Support Ships

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Support Ships, as their name implies, are generally defined as noncombatant or defensively armed ships whose mission is to assist the fighting forces. While support ships are perhaps best known for their role in naval warfare, they have been employed since the American Revolution, have been operated by both the army and navy, and have provided support to all of the military services. During the Revolutionary War and Civil War, support ships were used primarily by the army as troop transports and logistical supply ships. In the Civil War, by early 1865 the Quartermaster Corps of the Union army operated almost all of the nation's commercial vessels.

Prior to World War I, the U.S. Navy utilized a small number of support ships, known as naval auxiliaries and consisting primarily of colliers and supply ships. These were manned by civilian crews but maintained by the navy and under naval control when operating with the fleet. After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, these auxiliaries were placed in full naval status under the Naval Overseas Transport Service (NOTS), which grew to over 450 ships by war's end. Even prior to the establishment of NOTS, the navy had acquired a number of noncombatant ships, including captured German vessels, ships taken over from the Shipping Board, and others received for the U.S. Army. The army, which had established its own Transport Service in 1898 during the Spanish‐American War, continued to operate support ships and to maintain responsibility for overseas troop movements during both World Wars I and II.

By the end of World War I, NOTS ships had carried approximately 6 million tons of cargo, including over 3 million tons of supplies for the Army Expeditionary Force in France, 1 million tons for naval bases overseas, over 1 million tons of coal for the fleet, and food for all the Allies. While the majority of NOTS ships were general cargo, a substantial numbers of tankers, colliers, and refrigerator ships were also included, as well as four hospital ships.

Perhaps the best known ship operated by NOTS in 1917–18 was the collier USS Jupiter. Owned by the Shipping Board, received by NOTS in April 1918, and at war's end operated in the U.S. Navy's Pacific Train, the Jupiter was recommissioned in March 1922 as the USS Langley (CV 1), the first of the navy's aircraft carriers, serving in this capacity until 1936, when she was converted to a seaplane tender.

In the interwar years the navy established a base force that evolved into the Atlantic and Pacific Service Forces, which provided mobile logistic support squadrons in both oceans as the fleets increased their ability to maintain themselves at sea for increasingly long periods. In addition, specialized ships such as aircraft, submarine, and destroyer tenders were added to the inventory.

World War II saw the advent of the fast carrier task force and with it the development of the doctrine of underway replenishment: supplies provided by ships of the mobile logistic support force allowed combat ships to stay at sea and fight for long periods of time far away from their advanced naval bases. Fast attack transports and cargo ships were added for use in the amphibious assaults of the Pacific War.

After World War II, the Army Transport Service and the Naval Transportation Service were combined to form the Military Sea Transport Service (MSTS). MSTS ships supplied U.S. forces overseas and, augmented by commercial ship charters and vessels from the Reserve Fleet, provided sealift support in every national emergency from the Korean War to the Vietnam War. MSTS was renamed the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in 1970 under the Department of Defense (DoD), a single operating agency for sealift for all the military services.

As warfare doctrines and weapon systems evolved, support ships became more specialized. Ships for military research were added: oceanographic research ships (AGOR); missile range instrumentation ships (AGM); and exotic deep submergence research vessels such as the NR‐1, a nuclear‐propelled submarine, developed in great secrecy during the Cold War and now made available to technical institutions and to the National Science Foundation for research. Vessels were configured for specific duties; for example, command ships (AGF, CC, CLC); guided missile ships (AVM); and for less obvious purposes, such as the ill‐fated USS Pueblo, which was designated an environmental research ship (AEGR) but used for signals intelligence collection until captured by the North Koreans in the Pueblo Incident in 1968.

To meet the challenges of military logistic support in the post–Cold War era, the Defense Transportation System has been established to coordinate requirements for sealift, scheduling, and shipping during routine operations. When an overseas deployment, such as Operation Desert Shield in 1990, is ordered, all elements—air, ground, and shipping—including the Military Sealift Command, are drawn together under the DoD's Transportation Command to deliver the necessary forces and material.

In 1991, during Desert Shield/Desert Storm combat operations in the Persian Gulf War, ships of the Military Sealift Command transported 95 percent of the supplies needed by U.S. forces in the most massive sealift operation since World War II. First to arrive were ships of the Strategic Sealift Force, pre‐positioned in the Indian Ocean and fully loaded to support immediate combat operations, followed shortly thereafter by fast sealift ships and hospital and aviation support ships from U.S. ports. Additional support ships were drawn from the Ready Reserve Force and were chartered from U.S. and foreign shipowners as required.

Desert Storm demonstrated a particular need for roll on/roll off–type support ships that could be loaded, held in an overseas area for immediate dispatch, and rapidly unloaded upon arrival. As the U.S. Navy shifts strategic emphasis from preparing for war at sea to seaward support of joint operations on land, the importance of support ships in the twenty‐first century will become ever greater, with increased emphasis on afloat pre‐positioning of fast sealift support ships. Budget constraints, declining numbers of U.S. flag merchant ships, and the real possibility that for political reasons foreign flag vessels may not be available for charter in future crises, combine to make the availability of support ships key in future military operations.
[See also Logistics; Transportation.]


Worrall R. Carter , Beans, Bullets and Black Oil, 1953.
Samuel Eliot Morison , History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. VII (1951) and vol. VIII (1953).
Lewis P. Clephane , History of the Naval Overseas Transportation Service in World War I, 1969.
Richard T. Ackley , Sealift and National Security, Naval Institute Proceedings (July 1992), pp. 41–47.
Charles Dana Gibson and and E. Kay Gibson , comps., Dictionary of Transport and Combatant Vessels Steam and Sail Employed by the Union Army, 1861–1868, 1995.

Alan Harris Bath