Rear Adm. Mark “Buz” Buzby has retired after a distinguished 34-year career in the U.S. Navy, the last three and half of which he served as the commander of Military Sealift Command. This interview was conducted a week before his change-of-command ceremony May 10, 2013, aboard USNS Spearhead (JHSV 1).
Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, USN (Ret.): What do you see as the future? What’s the next generation of ships coming in to support the fleet?
Rear Adm. Mark “Buz” Buzby: Well, the nearest support vessel on the horizon for us is the fleet oiler replacement, the T-AO(X). The first one right now is in the FY 16 president’s budget. That’s our double-hull tanker, so it’s compliant with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. It gives us a safety margin that the whole rest of the world has adopted. It will replace the current Henry [J.] Kaiser–class oilers, which have served us wonderfully since the early ’80s. But our single-hull oilers are beginning to get long in the tooth and it’s time to replace them. So this new T-AO(X) oiler will be the future class of oiler to go alongside our just-completed T-AKE class of 14 ships, which have proven to be very, very capable ships. Those two together are really going to be the future of underway replenishment support for the fleet.
How about the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP)?
MLP is another real game-changer kind of ship because of its flexibility. It’s important for what it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have a fixed set of equipment. It has empty space, and flexibility built into it. It’s 800 feet of “put whatever you want there,” with a very, very large mission deck that is a floating pier at sea to enable in-stream offloads of LMSR [Large, Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off] ships and transition into shore connectors, such as LCACs and other things like that. But before the first one is even in the fleet, there’s already thoughts about using some of the ships as an afloat forward staging base [AFSB] capability, because of the large amount of open space that you can use to put in whatever you want or whatever the need is. You could make that ship easily into a hospital ship by putting a hospital module aboard; or a repair ship or tender with a repair kind of module, some berthing, shops, a couple of cranes. It has inherent float-on, float-off capabilities built into it, so you can lift small vessels, or medium-sized vessels, given the capability that it has.
The Navy was talking at one point about having a heavy-lift capability for the MLP.
The first ship, the Montford Point [T-MLP 1], has full heavy, float-on/float-off capability. If we were to realize its full capability, it could lift a DDG [guided-missile destroyer] pretty easily. We’ve chosen not to buy that entire capability. It can bow-lift down to 7 meters of water across the deck. It could go deeper if we chose to put fixed ballasts into it. Right now, we’ve decided not to do that. But in the future, we could.
You could retrofit one of those?
Yep. Just put the fixed ballast into the void spaces and then it would be able to ballast down deeper and then we could use it as a full heavy-lift ship.
I presume you’ve done the cost benefit analysis of acquiring that capability and what it costs to bring back something like USS Cole (DDG 67) or Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), and sending over four mine sweepers, or whatever.
Based on the amount of time that we actually need that capability, there’s enough heavy-lift capability on the market. So the cost benefit is not there right now. But it’s nice to know the capability is there if we ever need it. We could reach back for it.
The Ponce (AFSB 1) is currently serving as the interim AFSB. “Interim” means that it’s not the permanent solution. Is the MLP really the only option proposed or considered right now as a replacement for that?
It’s probably the nearest to reality. There have been several commercial options that have been put forth: Maersk Lines has a couple of different concepts that they’ve floated out there, utilizing some of their container ships modified to fulfill the AFSB role. So, there are plenty of options that are out there that could be considered. The MLP variant of AFSB is attractive because the ships are already being built, they’re already funded, and they’re going to be available to us because we’ve reduced the number of maritime prepositioning squadrons, from three down to two. It’s a pretty easy ship to build and NASSCO is cranking them out pretty quickly because it’s the follow-on to the Alaska-class tanker that they’ve built for BP for many years. It’s a massive ship. You have to do a lot of climbing to get from the main deck into the ship. It’s a good workout. It’s a young person’s ship. It’s like an 800-foot stairmaster.
What about some of the more unique or special missions that MSC has? What are some of the programs in the works?
*We have four of each of our towing and salvage ships that are very heavily employed around the world. [MSC has four rescue and salvage ships and four fleet ocean tugs.] Our fleet ocean tugs are towing decommissioned ships or standing by to support submarine trials. Our salvage ships, in particular, are in very high demand by the combatant commanders for theater security cooperation, mil-to-mil [military to military] diving engagements, removing harbor obstructions, and helping with salvage work in some of those countries. We’re doing bilateral exercises and training, teaching and training their salvage people. It’s very low end, but a very good means to begin military-to-military engagement for a lot of these smaller navies. It doesn’t involve an imposing warship, and we can come in and out of ports without being an issue for the host nation.
So we have programs to replace the salvage and towing ships, the T-ATFs and T-ARSs?
There are plans to recapitalize both of those ships in the later part of this decade. It’s an important mission. While there is capacity in the commercial world, Navy leadership – and I happen to agree – feels that it’s kind of a core capability that we want to maintain in the Navy. We’re in the earliest stages of design [of] what will probably be a single-class ship that’s capable of ocean towing and salvage, much like the commercial world does today. They have large offshore support vessels that can do all of those missions. We’ll probably neck down to a single, commercial variant that we’ve modified for our use.
How about other special mission ships for research, and instrumentation and tracking?
We’re testing right now the new range tracking ship, USNS Howard O. Lorenzen (T-AGM 25), which is the replacement for the USNS Observation Island (T-AGM 23). It’s the Cobra Judy replacement [a massive radar system] program. It’s undergoing its trials right now in the East Coast. It’ll be in the fleet probably next year.
We still have our oceanographic survey fleet. We just launched the newest of that class last month, the USNS Maury [T-AGS 66]. It’ll join the fleet probably next year. Because of the business that we do in the Navy around the world, we need to continue to conduct hydrographic surveys. There’s so much we don’t know about the ocean. The USS San Francisco [SSN 711] found out the hard way when they hit an uncharted seamount in 2005. There are mountains down there that aren’t always on the chart.
Probably the most interesting vessel we operate is the sea-based X-band radar platform, or SBX, that we operate for the Air Force as part of the missile-defense infrastructure. There’s another stair-stepper – not an elevator on that thing, and from walking aboard right down there on the platform to the top of that radar is a looooonnnnggg way.