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The Air Force's Navy
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Not many people know the Air Force has a small “navy.” Three chartered, prepositioned ships are assigned to transport and store backup munitions for combat operations around the globe.

Packaged in bulk containers, munitions and components filled the asphalt storage pads of the largest ammunition port in the country — Military Ocean Terminal–Sunny Point near Southport, N.C.

Airmen worked to transform acres of parts, delivered by rail and truck, into ready-to-ship “bomb kits.” After tests and inspections were completed, airmen loaded 1,028 steel, half-sized boxcar containers with ammo for munitions troops on the other side of the world.

Once loaded, the containers were taken in convoy on tractor trailers to the parking-lot type storage areas 300 yards to 3 miles away. When sealed, the sand-colored containers, with metal pins on each of the corners, were loaded like giant “Lego” blocks on the ship.

Motor Vessel A1C William H. Pitsenbarger nears Military Ocean Terminal–Sunny Point near North Carolina’s Cape Fear River. The ship is one of three that carry and store munitions for aircraft worldwide. Official Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

The air-to-surface munitions directorate at the Ogden Air Logistics Center, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, directs and tracks the containers. Bar code scanners keep shipments organized and generate packing lists complete with stock numbers, weights, quantities and lot numbers. The high-tech, radio frequency system even tracks the shipments as they move across the ocean and adds the quantities to the inbound location’s inventory.

So it’s no surprise that around Sunny Point a “6-pack” doesn’t refer to beverages or anyone’s abdomen — but how many 500-pound MK-82 bombs go into a container. And at 2,000 pounds each, it’s easy to see why other bombs like MK-84s and BLU-109 Penetrators are better to transport over water.

The idea is to reduce airlift requirements by providing ammunition, explosives and dangerous cargo that can be accessed worldwide.

“Bombs are difficult to move by air because there’s only so much weight you can put on an aircraft,” Senior Master Sgt. Stu Johnson said.

The entire ship resupply system is called the afloat prepositioning program run by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. It gives theater commanders more flexibility and improves combat readiness by delivering and keeping a mobile arsenal of firepower nearby.

The operation is made up of 37 ships. Thirty-five of those are divided between the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The other two are aviation support ships kept in a reduced operating status.

Three ships focus on replenishing Air Force ammunition: Motor Vessels Maj. Bernard F. Fisher, Capt. Steven L. Bennett and A1C William H. Pitsenbarger. They’re all contracted civilian ships loaded at an Army-owned facility, with Air Force cargo.

A merchant marine crew takes over vessel operations once they’re loaded. And with the Coast Guard patrolling the facility’s three wharfs, this operation is about as “joint” as you get within the United States.

“It’s very fragmented, but it works like a champ,” Johnson said. “We have a very good rapport with the Navy, and the Army gives us perfect support.”

Johnson worked as the munitions superintendent of operations, on temporary duty from the Ogden Air Logistics Center to run the

Munitions are packed into train-like boxcars that are then loaded on ships similar to the Pitsenbarger. The ships are then prepositioned at locations around the world to give commanders a ready supply of firepower.
Official Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung

ammo show from start to finish. The operation kept him on the East Coast for about five months with the ultimate goal of loading the Pitsenbarger.

“Most people don’t realize that the Air Force has vessels that sail on the ocean,” said Tech. Sgt. Pete Tresnak, the production superintendent for the operation out of Ogden. “Most ammo troops don’t even really know what this program is other than reading about it in career development course material.”

He stayed busy overseeing day-to-day operations of 63 airmen from nine major commands who came together to get the job done. And since it takes up to a year to prepare for each replenishment operation, when they aren’t on location at the port, they’re working logistics at Hill for the next round. Each of the three ships returns to Sunny Point at the end of its five-year contract sitting at sea, and the process starts all over again.

Despite its discreet presence, the resupply concept isn’t new. Since 1955, Military Sealift Command’s afloat prepo-sitioning force has operated out of Sunny Point. The 16,000-acre site is the Department of Defense’s key Atlantic coast shipping port. Located near the Cape Fear River on the North Carolina coast, it’s the only place that can handle packaging this capacity of ammunition.

“When I came to this job, I found out how much I didn’t know,” Johnson said. “We deal with the air staff and major commands and get to see the ‘big picture’ everyday.”

It’s a three-tier system referred to as “swing stock.” It’s made up of the afloat prepositioned fleet, bomber fly-away packages and standardized air munitions packages — rapid air munitions packages that can be put on aircraft pallets to deploy to hot spots. When a contingency kicks off, munitions stored around the world, called “starter stocks,” are used quickly. To bridge the gap between the depots in the United States and the starter stocks, the rapid swing stock is brought in.

Despite the fact that Sunny Point put the facility on the map when it loaded more than 90 percent — 2.1 million tons — of the munitions for transport to the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Sortie, few people are aware of the program.

But recently it’s become more popular — Sept. 11 changed the pace of operations as taskings increased overseas munitions requirements.

MV A1C William H. Pitsenbarger| mini-stats
  • 621 feet long
  • Can carry about 935 containers, each about half the size of a train boxcar
    • 176 in a weatherproof, canvas cocoon on deck and 759under the deck
    • Both cargo areas on the ship are temperature- and humidity-controlled,
  • The ship can transport about 6 million pounds of explosive weight which can weigh about 24 million pounds — or 12,000 short tons
  • Five cranes on the ship’s deck allow flexible offloading in virtually any port

“For Operation Enduring Freedom, [we were at] an austere location without a lot of prepositioned munitions in the area. When the conflict kicked off in Afghanistan, they hadn’t stockpiled anything there for the bombers,” Johnson said. “A prepositioned ship was brought in, and there was warfighting capability on location within a matter of hours. Within a few hours or a few weeks, we can come into a port anywhere in the world and download tremendous firepower.”

And the fact that these ships can haul the “big guns” doesn’t seem to be going unnoticed these days.

“We’ve got the best munitions with the best storage in the Air Force, and it’s always ready to go wherever and whenever it’s needed,” said Capt. Michael Lenehan, also assigned to the Ogden air-to-surface munitions directorate. “Because of operations across the globe, the munitions on our ships are getting a lot of attention from the war fighters.”

As a transportation officer, he never realized the details that went into constructing a bomb. So his greatest challenges were learning the munitions lingo and being flexible enough to overcome the logistics obstacles of loading the ships. But the munitions airmen were there to assist.

“We put together the packages that keep the war moving,” Johnson said. “This is the ammunition control point. We source everything for the world. Without us there are no bombs getting anywhere — people would be throwing rocks.”.

Above Article by Capt. Carie A. Seydel, Published in Airman's Magazine


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