Saturday, June 09, 2018

Keep Power Projection Simple

These authors rightly note that AFRICOM could use off-shore bases to project power into Africa rather than base forces ashore where the issue is more sensitive:

In theory, pre-existing, “mothballed” platforms with modifications for stability and functionality could serve the same purpose at a fraction of the original cost. These platforms could be re-engineered to facilitate modular coupling and the hulls could be further modified to improve hydrostatic stability. The resultant platform would result in a semi-autonomous, stable, secure and efficient JMOB that could support a whole host of military and humanitarian mission sets at a fraction of the costs associated with the original modular concept proposed in the 1990s.*

But rather than lashing together old ships (and a lot of adjectives) to form a joint mobile offshore base that would have to be towed around, why not build modularized auxiliary cruisers based on container ships as I proposed in "The AFRICOM Queen" to be power projection platforms?

The modularized auxiliary cruiser would be self-propelled, we could have multiple ships if needed, and the ships could detach elements for temporary duty ashore if needed.

The motivation for the JMOB idea is good. Highlighting AFRICOM's need for the capability is sound. But the idea seems more complicated than needed. Especially when it aims to be a "green" wonder, as the authors describe in the first link:

The prepositioning of JMOBs in potential hotspots or areas that develop the need for extended military, humanitarian or research missions could also serve to cut expenses for costly logistical resupply. Particularly if these installations use emerging and existing technologies to generate power and farm oceanic resources to meet their logistical needs.

Case in point, using ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) technology in a platform of this nature could create enormous efficiencies by using the temperature difference between cooler deep and warmer shallow or surface seawaters to run a heat engine and produce electricity. Among ocean energy sources, OTEC is one of the continuously available renewable energy resources that could contribute to base-load power supply on a JMOB. OTEC can also supply quantities of cold water as a by-product. This can be used for air conditioning and refrigeration and the nutrient-rich deep ocean water can feed biological technologies. Another by-product is fresh water distilled from the sea.[ix] [x] This would also significantly lessen or eliminate the need for fossil fuels to power many of the energy needs of semi-permanent JMOB installations.

The desire to gold plate the platform to be even more than just a power projection platform is misguided. Would it really be cheaper to create that self-sufficient island than to ship in supplies as we do for other ships and bases?

A modularized auxiliary cruiser, as a merchant ship, could carry most of its supplies and replenish some perishable consumables by making local purchases from African ports during the deployment.

And when the modularized auxiliary cruiser is not needed, the mission modules could be removed from the ship and stored for future use; while the hull itself is returned to civilian duty. The modularized auxiliary cruiser is thus more flexible by allowing the force to grow and shrink as needed.

Auxiliary cruisers have a long history. AFRICOM is the command most in need of reviving the practice.  The AFRICOM Queen is a far simpler power projection platform.

*Let me note that I cringed at the time over the original 1990s idea. The idea was completely a product of the post-Cold War era when no conceivable enemy could attack the platform at sea.  I shudder to think of what kind of missile and torpedo magnet such a massive structure would be now to nations with the means to strike it.