During World War 2, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, American "underway replenishment at sea" had to be scheduled and planned well in advance due to the limited communication systems of the period, changes in weather and changes to wartime strategy. The United States Navy developed the multirole "station ship" concept and, from this, was born the "Fast Combat Support Ship". Underway replenishment ships of past conflicts were normally slow-moving, requiring receiver ships to wait for extended period. USS Rainier (AOE-7) was built as part of the four-strong Supply-class group of vessels to include the lead ship, USS Supply, and sisters USS Arctic and USS Bridge. The Supply-class carried more fuel than the largest oilers and almost as much munitions as dedicated ammunition ships of the day. USS Rainier is named after Mount Rainier located in the southwest portion of Washington state.
USS Rainier (AOE-7) was born of the concept of Fast Combat Support Ship (AOE) - a multirole, one-station supply vessel that performed the functions of three cargo-type ships, designed with the inherent speed to keep up with and replenish modern ships of the Aircraft Carrier Battle Group. The "shuttle ship" concept concerning the four Supply-class Fast Combat Support Ships allowed redistribution of supplies and ordnance to Fast Carrier Battle Groups, in turn reducing alongside replenishment times considerably.
USS Rainier (AOE-7) was constructed at the National Ship and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego, California, and commissioned on January 21st, 1995. She essentially was designed to combine the functions of three logistic support ships in one hull - a fleet oiler (AO), ammunition ship (AE) and refrigerated stores ship (AF). As an oiler, the vessel was cleared to carry upwards of 1,965,600 US gallons of marine diesel fuel plus 2,620,800 gallons of aircraft fuel, 500 x 55 gallon drums of lube oil and 800 bottles of propane bottled gas. As an ammunition ship, Rainier could be called to replenish the entire ordnance requirements of a single aircraft carrier in just three hours, carrying 2,150 short tons of bombs, a complete assortment of aerial- and ship-based missiles and rockets and cannon projectiles of all calibers, these contained in separate internal waterproof areas. Also having the role of a refrigerated stores ship, her onboard coolers and freezer storage held 400 short tons of fresh food.
When fully loaded, vessels such as the Rainier provided a rich target to the enemy due to her valuable stores. As such, the vessel was appropriately armed with a number of defensive-minded weapons including the NATO "Sea Sparrow Missile System" (NSSMS), 2 x 20mm Phalanx Close-In-Weapons Systems (CIWSs), 2 x 25mm cannons and 4 x 12.7mm Browning heavy machine guns. Collectively, these weapons could be used to repel incoming aerial and ocean-bound threats including cruise missiles, naval mines, speeding suicide craft and boarders attempting to overtake the crew by force. To counter the threat from undersea foes such as submarines, she held a NIXIE Torpedo Decoy System and four Decoy Launchers.
To successfully handle their given resupply-at-sea roles, such ships as the Rainier were appropriately equipped with industrial-strength transfer equipment to move stores to recipient vessels. It was not uncommon to resupply ships to service up to three awaiting vessels simultaneously especially during wartime. Rainier was outfitted with a sliding padeye station allowing the receiving ship to transfer heavy loads and providing excellent control of the load during transfer. Between the bridge and the single funnel were 4 x 10-ton cargo booms, two located along portside and two along starboard. There were 3 x double-probe steam-powered fueling stations and two single-probe steam fueling stations - these stations able to pump water, ship diesel fuel or aircraft fuel simultaneously using different probes to the same ship. Her aft deck held a large helicopter flight deck connected to elevators able to bring freight from below to the surface so two of the three available CH-46E "Sea Knight" transport helicopters could deliver dry and refrigerated supplies (via cargo nets) under their fuselages (this particular delivery system recognized as "vertical replenishment"). A third CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter remained in hanger in reserve.
With construction finished, Rainier underwent training off of the west coast of the United States, testing her underway replenishment skills on various USN ship classes before being sent to the Hawaiian Operating Area. Once there, she participated in RIMPAC-96 ("Rim of the Pacific 1996"), conducting active replenishment missions for allied Australian, Canadian, Japanese and United States navies involved in the exercise. Rainier continued to operate in home waters until August of 1996 when she was sent to Puget Sound Naval Station for needed repairs. From her homeport of Bremerton, Washington, she departed to Hong Kong in October of 1996 for her first overseas deployment. During the first half of 1997, Rainier continued replenishment of vessels in the Jebel Ali area in the United Arab Emirates. Rainier returned to Bremerton, Washington on April 11th, 1997 where she remained in dry dock for more repairs in preparation for RIMPAC-98.
In November of 1998, USS Rainier arrived in Singapore to aid local children. After showing the flag there, she steamed to the resort city of Patong, Thailand before sailing through the Strait of Hormuz arriving in Jebel Ali to refuel prior to entering the Persian Gulf. On March 20th, 2003, USS Rainier took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom by supplying aid to participating combat vessels. During the war, Rainier conducted 240 underway replenishments - sometimes up to six per day - for 64 coalition ships. This resulted in 135 million gallons of diesel and aircraft fuel and 10 million pounds of munitions being passed during the initial fighting and the period following. Rainier was then released from its station in the Gulf and made headway for Pearl Harbor for repair. After completion of this work, she returned home to Washington, July 2003. By this time, the US Congress approved four US Navy Supply-class ships to be decommissioned in a budgetary move, the USN transferring the Rainier to service under the Military Sealift Command banner on August 29th, 2003.
The move to the MSC allowed the USN to retain the Rainier though now under the non-combatant United States Naval Ship (USNS) title and operated by less expensive civilian mariners with only a few USN personnel aboard. The new designation for the AOE class in the MSC Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force now became "T-AOE". Her new full MSC designation became USNS Rainier (T-AOE-7) even though her primary mission remained the same. At this time, all of her weaponry was also removed as were their support systems. She did, however, maintain all other replenishment capabilities.
USNS Rainier (T-AOE-7) continues to serve the US Navy in this new guise and was assigned to support the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) Carrier Strike Group as they participated in Exercise Northern Edge during 2004 in the Gulf of Alaska during RIMPAC-04. She then showed the flag during visits to Japan and Malaysia. CVN-74 and her battle group - including T-AOE-7 - returned home to Bremerton, Washington on January 19th, 2005. Stennis then underwent an eleven month docking for repairs in which time USNS Rainier (T-AOE 7) was transferred to support the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). On May 20th, 2006, the Reagan battle group (with Rainier in tow) was stationed in the Persian Gulf as part of a routine rotation of U.S. maritime forces in support of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).
In 2008, Carrier Strike Group Seven supported Operation Brimstone, a naval exercise off the coast of North Carolina spanning from Virginia in the north to Florida in the south. The USS Ronald Reagan, with its Carrier Air Wing 14, was supported by Destroyer Squadron 7 which included the USNS Rainier (T-AOE-7). In February of 2009, Rainier was ordered to the Guam Ship Yard at Apra Harbor, Guam for six months of dry dock repair. Once completed, Rainier was transferred to support the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). In March of 2010, USNS Rainier took part in Southern Seas 2010, an exercise intended to promote U.S. and international force naval cooperation. In September of 2011, Rainier was once again assigned to the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group. Stennis was deployed on a scheduled mission to the western Pacific Ocean and the Arabian Gulf where she was joined by her battle group being refueled and armed by Rainier. In 2012, USNS Rainier was transferred to the San Diego home port of the Pacific Fleet - her mission to resupply any USN vessel along the coast of California or the western Pacific area.
At the time of this writing (2012), she is scheduled for a major refit during 2013 that will keep her a viable resupply platform for years to come.