Lopez tests new system for improved cargo off-loading
By Laura M. Seal, MSC Public Affairs
Just a few miles off the shores of Coronado, Calif., a sleek, black-hulled cargo ship laden with dozens of 20-foot containers and Marine Corps equipment served as an at-sea test site for the U.S. Navy. Beginning in late March, the 673-foot USNS lst Lt. Baldomero Lopez began almost two months of practice drills testing the Navy's new system for transporting military equipment and supplies ashore.
Lopez is a civilian-crewed cargo ship operated by Military Sealift Command. During the ship's recent assignment, tanks, trucks, Humvees and other equipment drove off the ship's stern ramp onto shallow-draft barges, called lighterage, for transport ashore.
Lopez is uniquely designed to support the U.S. Marine Corps. The ship is one of 16 Maritime Prepositioning Ships operated by MSC, which strategically position Marine Corps cargo at sea. These roll-on/roll-off ships allow combat gear to be rapidly delivered ashore where it becomes available for Marines who are flown into a theater of operations.
Lopez, like all other Maritime Prepositioning Ships, or MPS, carry lighterage to ensure that equipment can be delivered ashore even when the ships are unable to off-load directly at a port.
The lighterage system was developed during World War II and a redesign began in the early 1990s.
"Our troops needed a platform that could perform faster, safer unloads in higher sea states," said Larry Mendlow, technical director for the Sealift Support Office at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, which developed the new system with input from MSC.
The new lighterage system is better able to operate even in sea state three - defined by winds of 14-15 knots and waves 3.5 to four feet. In addition, the new system's motorized ferry travels at up to 12 knots, 8.5 knots faster than previous ferries.
"They took the old system and made huge adjustments, increasing maneuverability, speed and stability so that beach groups will have a steadier, faster platform to work from," said Capt. Harry Bolton, Lopez's civilian master who has 33 years of experience in command of MPS.
Bolton wasn't the only one evaluating the system. The test was the official operations evaluation conducted by the Navy's Operational Test and Evaluation Force to verify the Improved Navy Lighterage System's, or INLS, effectiveness in meeting official operational requirements before the system can be put into full production.
The evaluators needed to see the system operate in a number of scenarios. The evaluation started with off-loading the existing lighterage system and placing the INLS modules aboard. At sea, the new system was assembled and put through exhaustive trials, including tests to verify the number of containers and vehicles that could be moved in a 24-hour period of time. There were also tests to verify the system's ability to move heavy cargo and off-load equipment once it has been transferred to shore.
The evaluation was very complex and involved civilian mariners who crewed the ship, Navy sailors who assembled and ran the lighterage components and Marines who operated and off-loaded the military equipment.
Those involved were happy with the results. "This was one of the most rewarding maritime prepositioning force operations that Lopez has been involved in over the past 18 years. We all knew the magnitude of what we were trying to accomplish and were willing to do whatever it took to make it happen," said Bolton.
An official report summarizing the test findings is expected to be released in mid-August. Later, modifications may be recommended before the system goes into production.
Beginning next summer, all MPS will swap their current lighterage systems for the new INLS. MV 2nd Lt. John P. Bobo, another prepositioning ship operating in the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Atlantic Ocean, is scheduled to be the first to receive the new system.
About the INLS
The INLS is similar to the current system in that each has two major components, the roll-on/roll-off discharge facility and a causeway ferry.
The discharge facility is made up of nine floating sections that assemble to form a 240-foot by 72-foot platform (almost twice the length and width of a basketball court). These sections serve as a staging area where equipment can be loaded onto the causeway ferry. The ship's ramp extends directly onto the discharge facility for easy off-loading.
The causeway ferry is the motorized floating platform that takes the cargo from the ship to shore. It includes three sections that must be joined prior to use. A power module at the stern attaches to the discharge facility for seamless loading. The middle module is strictly for storage, and the beach module at the bow includes an unloading ramp for use when the ferry reaches its destination.
It takes less than two hours to assemble the causeway ferry and 18 to 24 hours to assemble the discharge facility depending on sea state. Warping tugs, also carried on MPF ships as part of the INLS, serve as the assembly workhorse, pushing the modules into place and moving the completed discharge facility into position.
Portability is a key component of the new INLS. The individual sections of both the discharge facility and causeway ferry can be stored on the decks of the MPS.
Of the 115 mostly civilian-crewed ships operated by MSC around the world, approximately one-third are dedicated to strategic prepositioning combat cargo at sea.