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Military Sealift Command and the USNS Apache Tug


 The Military Sealift Command (MSC) is the U.S. Navy’s maritime transporter. They are tasked with the transportation of supplies all over the world to various ships and bases.

The MSC is also tasked with specialty missions such as salvage, towing, and research. In order for the MSC to be perform their speciality missions, they use many vessels including A total of 7 Powhatan class tug boats. The MSC has been detrimental to the Navy’s transport needs throughout its creation and has also had historically important changes and missions.


The Military Sealift Command was founded in 1949 as a division of the Military Sea Transportation Service. Since it was founded the MSC has grown a lot and has many responsibilities. There are 5 separate divisions of the MSC each with differing roles. The Special Mission Program is in charge of scientific research, surveillance, data collection as well as radar support. This division collects weather data from buoys and helps maintain current radar equipment as well as new radar installments. The Service Support Program is in charge of the towing and salvage needs of the navy. If a ship were to break down a tugboat would be sent out to its aid to either fix or tow the ship. In the event of a wreck or accident, the Service Support Program would also carry out the salvage. The Sealift Program is in charge of moving supplies to specific locations like military bases. The Combat Logistic Force is in charge of replenishing ships at sea. The Combat Logistic force only deals with replenishment at sea and the Sealift program only moves supplies to and from bases. Finally, the Prepositioning Program is charged with organizing where the MSC’S ships are as well as coordinating what each ship’s mission. The MSC Relies on tugboats, fuel ships, supply ships, and ammunition ships as well as many more vessels to carry out its missions.  One particular transport mission the MSC was tasked with was the transport of the USS Miami after its decommission. “After nearly 24 years of service to the U.S. Navy, ex-USS Miami began its final voyage from Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Maine to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Washington, June 12. Navy rescue and salvage ship USNS Apache (T-ATF 172) has the primary mission of towing the unmanned, defueled submarine.” ( Marconi 1) The MSC called in the USNS Apache tug to pull the Retired USS Miami to its resting port. The USNS Apache is one of 7 Powhatan class tugs specifically built by Marinette Marine to complete salvage, towing, and special missions for the MSC. The Apache is the most well-known tug in the fleet one of the 4 remaining in active duty. 

The role of the Apache and its Specifications

The USNS Apache is one of the 4 remaining active tugs serving the MSC. The USNS Apache is a Powhatan Class tug and was built along with its other 6 counterparts at the Marinette Marine shipyard in Marinette Wisconsin. These tugs primarily work in the MSC’s Service Support program however at times they assist other divisions because of their versatility. The purpose of the USNS Apache is to tow various navy vessels, aid in salvage operations, fight fires, and assist in special missions like data collection and firefighting. The Apache is equipped with diving equipment as well as spill equipment. The Apache even has a crane to lift large objects onto its deck as well as fire fighting equipment. The Apache was launched on the 28th of March, 1981 and is still in service. The Powhatan class replaced the Natick class tug boats which served in the 1960’s and 70’s which was a well needed update. The need for the Powhatan class tugs was uncovered by a comprehensive naval analysis conducted by the Navy. The study included a current inventory and detailed reports of ships and the results revealed that the  Natick class tugs were outdated and were struggling to keep up with the demand of moving the increasing number and size of ships the navy had in its fleet The Natick class at the time was very similar to regular commercial tugs found in an average shipyard. These tugs were not cutting the Navy’s needs at the time with the changing demands and the Powhatan class was the answer to this. The new Powhatan class tugs had more features, more technology, more power and were bigger and better. Each Tug cost $665,000 and came with a crane as well as the latest and greatest tech features. Each tug was 226 feet long and had a displacement of 2260 tons loaded. It was equipped with 2 diesel engines as well as a bow thruster to help maneuver ships. Each ship had 16 crew members as well as 4 communications technicians. The ships were also equipped with Quick Reaction Capability so that it can assist in any salvage operation. This included dive equipment, sonar tracking equipment, as well as a spill clean up kit. The newest class of tugs being built to serve the MSC in 2021 is the Navajo class tugs. Once these are deployed the Apache and the three other tugs will slowly be replaced by the next generation Navajos.  “The major improvements include a significant bollard pull increase that will enable the ship to tow virtually any ship currently in the USN inventory. The new ships include additional deck space to account for the requirements of the submarine rescue diving and recompression system, including transfer under pressure, a 40-ton heave compensating crane to assist with underwater salvage operations such as lifting aircraft wreckage out of the water” (Schauwecker 1) As with anything the Navy is continually adding new vessels to replace old ones. The new tugs will have even greater capabilities and will be able to handle any job the MSC has. 

MSC Consolidation and Funding

 In August of 1997, the Navy consolidated most of the ships previously in the navy’s auxiliary fleet to the MSC. The reasoning for this consolidation was to save money because it was far cheaper to consolidate similar divisions into one. Although the Navy auxiliary ships had been around longer, the MSC had a bigger fleet and was better equipped to complete the duties required by the navy, hence the reasoning for the consolidation. “As of May 1997, the Navy’s auxiliary fleet consisted of 42 ships- 15 oilers, 6 stores ships, 7 ammunition ships, 7 tugs, and 7 multiproduct ships. The Navy has delegated operational control of 27 of these ships to MSC, the military’s single manager for sealift, to better support Navy fleet operations.” (lott 1) In 2012 the Navy Auxiliary ships were transferred to help the MSC’s Combat Logistics Force and are no longer a division of the navy. In July of 2014, the MSC had a hearing with the Committee on Armed Services House of Representatives to increase the funding to the MSC. Over the years the number of ships related to logistics within the army had declined and many of the ships were getting very old and outdated. Some of the ships had been on duty for over 40 years which is well over the preferred lifespan of 20-30 years. Because of the factors shown to the committee on Armed Services House of Representatives, the MSC was able to receive more funding in order to replace aging vessels and build the fleet. “ I would request that the committee support full funding at the authorized level of $186 millon, as requested in the president’s budget” (Jaenichen 5) This boost in funding opened new doorways to the MSC to better its organization within the navy. This shows that the MSC is doing its part to help the Navy with its logistics needs and continue to contribute to our country and our troops and people.

Primary Sources:

Forbes, Randy “Logistics And Sealift Force Requirements And Force Structure Assessment”  One Hundred and Thirteen Congress July 30, 2014

Lott, Trent Navy ships Turning over Auxiliary ship operations to the Military Sealift Command Could Save Millions, United States General Accounting Office August 1997

Cleveland, Shevonne  MSC to Welcome a new class of Tugboats to Fleet May 3, 2019 

Secondary Sources:

Marconi, J USNS Apache tows Ex Miami Sealift Blog June 23, 2015

 T-ATF 166 Powhatan Fleet Ocean Tugs Global

Written by the Editors of Britannica Encyclopedia Military Sealift Command

Further Reading:

USNS Apache
  Ship Inventory U.S. Navy Sealift