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November 2007

MSC accepts new OPDS platform - improves ability to support U.S. troops ashore
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By Laura M. Seal, MSC Public Affairs

Capt. Robert Verret and Marilyn Wheeler
Marilyn Wheeler, widow of Vice Adm. K.R. Wheeler, namesake of Military Sealift Command's new offshore petroleum distribution system ship, sat in the captain's chair on the ship's bridge during a ship tour led by civilian master Capt. Robert Verret while the ship was in Norfolk, Oct. 2.

Military Sealift Command took delivery of its newest ship at the Santa Rosa Island test range off the coast of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Sept. 20. This addition greatly improves the command's ability to deliver fuel to soldiers and Marines operating ashore where port facilities are inadequate or non-existent.

MV Vice Adm. K.R. Wheeler, a commercial ship under charter to MSC for up to five years, was delivered to the command by the ship's builder and owner, Edison Chouest Offshore, following six days of acceptance trials. Wheeler is the platform for a new off-shore petroleum distribution system, or OPDS, that can pump fuel ashore from up to eight miles off the coast - twice the distance as existing MSC ships.

Wheeler doesn't carry fuel, but rather works as an at-sea pumping system to transfer fuel ashore from commercial and military tankers.

Following delivery, Wheeler continued on to Norfolk, where it conducted two days of demonstrations for about 70 senior military leaders and government officials off the coast of Fort Story, Va., and hosted the ship namesake's family for a tour in port. By early October, Wheeler got underway to Guam where it will operate as part of MSC's Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron Three.

"This new system allows us to do more in less time with fewer resources," said Tim McLaughlin, one of MSC's lead project officers in charge of Wheeler's development and delivery. "To really support our troops, we needed to improve greatly upon the existing OPDS tankers' capabilities."

The nearly 349-foot-long, 70-foot-wide Wheeler carries eight miles of flexible pipe, which is wrapped around five, 35-foot-tall spools mounted on the ship's weather deck. The specially designed pipe is eight inches in diameter and comprises nine layers of protective materials.

In less than 48 hours, Wheeler's crew can run the full length of pipe ashore, connect the pipe to the ship's bow discharge unit, run a float hose to a tanker from the ship's stern, and be ready to pump fuel at a rate of about 1,400 gallons per minute - upwards of 2 million gallons of fuel a day.

Wheeler operates with the assistance of a light, amphibious, resupply, cargo vessel - called a LARC - which beaches and anchors itself ashore in order to pull the pipe to shore. The LARC also carries to shore the beach terminal unit - a piece of equipment that receives the fuel and transfers it to the Army or Marine Corps onshore fuel facilities.

Then, Wheeler's 165-foot tender vessel, Fast Tempo, runs a float hose from Wheeler to a tanker. Once all hoses and pipes are secure, the tanker begins pumping fuel, which passes through holding tanks aboard Wheeler before running through the pipe to shore.

MV Vice Adm. K.R. Wheeler
While in port, the ship also demonstrated its fuel distribution capabilities to government officials and military leaders.

"It's very exciting to be part of Wheeler's crew," said Capt. Robert Verret, the ship's civilian master, who works for the private company under contract to MSC. "It's got all the bells and whistles that other ships don't have."

Wheeler's capabilities expand greatly on those of the three existing offshore petroleum discharge tankers that are periodically activated from the Maritime Administration's government-owned Ready Reserve Force. These ships include SS Potomac, SS Chesapeake and SS Petersburg. Chesapeake transferred from MSC's fleet back to the RRF in September 2006, and Petersburg will do the same later this year. Chesapeake and Petersburg will both ultimately become part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, joining Potomac which transferred to NDRF in 2006.

Unlike its predecessors, Wheeler is not a tanker - hence its designation as an offshore petroleum distribution (rather than discharge) system. Because of this, Wheeler is not limited to pumping fuel carried in its own tanks, but rather can hook-up to any commercial or military tanker.

Wheeler's improved capabilities also 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.

A further advantage is that for all of these improved capabilities, Wheeler requires far fewer people to deploy its distribution system than its predecessors, which required about 150 people. Wheeler's crew is made up of 30 civilians working for private companies under contract to MSC. Sixteen 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. In addition, a crew of six mariners operate Wheeler's tender vessel, Fast Tempo.

"This is an extremely important capability," said Keith Bauer, program manager for MSC's Prepositioning Program. "This new system increases the flexibility of the U.S. military by expanding our capability to support ground operations in coastal areas that are undeveloped, destroyed by natural disaster, or otherwise unable to support arrival of a tanker to distribute fuel."