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April 2003

MSC prepositioned forces get results
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By Cristina McGlew

USNS Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham
Maritime Prepositioning Force (Enhanced) ship USNS Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham's stern ramp is resting on lighter platforms, forming a roll-on/roll-off discharge facility to unload Navy vehicles. Rebecca Rogers photo

Violence erupts thousands of miles away from the nearest U.S. military base, yet troops and equipment are called upon to keep the peace and restore order. When minutes can mean the difference between life and death, the U.S. armed forces must be able to respond swiftly.

Military Sealift Command's afloat prepositioning ships are an essential element in the military's ability to respond to contingincies.

Stern ramp of USNS Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham
Splashdown! A Marine Corps reservist drives an amphibious assault vehicle from Alpha Company, 4th Assault Battalion, 4th Marine Division at Little Creek Amphibious Base, Va., off the stern ramp of USNS Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham into the water during evaluation tests in April 2001. Capt. Martin E. Conroy Jr. photo

Afloat prepositioning means having the equipment and supplies for a contingency aboard ships at sea in key ocean locations before they are needed. The MSC Prepositioning Program provides this vital, timely support to the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Defense Logistics Agency. Prepositioned ships remain at sea, ready to deploy on short notice the equipment, fuel and supplies to initially support military forces in the event of a war or contingency anywhere in the world.

The concept of prepositioning is not new. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1978, and Iranian mobs stormed the U.S. embassy taking 66 people hostage in Teheran in 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced a new American policy in 1980 that came to be called the Carter Doctrine. During his State of the Union Address, Carter warned that an attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region would be regarded as an assault on the interests of the United States and any such assault would be repelled by any means necessary.

SS Maj. Stephen W. Pless
MSC's Maritime Prepositioning Ship SS Maj. Stephen W. Pless pulls away from the pier at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Pless departed the area Jan. 17, 2002, after off-loading a fleet hospital. Susan Melow photo

In 1979, in the Department of Defense Navy Program Objective Memorandum, President Carter's secretary of defense approved the creation of a Maritime Prepositioning Ship Program supporting the U.S. Marine Corps. By 1980, MSC had designated seven ships as part of the Near Term Repositioning Force. The equipment-laden ships headed to the British island of Diego Garcia where a staff maintained the ships in a high state of readiness so that they could deploy within 24 hours to possible contingency locations, including the Middle East, and unite with awaiting troops.

By 1983, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps signed a memorandum of agreement establishing the concept of operations for maritime prepositioning in support of the Marine Corps.

MSC's prepositioning force proved invaluable during the Persian Gulf War. Maritime Prepositioned ships provided the initial equipment and fuel for U.S. forces deployed to the region. A number of the ships were then used as floating warehouses, and the rest were used to move cargo between ports.

MV 1st Lt. Jack Lummus
Maritime prepositioning ship MV 1st Lt. Jack Lummus unloads various equipment in support of Exercise Cobra Gold 2002. Cobra Gold 2002 is the 21st U.S. Pacific Command exercise conducted in Thailand demonstrating the ability of U.S. forces to deploy rapidly and conduct operations with the Thai and Singapore armed forces. PH2 Jennifer Smith, USN, photo

Recognizing the need for fully modern ships properly configured to carry and preposition high-priority military equipment after the 1991 Gulf War, Congress appropriated $5.4 billion from fiscal years 1990 through 1999 to construct and convert additional strategic sealift and prepositioning platforms. Nineteen large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ships were funded to meet the goals of the 1992 Mobility Requirements Study, which called for an additional five million square feet of sealift capacity - two million square feet for prepositioning requirements and three million for surge capability.

Currently, MSC's Prepositioning Program has 42 ships, including 40 that usually operate in the Mediterranean Sea, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Guam/Saipan in the western Pacific Ocean. The remaining two ships are aviation support ships generally maintained in reduced operating status in the United States. Thirty-three of these ships are currently supporting the president's global war on terrorism - 13 ships are strategically prepositioned and 20 of the ships after unloading thier preositioned cargo, have been designated as common-user ships in support of sealift operations. For decades, MSC's prepositioning concept has played a vital role in the U.S. military's ability to respond efficiently and effectively.