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Gray Steel and Black Oil: Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea in the U.S. Navy, 1912-1992 Hardcover – January, 1996
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This is the first full-length treatment of the development of the fleet oiler concept in the U.S. Navy. The author addresses the logistics of how fleets are able to stay at sea in an operational mode and charts the concept from World War I onward, examining the benefits of underway replenishment.
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The author begins with the problems of how a steam propelled US Navy provided tactical mobility lacking in sail powered warships but reduced strategic mobility because of the short steaming range of warships and their dependence on the bulky and hard to transfer coal. Navies were effectively tied to within a few hundred miles of their bases. A fleet could not have carried out an operation like the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor with a fleet of coal fueled warships. The author describes the initial efforts at underway refueling. There had been underway refueling experiments with coal powered ships but the bulkiness of the fuel meant that the process was very slow and hazardous which required very slow steaming speeds. More often than not a collier would meet a warship in a protected cove or harbor.
With WWI The US Navy like all navies was in the process of converting to oil fuel so needed ships to transport coal and oil. The US Navy went into the war with an inadequate logistical fleet and passed the Shipping Act to facilitate construction of merchant ships that met the needs of the US in shipping troops and material as well as to support naval operations. There was a shortage of trained personnel to operate the nation’s commercial fleet so ships were taken control of and operated by the Navy under the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS). After the war ships assigned to NOTS were formally acquired by the Navy as necessary to provide logistical support for a fleet that operated in an increased geographic area.
The author does a marvelous job explaining how in the 1920’s and 30’s pre-war logistical concerns about ability to implement War Plan Orange due to an oiler shortage led to a plan to incentivize American shipping companies to build what would become the Cimarron class oilers. The higher speed desired by the Navy over conventional tanker designs required the US govt to subsidize the capability. An American shipping company is not overly interested in tankers that can do 16.5 knots instead of 12. For purposes of operating with the fleet the higher speed was an important consideration. The Cimarron Class Oilers are a completely underestimated capability by historians and were one of the most import pieces of equipment in winning the war. Early in the war the US Navy did not have nearly the numbers of oilers it needed for operations and most were old and very slow. An Important point here regarding nomenclature. You see many authors refer to oilers as tankers. This denigrates the capabilities of an oiler if they are in fact referring to an oiler. A tanker cant carry out the operations normally assigned to an oiler. The rig carried by an oiler that permits underway replenishment was essential in conducting the carrier operations that defeated Japan and have still been essential to this day.
At beginning of WWII US naval fleet operations were limited by its underway replenishment capability. The author notes how two operations directed at Wake Island were cancelled due to oiler problems. Another book I have read whose name escapes me noted how the US Navy’s inexperience with underway replenishment as a routine operation at beginning of the war almost allowed the Saratoga CV-3 to run out of fuel while trying to make Pearl Harbor due to inability to fuel from an oiler. Had the Japanese made it a point to send its submarines to destroy the small oiler fleet then the war would likely would have been lengthened. Replenishment groups or early in the war individual oilers were always inadequately escorted and were much easier targets than fast moving heavily escorted carrier task forces. It was strategic target missed by the Japanese.
The author also talks how in WWII the first steps toward replenishments of solids like food and ammunition was carried out. He describes the effect of the creation of massive replenishment organizations and formations and the complex administration behind them to make them work. He discusses how logistics planning became a core element of any operational planning. He also talks about the massive commercial tanker acquisition and conversion to oilers programs.
The author talks about the Navy’s first multiproduct replenishment oiler (AOR) known as the Conecuh in US service. It had been a German replenishment vessel for U-Boats when captured. At the end of the war the short sighted and more economical solution would have been to scrap the Conecuh due to spare parts problems and lack of funds to convert her to meet US Navy needs. The Navy persevered though and despite difficulty in keeping her running were able to prove the concept of a replenishment oiler. A replenishment oiler is designed to carry stores and ammunition so that a ship coming alongside can meet all its needs from one ship instead of going alongside an oiler, ammunition ship and stores ship. The single product ships would shuttle back and forth to a base to replenish while the AOR remained with the fleet.
The author then goes on to describe Korean War operations where severe cutbacks in logistical capability stressed operations. Although the Navy like at the end of WWI did acquire possession of 30 tankers. Those tankers were used to transport oil from Persian Gulf to US refineries as part of the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. The predecessor of present day Military Sealift Command (MSC) then known as the Military Sea Transport Service (MSTS) was created by combining the Navy and Army Overseas Transportation Services in 1949. The demand of Korean War led to 1952 conference on mobile logistic support and a new class of oiler known as the Neosho class. The class was designed to be able to transfer deck cargo. During this period improvement were made in the refueling equipment to increase flow rates and reliability. The operations of Conecuh and Korean War replenishment deficiencies led to a 1957 conference on mobile logistic support where the birth of the idea of a large multi-product replenishment ship fast enough to operate with a carrier battle group was born. The Fast Automatic Shuttle Transfer (FAST) system for transferring missiles was developed and then superceded by the simpler STREAM (Standard Tensioned Replenishment Alongside) system that is still in use.
The author then talks about the war in Vietnam which led to jumboization of WWII era oilers and commissioning of the Wichita Class of Replenishment oiler. The AORs were an improvement over single product replenishment ships but still not a fulfillment of the high speed AOE concept. The AORs biggest problem being inadequate ammunition storage. The author describes the cyclic operations required by the combat logistics force (CLF) to support the carriers operating off Yankee and Dixie stations. The first AOEs Sacramento and Camden joined the fleet during this period of time. Palletization of cargo during this period increased the speed of replenishment.
The author describes the downsizing of the Navy including the CLF after Vietnam where the Navy built less capable straight oilers of the Cimarron class with insufficient liquid cargo capacity as well as no provision for ammunition/stores storage. During this period RADM John Johnson devised a method to allow ammunition and stores ships to transfer fuel helping to offset insufficient numbers of AOE/AOR. The MSC came into existence in this time period with Taluga AO-62 being first CLF ship transferred to MSC. WWII built oilers continued to operate with USN out of necessity.
The author then talks about the Reagan years when military spending increased and the Cimarron class were jumboized and the largest straight fleet oiler the Henry J. Kaiser class was built to replace WWII era oilers. Most have been transferred to the MSC where they continue to provide CLF support to the US Navy. Congress was concerned about increasing Navy reliance on single product replenishment ships whose constructions had been deferred due to high cost of of the AOE/AOR. Congress funding for the Navy for 1989-92 included 3 AOEs, 5 AOs and 2 AEs. The book ended with Gulf War and before construction was completed on those ships.
This was a very interesting book about a topic essential for US maritime operations but one that is frequently ignored. It is not the sexy missile shooters or aircraft carriers but the easiest way to derail a naval operation would be to destroy its ability to remain on station. The battle group is heavily defended but the most vulnerable target would be CLF ships shuttling back and forth between the fleet and its base of supply. This was a hard book to find. Retail copies were so expensive that I read a library copy. The book has excellent photos and diagrams. This would be a good reference book for a surface warfare officer or anyone interested in naval subjects to have in their library. I have driven some underway replenishments (UNREPS) myself and can tell you it is not a fun time making all the minute course and speed adjustments to stay alongside an oiler. Everyone’s eyes including the captain’s on you knowing that a mistake could result in a collision.