Military Sealift Command to try contract crews on JHSVs

The U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command is launching a pilot program to determine whether civilian contract mariners or civil service mariners are a better crewing fit for a new high-speed ship currently being developed.

The military is planning to build 10 new Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSVs), which will have a core civilian crew of 21 mariners. The 338-foot-by-94-foot ships will be capable of transporting 600 short tons 1,200 nm at an average speed of 35 knots, according to the Navy.

The JHSVs will have an aviation flight deck and can operate in shallow-draft ports and waterways, according to a Navy fact file. They can also transport up to 400 troops in airline-style seating and carry combat vehicles, including a fully-loaded Abrams Main Battle Tank.

Shipbuilder Austal USA won a contract in 2008 worth $185 million to build the first JHSV, with an option to build the remaining nine ships at an estimated total cost of $1.6 billion. Construction has begun on the first two ships, said Michelle Bowden, an Austal spokeswoman.

The first of the JHSVs is expected to be launched by the end of the summer, Bowden said.

As proposed, the first four vessels will be crewed by civil service mariners, and the remaining six will be crewed by contract mariners. Laura Seal, a spokeswoman for Military Sealift Command (MSC), said this system will give the Navy a chance to see which crewing model works best.

"Because the ships are new and could conduct a wide variety of missions, MSC determined in May 2010 that the best course of action is to institute a pilot program where the first vessels will be crewed by civil service mariners (CIVMARs) and the remaining by civilian contract mariners," Seal said in an e-mail. "Using CIVMARs aboard the first ships will allow MSC to gather the information needed to develop contracts for the contractor-operated ships."

"Whether it's advantageous to use civilian mariners or contract mariners depends on that particular ship and that ship's mission, and this is why MSC is conducting a pilot program to see which works best on JHSVs," she said.

When the JHSV program was initially developed, five of the ships were to be built for the Army and five for the Navy. This arrangement was conceived as a way to take "advantage of the inherent commonality between the two programs," the Navy fact file said.

However, an agreement between the two branches in May 2011 transfers the Army's five ships to the Navy. The vessels will be owned and operated by MSC.

"The transfer of JHSVs is about aligning core competencies and gaining managerial efficiency by having one service manage the Joint High Speed Vessels," said Lt. Paul D. Macapagal, a Navy spokesman.

MSC currently operates about 110 vessels that use civilian crews comprising either contract mariners or civil service mariners. These crews are responsible for the ship's operation and navigation during missions that include replenishing Navy ships, transporting military supplies and prepositioning combat cargo.

Seal said military personnel would embark on the JHSVs "as needed" by sponsors of the ship's mission to conduct "mission-related activities."

Those mission-related activities could include transportation of troops and military equipment as well as "theater security cooperation, service-unique missions, intra-theater sealift and special missions," Macapagal said.

MSC currently operates two high-speed vessels, the HSV 2 Swift, a 331-foot-by-87-foot ship capable of hauling 1,463 short tons at 35 knots, and the MV Westpac Express, which is 331-feet-by-87-feet and has 32,000-square feet of cargo capacity. Both ships operate under charter and are crewed by contract mariners.

It's not clear how long this pilot crewing program will last. Seal said the pilot program did not require approval from any of the maritime unions.

"Using both crewing models will provide MSC the information needed to assess how to approach JHSV crewing in the long run," Seal said, adding that MSC has not set an end date for the program.

Jordan Biscardo, a spokesman for the Seafarers International Union, declined to comment on the program, saying it was too soon to know what, if any, effects it might have.

By Professional Mariner Staff