowl in our corner of the navy. For those that haven’t read up on it and are intrested here and Gahlrain’s blogs have some good background in that discussion. Does anyone know if the Choests (sp?) are MSCs or contractors?

  • sid

    From SE Morison’s Battle fo the Atlantic (pp 299-300)…

    The trouble between naval seamen and merchant seamen had its root in totally different attitudes. Any ship in which a bluejacket serves is his ship, his country’s ship, to be defended with his life if need be. But to the union-indoctrinated merchant seaman the ship is the owner’s ship, his class enemies’ ship, to who whom he owes nothing, and from which he is morally entitled to squeeze all he can. The Navy principle “Don’t Give Up The Ship” did not appeal to merchant seamen.
    Into this large and controversial subject, it is impossible to enter at length; but the writer, after giving it considerable study and doing his best by conversations and by reading the Pilot to understand the merchant marine point of view, wishes to express his emphatic opinion that if and when another war occurs, the merchant marine should either be absorbed by the Navy or made an auxiliary service under military discipline, like the Naval Construction Battalions, the famous Seabees.”

  • sid
  • sid

    The July 21 Navy Times article I quoted from above America class’ future remains undecided- can be read in full here

    Although plans call for the Navy to buy another ship similar to the America — which will form the “America class,” a spokeswoman with Naval Sea Systems Command confirmed — the second ship could nonetheless be radically different. It could have a similar design, but not be a warship. Instead, the second America could be built to civilian standards, not military; have a civilian crew and master; and operate under Military Sealift Command.

    Under that scenario, it would have no built-in weapons, likely have a radically different internal design from the first America and be operated more like an MSC auxiliary than a Navy warship.

    If such a course is taken, recommend the following names:

    Liscome Bay, St.Lo, Block Island….

  • Byron

    A good friend of mine, former Weps on an SSBN, did some diving (for the Navy, while he was in the Navy) and did most of his work from a Chouest ship. He said he felt safer on a Cajun Navy boat, because as soon as they got out of eyesight from the pier, all the guns came out, and virtually every crewman was carrying. He knew while he was underwater, that his lifeline was well-protected. And the food! Oh, Lord, do those Cajuns cook! Yes, they are independent contractors, providing services in many Navy yards and bases like Mayport and Kings Bay. Even NR-1, just retired from active service, had a Cajun Navy support ship where ever it went. Hey, let’s let the Cajun Navy take over the Navy’s MSC duties!

  • leesea

    Springbored HOGWASH! In the case cited: Since when has the absolute responisbility of a commanding officer or a master to safely navigate his or her ship EVER been questioned or seen as a “communications problem”. There are plenty of naval officers in command of a task unit to which a USNS ship is assigned who have no problems (once they understand the limitations of the ship).

    The problem on the earlier T-AH mission resides in an uninformed, publicity seeking, naval officer’s running a medical diplomacy mission. IF you had followed the Comforts course, you would have seen nothing but photos of Capt Kapico. Go look at the shots on Navy Newsstand.

    So before you and sid blow this into a big deal get some current facts posted. Quoting WW2 and Falklands problems are out of date.

    Fred all USNS ships assigned to MSC’c NFAF are indeed crewed by American CIVMARs. Using the term “support ships” is too indefinitive to be used in the context or a naval auxiliary.

    Special Mission survey ships which are GOCO (govt owned contractor operated) are indeed tasked by NAVO who gets its orders from higher up in DOD. The COCOM could of course have gone through his chain and ordered the ship to break survey. Since when is jumping the chain proper?

    Brine MSC charters several ships from Chouest Bros. As is the case in most charters, the ship is a private vessel and its crew works for the ship’s owner. MSC is a charterer. All parties involved have specific legal obligations mostly based on 2000 yrs of martiime law precedence.

    With no apologies to the idiots in the Navy who think they can build a warship and easily have it operated by mariners – BS! Lets use a truck analogy. I have a auto drivers license, I would no more climb into a 18 wheel big rig and assume I could operate it than drive a motocycle. They may all be vehicles, but I do not claim to be able to operate all of them.

    sid you should be able to recognize the “party line” we are being fed by the Navy in their poor attempt to rationalize and over-priced program. The Marines want their “Exquisite ships” and are not willing to compromise with any other supporting ship. Another truck analogy. Building the MPF-F using amphib designs (T-LHA if you will) is like the car companies building too many big SUVs. You see where that got the auto industry? While we are at it the MLP and modified LMSRs are also questionable solutions.

    The Navy used to spend $5 to $15mil “civilianizing” Navy auxiliaries before assigning them to the NFAF. Anyone want to bet if the amphibs are going to be modified? I am betting not really! The T-AKVs (baby carriers) were crewed by MSTS mainly because they were built on merchant hulls which the crews were familiat with.

    Anybody want more PM me and I will give you my credentials

  • Brine

    I was just asking because my own time on a Chouest reinforced the diffrence between Navy and Contracted ships. Thier skill in Seamanship is commesurate or superior to most I’ve seen and both the berthing and quarters better than many hotels I stayed at, sea state excluded. The relationship between military and civilian, must allways respect saftey and who is the master of the ship, and my experience showed how that can be done with reasonable men clearly communicating.

  • sid

    Quoting WW2 and Falklands problems are out of date.

    leesa, I would argue it is your view that is a bit dated. Gone are the days it can be assumed that civil maritime lift can stand free from the fight.

  • Byron

    Brine, the thing to keep in mind, is that the master of the vessel is exactly that: the master. It is his responsibility to operate his vessel in a safe manner alone. When the captain says, “JUMP!” the only question that is allowed, is “how high?”, whilst jumping. In the original tale above, the Navy brass hat was dead wrong, and the captain of the vessel was well within his rights to insist on a safe anchoring.

  • leesea

    There are operational differences between a civil service crew and a contract operator or chartered ships crews, far too many to be addressed in this forum. But the Master responsiblity for safe navigation of his company’s vessel is codified in admiralty law, specified in charter parties and naval officers can’t seem to get that 2000 yr precedence thing.

    Some would argue the USN was established to protect US merchant ships and that the later have since the beginnnings of this counrty supported the USN. They go hand in glove and by saying that the Navy “contracts out work” is an insult to about 6000 professional mariners employed by MSC or its contractors. They are Americans supporting the USN and other DOD agencies.

    For OPSEC reasons I will not elaborat on the AT/FP procedures which MSC owned or contracted ships follow. Suffice to say they can hold there own within the limits of the equipment they have been given.

    I am not going to get into the who is a more professional mariner argument in this forum.

  • sid

    leesa, its not a question about who is the more professional mariner, but instead of the inherent friction between a civil and military institution during a conflict.

    Which then leads to the question of how much can the USN “outsource” assests such as its Expeditionary force before the it begins to lose its identity as a warfighting organization.

  • http://springboarder.blogspot.com springbored

    Sid, you nailed it.

    So…assuming there is a problem (or potential for problems), what would help prevent them? Added training? A legal roles-and-missions confab? What?

  • leesea

    sid your opinion is not borne out by fact or my experience. I worked at MSC HQS during Desert Shield/Storm. There was NO “inherent friction” between civil service and military – none nada. VADM Donovan ran the show superbly and was completely supported by the staff. MSC did 3 years of “business” in six months time successfully enough to get a NUC for their work.

    I have worked with many CIVMAR crews and never had a complaint by uniformed staffs. I have seen dozens of BZs sent to USNS ships and mariners.

    History at least in the last 50 yrs or so of MSC existence has not presented any significant cases of Navy/civilian crew problems that I know of. Do you have ANY documented instances?

    The Marines (I guess that is was you mean by expeditionay althought there is now NECC?) cannot get the lift they need by requesting more billion dollar babies in the the form of their “exquisite ships”. The SCN budget is alrady broken. The Marines are being unrealistic in their rqmts for forcible entry for ALL ships in an amphibious operation. Reality may set in next year when the new OMB cuts some Navy shipbuilding programs?

    Springbored your guesses are getting further and further off-course. Stop sniffing and scratching your body parts ok?

  • sid

    There was NO “inherent friction” between civil service and military – none nada.

    Nor was there the stress of direct combat involved. Those halcyon days may well be waning.

    With the Monroe Doctrine under direct assualt, AFRICOM not welcome ashore on that most troubled of the continents, and eroding footprint in the mideast, Projection of Power Ashore is liable to become an in demand military capability looking forward.

    While you are on the money about SCN being broken… a ship sporting titanium firemains, yet can’t ring its bell without electrical power is where the money rathole is… the solution is NOT to subsume Amphibious Warfare assets into a civil service “Enterprise”.

  • http://JDenham@Pacmar.com John G. Denham

    If interested look up the history of the U.S. Army Transport Service (ATS) Merchant Seaman employed by the Army to run a fleet of ships. Hardly any problems–tell us what you want, and we will accomplish it mentality. Taken over by the Navy and the problems increase–Do this and do it our way or we will tell you how mentality. A merchant marine license involves more education and experience than any Navy commission. A mere study of the selection process for Master of a U.S.vessel and Admiral in the Navy will prove the point. If it has guns let the Navy run it–no guns…then hire the professionals. JGD

  • sid

    If it has guns let the Navy run it–no guns…then hire the professionals.

    I would slightly change the premise to…If the ships comprise a vital warfighting function, the the Navy should run them…

    And an LHA (or a Mistral for that matter)…no matter the stack colors…is the kind of ship that will find herself in that position one day.

  • leesea

    sid – I am not arguing for sealift ships as amphibs, I am saying do not be deluded like the Marines into thinking a warship can be operated by a smaller number of mariners no matter how professional – different ships different long splices. Taking guns off amphibs is not my solution its the current idiots in charge.

    The corolary of that is that sealift ships can and should perform in the AFOE. The doctrine has said that for years. But the Marines in their zeal to expand the AE want all ships in amphib ops to have forceable entry features which are clearly not needed.

    I agree LHAs are warships and unless modified for NON-amphib ops should not be civiianized. There are plenty of soft power missions for the later situation. Aren’t the Mistral built to merchant standards?

  • Just a Civilian Chief Engineer

    leesea Says:
    “With no apologies to the idiots in the Navy who think they can build a warship and easily have it operated by mariners – BS! Lets use a truck analogy. I have a auto drivers license, I would no more climb into a 18 wheel big rig and assume I could operate it than drive a motocycle. They may all be vehicles, but I do not claim to be able to operate all of them.”

    I just had this forwarded to me and I have to say that I have known Captain Ed for 20+ years, he is also my daughters God Father so I know him personally as well as professionally, and he is the consummate professional and the epitome of a seasoned and experienced Master Mariner. Good for him for doing the right thing. If he grounded it would be him that took the hit not Captain Kapcio. I am also a Chief Engineer with MSFSC and take offense at Leesea’s comments regarding our abilities to run a vessel be it a warship or a logistics vessel. We have taken over numerous Naval vessel’s including the AOE 6 Class where I was a Chief Engineer, we made it work right, better and with a lot less people. We operate these vessels with less people, more effectively, efficiently and for greater time underway. The precedent of mariners operating armed vessels has already been established by our sister organization in the UK; the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The RFA is now operating the Bay Class LSD(A). MSC is operating the Command and Control Ship; Mount Whitney, the Sub Tenders will be operated by MSC later this year. The old imagine of the MSC Mariner being viewed as pirates is long gone, we operate the latest in state of the art, highly automated, medium voltage (6,600 Volt) Diesel Electric vessels; the Lewis and Clark Class. Lewis and Clark was just on MSNBC this past weekend for her new role in the war on piracy, the Port Royal was pulled off the beach by USNS SALVOR and one of our Ocean going Tugs ; USNS CATAWBA provided fuel and supplies to the just released vessel that has the T-72′s on it. We routinely provide the Navy with assistance and expertise on all fronts. We pride ourselves on our abilities as professional merchant mariners wether we are Deckies or Engineers. We have no interest in weapons systems or sensor arrays. Sorry for getting on my soap box but I’m kind of tired over the last week of hearing every ship we operate that has been in the news lately being identified as USS SALVOR or the navy Ship…. It’s only as hard as you make it, engine rooms and ships are designed by a lot of people who have never crawled a bilge or tried to pull a 3 foot tall motor with only 2 foot of overhead.
    To address Leesea’s license analogy we hold licenses as Chief Engineer or 1st Assistant, 2nd Assistant and 3rd Assistant Engineers of Motor, Steam and Gas Turbine Powered vessels of Unlimited Horsepower. No where on our licenses does it say what ships we are restricted to.
    Be well and sail safe.

  • Nanartowich

    Let’s get back to the issue of the presumed conflict that the Balt Sun says existed among MSC Masters and Navy Leadership. Since I was there I can tell you that there was no conflict and no power plays by the Navy leadership. Quite the opposite. The Navy leadership at all levels left me in awe and the commitment of the Navy Operations types, Doctors, Nurses, technicians, helo pilots, SeaBees, et al, made all who were witness to their superb work and commitment proud of our uniformed services. The embarked Commodore was a consummate professional in his own right and a gifted organizer who had to herd a myriad of interests to achieve the primary mission goals. No easy task. One of those goals was publicizing the efforts of the hospital ship so that our efforts would not go unnoticed. Of course we would not want to disappoint the cameras by being a no-show and timeliness of execution was part of the daily routine. We took risks and evaluated the potential for expanding the level of acceptable risk prior to each port. When those expectations could not be met there was disappointment and a major reorganization of the logistics and pax moves we planned a week prior. Our port activities sometimes needed a complete overhaul. For example in Columbia the Commodore and I were very much in step with determining what we could do. This discussion was pre-deployment since we knew full well that Bahia Malaga would tax our efforts to limit regardless of the point of execution. We based our arrival plan on pilot information, sailing directions, and tides and current information. Upon arrival we found that the channel had closed to a width that would not allow the ship passage, the currents in the full moon were maxed out at 7 knots and there was a vicious tidal rip at the entrance to the channel. A month ago I actually thought I could get COMFORT up that channel and I probably could have if the info I had in hand held true. Local information was drastically at odds with the published mean information. We had to say no go. That threw a monkey wrench in our execution plan but we adapted and carried out a successful operation much to the adaptable leadership of the Commodore and everyone else involved.
    The Balt Sun focused on the Master calling the shot on whether to go in or not. Well that is the duty and responsibility of the Master and the CO of any ship. You cannot delegate that to anyone. The decision to change our method of arrival was a joint exchange of the issues among the Navy leadership and MSC. What the Balt Sun did not elaborate upon where the many cooperative exchanges that enabled the ship to achieve more than expected. WE turned potential failure or hardship into success. The Commodore did not back down from anything. He adapted and took in all empirical and new evidence that a change was needed. He acted upon that evidence. He, among many others wearing the uniform of our armed forces, is a trained leader. A USNA grad who has held many prestigious posts in his career.
    MSC Mariners are trained to be experts in either Deck or Engineering licensed professions. We are indispensible leaders in those areas of expertise since we spend our entire careers polishing our competencies with no shore rotations, and no significant comparative development outside those specific swim lanes. That is the Merchant Marine model. The USN evolved from the Mercantile Navy centuries ago as you know. Within MSC specifically we evolved as a world class fleet support operation base upon the USN standards of the 70’s. We grew from there and now do nothing but unrep with many mariners having over 5000 unreps under their belts. That is where I cut my teeth. We were trained by the USN in underway replenishment way back when. So you see where MSC expertise lies and how it got there in part.
    As far as the Navy leadership goes, to summarize, it was nothing short of spectacular and something to be proud of as an American. The Balt Sun article was a cherry picked hatchet job meant to mislead you to assume that there was something wrong with the leadership construct. No good deed goes unpunished. We should have nothing but respect for the superb outcome of COMFORT and credit should be given to the arduous task the Commodore accomplished with aplomb. Credit should also be accorded to the upper Navy leadership to be as insightful in formulating a mission that brought a wealth of good will to countries that would otherwise not be entirely clear of the generosity of the American spirit. (Our Docs and Nurses were AWESOME!). MSC and Navy did not collide. We had no collisions at all. We were side by side in the best deployment of my 33 year career at sea.

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