One little-noticed facet of America’s Haiti-bound expeditionary aid effort is the SS Petersburg (T-AOT 9101), a 45-year old vessel that is, right now, tied to a Bay Area pier, preparing to deploy. Why is this Ready Reserve Force asset, one that needs ten days to get going–and one of the furthest-flung pieces of equipment the United States has called into service for Haiti relief–getting activated? Isn’t it odd the military reached all the way to an Alameda pier for a tired old tanker–a tanker that makes only about 15 knots?

Well, it’s because the SS Petersburg is much more than a tanker! The SS Petersburg is a tanker built around an offshore petroleum discharge system (OPDS), and, as such, the ship is one of the only available government assets that can, while anchored offshore, receive and pump a lot of fuel ashore. OPDS is a key piece of expeditionary tech–those trucks, amphibious armored vehicles and generators have a hard time running without fuel.

In Haiti, there’s only a few weeks supply of fuel available–and we’re not done surveying Haiti’s fuel receiving terminals. Those terminals may be inaccessible for some time. Though accounts vary, the Wall Street Journal says the fuel terminals are damaged:

Two other Haitian terminals used to bring in fuel have also been heavily damaged, said Mr. Villard.

The U.S. military is also conducting an assessment of the port of Varreux, just to the north of Port-au-Prince’s main port, as a possible place to begin pumping fuel. Gen. Allyn said he expected to resume fuel deliveries there “in the very near future,” though the assessment will take another day or two.

Without receiving terminals, the fuel has to come in via road–from harbors elsewhere in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. But with the roads and weak harbor infrastructure likely to be clogged, the SS Petersburg may still be useful. From Navytimes:

“Within 48 hours of arrival on station, [Petersburg can begin] pumping 1.2 million gallons per day from up to four miles off shore and at water depths down to 200 feet. If the ship is moored within two nautical miles of the shore, two different products may be pumped simultaneously through two separate conduits,” according to information from MarAd.

Fuel supply is critical for any amphibious venture–and the advantage of having a means to receive refined fuel without need of port facilities is, these days, a tactical necessity.

Look to history–The advance from the World War II D-Day beachheads was supported by one of the first undersea pipelines, the aptly-named Operation PLUTO, or “Pipe-Lines Under the Ocean.” It was operational by August 1944, sparing space in the wrecked Cherbourg Harbor for other vital cargoes.

The SS Petersburg, when it arrives at Haiti, may help alleviate pressure on the feeble, crowded ports. It may allow those working to clear blocked harbor channels and open pier access to focus on insuring that traditional dry cargoes can get access to shore. (The Marines have an expeditionary bulk-liquid transfer system, but their ability to utilize that system at Haiti may be somewhat limited).

OPDS is not just for expeditionary use, either. For established bases like Guam, Diego Garcia or, oh, Ascension Island, damage to established fuel receiving infrastructure would rapidly degrade their inherent military value.

Interestingly enough, OPDS platforms only really emerged as a defense asset in the eighties and nineties:

“…the prototype SS Potomac (OPDS-1 built in 1957 converted to OPDS in 1985); SS American Osprey (OPDS-2 built 1958 converted 1988); SS Chesapeake (OPDS-3 built 1963 converted 1991); SS Petersburg (OPDS-4 built 1963 converted 1994); and, SS Mount Washington (OPDS-5 built 1963 converted 1995).”

What is rather odd is that the United States now only has three of these vessels–well, technically, two. The SS Petersburg’s sister, the Chesapeake (T-AOT 5084), is, after serving in the Gulf Region, a hulk, mouldering away in the National Defense Reserve Fleet over in Beaumont, Texas–in “logistic support” status. That means the poor SS Chesapeake is being stripped to keep the SS Petersburg operational (The SS Mount Washington is awaiting disposal in Suisun Bay).

The second, MV Vice Adm. K.R. Wheeler (T-AG 5001), is a brand-new charter vessel:

Wheeler’s improved capabilities include the ability to pump 500,000 gallons more fuel per day, operate in more difficult environmental conditions including surface currents of up to three knots and winds of up to 40 knots, and install pipe over an ocean bottom of rock and shell in addition to mud, sand and coral.

Wheeler also requires far fewer people to deploy its distribution system than its predecessors, which required about 200 people. Wheeler’s crew is made up of 24 civilians working for private companies under contract to MSC – 16 civilian mariners operate and navigate the ship, and eight systems operators, six of whom join the ship only during fueling evolutions, operate and deploy the distribution system.

But the Wheeler, well, she’s busy doing serving the national interest–someplace else. Part of the Guam-based Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron Three, the ship was last seen operating off Korea (August-September 2009), training to provide refined fuel to fuel-hungry units ashore.

Here’s a great MSC video of the OPDS in action–a wonderful overview of what OPDS offers.

Given the importance of fuel for disasters and other contingencies, I’m rather shocked that the U.S. only maintains two of these vessels–and that nobody out there in the private sector seems to have made a similar system available for use. In any island, isolated region–or devastated urban area–fuel access is a force multiplier. And for any military service thinking about expeditionary ventures, a OPDS is critical–particularly when mission requirements demand an efficient means to engage and leverage civilian assets. These civ-mil “connectors” are too few and far between.

The OPDS is a critical and un-sung piece of the disaster-response tool kit. If American policymakers think missions like the Haiti disaster response will become a routine task for America’s “Global Force For Good,” then the U.S. needs a few more nifty offshore petroleum pumping stations like the MV Vice Adm. K.R. Wheeler.


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  • UltimaRatioReg


    Good post. Would have been helpful had the USN spent the comparatively tiny sum to truly maintain these vessels in preservation in the NDRF instead of letting them rust away.

  • leesea

    I believe the reason that the Navy chartered the new ship (& associated boat) was because it was a lot more effective, easier to deploy and less expensive. The old OPDS tankers are really old ships and undoubtedly hard to maintain. I also think that the new operation is for all service from one contractor.

  • Lee, you’ve made the understatement of the century. I was the JLOTS action officer at Beach Group 2 when we planned and executed the JLOTS III testing of OPDS in 1993. The logistics of getting everything in place for that test (at Santa Rosa Island in Fort Walton Beach FL) were a huge challenge — had stuff moving by air, sea and rail to get there, including a Seabee ship for all the various lighters we used. It looks like Wheeler is pretty much self contained for installation, and the dynamic positioning system alone will make the system much safer and easier to deploy.

  • Jim Dolbow

    great post. very informative


    OPDS is a good system if you need an offshore system. However, there are better ways to get fuel to Haiti that would be both faster and cheaper.

    1. T1 or T2 sized tankers. Quiet a few of these around, you normally see them as bunkering vessels. Lighter from T5 off-shore or get fuel at some other location like GITMO, pull up to any pier, run hoses to shore, pump direct to an IPDS or AAFS terminal for distribution.

    2. Use a fuel barge. Pretty much like a T1/T2 option but you can also push it on to a beach if you had to after a bulldozer made you a place to land. Of course you would need a tug as well.

    3. Use an LCU carrying fuel bladders and pumps from AAFS. Probably could easily carry bladders for 25,000 gallons and transfer at 600gpm. Lighter from tanker to LCU, run LCU onto beach, run hoses to AAFS terminal. An hour later, back off and repeat. Use multiple LCUs to increase transfer rate if required.

    4. Should be a ABLTS or AABFS on the MPS ship along with a few million gallons of JP-5. Anchoring close should not be a problem.

    5. Use Tankcontainers. Load with desired fuel anywhere. handle exactly like a 20ft container, which means you could lighter it to a pier or beach, discharge to a pier with installed cranes, or use a crane ship. Put it on a flatbed and take it where you need it. Solves your distro problem as well.

    All of the above can be in place dramatically faster because they don’t require anything that isn’t readily available in commercial service. Unless Haiti’s fuel distro system is FUBAR, it should be back up before it makes sense for a more permenant solution like the OPDS.

    New OPDS system is vastly easier to emplace, can pump more fuel twice as far, doesn’t have the bottom restrictions of the old system, and with dynamic positioning is much easier to change out tankers and has higher environmental limits as well. Oh, and it meets todays environmental standards too, something the PETERSBURG doesn’t. Too bad we only have one and it is in the Pacific. A second one in the RRF with a self-contained containership with lighterage and IPDS equipment loaded and you have a ready made disaster response capability as well as a back-up for the Wheeler.

  • Great comments…

    The strength of the OPDS (the new one, mind ya’ll…) is that it relieves an amount of port traffic–freeing up your remaining functional port infrastructure (your tugs and pier space and delivery trucks) and your amphibious equipment (LCUs) to carry other vital cargoes. Tankers can stay offshore and stay out of the way.

    In a humanitarian emergency where I’ve got a water supply issue, I’m probably going to devote my ABLTS to moving water ashore–at least as long as distro trucks have gas.

    I think tankcontaners are already heading in; a fine interim solution as long as they can get ’em ashore.

    If the fuel distribution network ashore is functional, I’d love to have a few tanker/bulk liquid-ready Frank S Besson Class LSVs around as an interim “close in” solution. Probably get something shy of a million gallons aboard those beach-ready (and probably pump-ready) platforms.

  • Jay

    The prob with the legacy OPDS (not the VADM KEITH WHEELER) — not sure if MARAD (they own/operate them) has any stats on their website re: use of the OPDS — is that they haven’t been used much for real world events — one was on station as part of our Prepo program — and as far as I know — it, or the others at CONUS layberth would be activated almost annually for JLOTS exercises.

    When there wasn’t enough $ in the exercise pot to fund the “wet” JLOTS — then the OPDS didn’t play, and only a “dry” JLOTS exercise was conducted.

    It hasn’t made sense (fiscal or other) to fund the OPDS ships in the RRF at CONUS layberths to a 5-day readiness levels (I think MARAD calls it RRF-5), as most of the MARAD Ro/Ros are, or a 4-day readiness level (Navy calls it ROS-4) — as most/all of the MSC Ro/Ros (LMSRs) are.

    The ships MARAD keeps in the RRF (subset of the NDRF) are the ones with anticipated missions and a greater chance of being needed.

    MSC came up with the idea of the WHEELER — as the system frees up lots of manpower required on the legacy ships. It also frees you up from having an OPDS ship “loaded” with fuel/water, etc. Instead — the WHEELER is a pumping station — and the U.S. can just charter a tank vessel with the needed cargo(es) — and have it (or multiple ships, as necessary) meet the WHEELER to pump the cargo ashore.

  • leesea

    What we all have to remember is the Tyranny of Tonnage. Bringing ANY commodity down to Haiti in parcels or units of the TEU variety is NOT the answer at least for now. The USN needs to get maximum “things” ashore where there is NO significant infrastructure. They are NO roads for containers to be moved on (well at least they will be competing with road clearance operations and other DR equipment) and not many trucks to move TEUs around right now. That is something for later.

    We do NOT need to jury rig existing ships in US inventory, we NEED to use the ships that exist in the US inventory i.e. MSC nucleus fleet and MARAD RRF.

    Use what we got first!

  • DavidB

    “Given the importance of fuel for disasters and other contingencies, I’m rather shocked that the U.S. only maintains two of these vessels”
    The same thinking that gave us only two hospital ships…


    If I use AAFS or IPDS, I don’t need trucks and you could easily run IPDS or AAFS pipes on the existing and non-functional pier, or to a beach, or wherever. Tie the tankers up there. But that doesn’t explain how you move the fuel around once it is in Haiti. Tankcontainers don’t need special, single purpose trucks, and a tank container with a pump is a ready made fuel distro point. OPDS doesn’t solve any issues of inland distro. Chartering T1/T2 sized ships, or using a barge, is better in that they are in commercial service everywhere and are ready now with their crews. All you need is a few hundred meters of pier, that can be non-funtional for other cargo since AAFS won’t put a lot of stress on the pier. Or Med moor. Or if its not to rough, you can push the barge onto the beach to offload. The little tankers lighter from larger tankers offshore.

    An OPDS ship that takes time to activate, time to sail from San Francisco, and time to set-up is not the answer either.

    Defense Springerboard,
    Just a note, ABLTS has both fuel and water hoses and can transfer both simultaneously! Hopefully LUMMUS has ABLTS and not AABFS.