T-AKE begins logistics operations in 7th Fleet
By Rosemary Heiss, MSC Public Affairs
Military Sealift Command dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Richard E. Byrd entered the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet area of operations July 24, marking the arrival of the first Lewis and Clark-class combat logistics support ship in service to the 52 million-square-mile region.
Though the entry into the fleet's territorial waters was without ceremony, it signaled a significant change for Logistics Group Western Pacific, also known as Commander Task Force 73, which will operationally control the ship while in theater.
"This ship will enable our command to provide the warfighter with a level of support that is unprecedented," said Rear Adm. Nora Tyson, CTF 73 commander. "It brings a much more robust capability to the fight."
The underway replenishment vessel, known as a T-AKE, replaces the current capability of the Kilauea-class ammunition ships and Mars-class combat stores ships, and it also possesses the capability to refuel ships at sea. Byrd took the place of MSC combat stores ship USNS Niagara Falls.
"The combat stores ships are extremely capable and have developed a real 'can-do' culture for any mission in 7th Fleet. However, having the T-AKE as a one-stop logistics ship in the Navy's largest theater will significantly improve the flexibility of our operations," said Capt. Jim Smart, CTF 73 assistant chief of staff for logistics. "While we say a sad farewell to Niagara Falls and honor her many years of fine service and her reputation for professional excellence, we welcome and are glad to have Byrd and its crew on the Navy team in the Western Pacific."
Niagara Falls' last mission after 15 years in the theater was to resupply MSC hospital ship USNS Mercy, July 16, while it was off the coast of Timor-Leste supporting Pacific Partnership 08.
To mark the gravity of the final operational mission, Capt. Dan LaPorte, Niagara Falls civil service master, flew in an embarked helicopter to Mercy to present the ship with a trophy. Mercy's civil service master, Capt. Bob Wiley - along with Navy Capt. William Kearns, mission commander, and Navy Capt. Jim Rice, Military Treatment Facility commander - were on hand to receive the memento.
"The success of our mission depends on the reliable and steadfast support of MSC's combat logistics ships," said Wiley. "Being on hand to say goodbye to a ship that has provided support to the Navy for more than 40 years is an honor. As we continue on to our last mission stop, we look forward to having Byrd providing the same crucial support that allows Pacific Partnership to positively impact the 7th Fleet area of operations."
Two weeks later and only a week after Byrd entered the theater, Niagara Falls passed its cargo to the 689-foot T-AKE in an underway replenishment to consolidate stores, beginning Byrd's work in 7th Fleet.
"Taking on this cargo from our trailblazing predecessor, Niagara Falls, marks the beginning of an exciting operational journey for us," said Capt. Robert Jaeger, Byrd's civil service master. "We are eager to take on the important job of keeping the fleet supplied and look forward to carrying on the proud legacy left behind by the Falls."
T-AKEs began supporting Navy fleet operations in 2007 when USNS Lewis and Clark, the namesake ship of the class, deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations for six months. Byrd is the fourth operational T-AKE.