JR Potts, AUS 173d AB (Updated: 2/3/2012):
The T-AKE class is part of Military Sealift Command's (MSC) Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force (NFAF) and is crewed by approximately 124 civilians. The personnel are placed in charge of basic ship operations as well as management of the onboard helicopters while some 11 military personnel handle security and logistics of both the ship and cargo. She is listed as a "dry" cargo ship - a reference to the type of cargo being carried - but also delivers petroleum products along with ammunition, dry goods, frozen and fresh foods, ice cream, soda, ship and helicopter parts, and potable water to deployed naval forces around the world. The T-AKE currently has the largest cargo space capacity and flight deck of any combat logistics ship in the world.
As mentioned, the first eleven ships of the class have already been delivered to the USN and two additional ships are under construction with one under contract. USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE-5) is the fifth ship of the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship and is named for Arctic explorer, RAdm. Robert E. Peary. The Peary was built by the General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) of San Diego, California and, due to wildfires in California during the time of her construction, her official christening was delayed until February 9th, 2008.
The Peary is crewed by a civilian crew of 124 and a military contingent of 12. A military officer - generally a commander - is responsible for the military portion of the crew crew and seeing to the cargo and its loading processes onboard the ship. The commander and the combined crew typically have less than 24 hours to unload 360 tons of food, ammunition and spare parts from delivery trucks arriving at the dock. All types of food items and spare parts and ammunition ordered ships out to sea. Loading of fuel and water for the Peary and for the ships customers are loaded simultaneously to save time. Some of the ships 25 electric forklifts work along the dock, moving pallets of goods to awaiting cargo nets that are then lifted onto the deck of the ship. Forklifts then move the pallets marked by a color code to their correct storage locations aboard the vessel.
Peary has 14 dry cargo spaces and 3 large refrigeration and freezer compartments for a total of 783,000 cubic feet of space. The total cargo space on Peary will hold as much as 300 semi-trailer loads. She carries fuel tanks for her own use and for her customers - as much as 10,500 gallons of marine diesel fuel and 7,500 gallons of jet fuel for a total of 2,350 long tons. On the stern, a helicopter interior hanger for two aircraft is located plus a work area and an outdoor flight deck. Below these is the engine room. The main cargo deck is climate-controlled and it is as long as two American football fields combined. The passageways on this deck, one starboard and one port, can handle two forklifts side-by-side, moving cargo to and from assigned locations running the length of the ship.
The civilian crew and the Captain are assigned by and work for Military Sealift Command. The MSC ships crews are referred to as being "in service" rather than "in commission" as commonly categorized within the US Navy. The ships are wholly owned by the United States government proper and are assigned the prefix "USNS" - standing for United States Naval Ship. The civilian crew does all the work onboard, from driving the forklifts, running the engines, and cooking the meals to piloting the Peary itself.
The Peary and her sister ships are, in essence, combinations of fleet service ships of the USN's past. In World War 2 and thereafter, the supplies that the USN fleet and her crews needed were transported by a number of different vessels such as dedicated ammunition ships, an oiler or tanker for fuel, a cargo ship for dry goods, canned food and spare parts. These ships would converge on a port or island and unload to warehouses to which then the combat ships would have to leave their station and steam to the port in order to be resupplied. Today, vessels such as Peary can hold and transport ammunition stores, fuel, transport helicopters, frozen, fresh and dry goods of all types. Now the USN fleet warship can stay on station and be resupplied without having to leave its post. Flexibility has proven to be the key to Peary's success - one day in port to resupply and six days at sea - only to do it all over again to in the upcoming weeks - a steady supply of critical and non-critical goods intended to support the fleet and keep the US mission abroad humming like a well-oiled machine.
The time and location the Peary will meet her customers is based entirely on the current need of the fleet. The military commander provides the MSC Captain with the course, latitude and longitude of the warship in question. However, when the two ships meet, they navigate to within 150 feet of each other on a parallel course and match their speed, maintaining their courses. A small line is shot over from the Peary and used to retract a heavy cable to which fueling hoses are wrenched between the two ships. When in place, the customer ship received both diesel and jet fuel pumped from the Peary at a rate of 200 gallons per minute. Additional cables carrying arresting gear holds two or more pallets of food or supplies and are moved from the Peary to the customer ship within seconds and then unloaded and returned for another repeat trip. When all the supplies have been transferred, the customer does a breakaway move which involves simply moving away from the Peary at full speed. This is done to reduce collision accidents that have occurred when large ships have been in close proximity to smaller ones. The second type of supply is using the onboard helicopter which carries pallets of product hung below in cargo nets. The aircraft hover above the customer ship, allowing the supplies to be removed, and this process is then repeated as many times as needed. The helicopters also transport injured seamen to an awaiting ship with a surgery onboard.
It is vessels like the Peary that make the USN one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Logistics are the heart of any military operation - greater so than any one man or weapon - and allow the modern military to fulfill its mission. Without logistically-minded ships in its inventory, the US Navy would find itself taken back to the days when its reach on the high seas was limited and its vessels needed to be recalled regularly for resupply.
The Peary operates under the motto of "King of the Team".