September 28, 2023

How US military equipment for Ukraine is shipped across Atlantic


America has committed a massive sum — $43.7 billion and rising — toward military equipment for Ukraine. Simultaneously, the U.S. and NATO have ramped up their joint exercise, Operation Atlantic Resolve, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For heavy military equipment that’s being transported across the Atlantic, ocean shipping plays a central role, led by one company in particular: U.S.-flag operator American Roll-On Roll-Off Carrier (ARC).

According to Chris Heibel, ARC’s head of operations, “We’ve carried the majority of all the cargo going [across the Atlantic] in support of Ukraine and we’re also participating in cargo going in support of the big NATO exercise, Atlantic Resolve.

“Between August 2022 and July 2023, we moved approximately 32,000 pieces of equipment — that’s 5 million square feet of equipment — to and from Europe to support these exercises and operations,” Heibel said in an interview with FreightWaves.

Five ships transporting military equipment to Europe

ARC, a subsidiary of Norway’s Wallenius Wilhelmsen (Oslo: WAWI), is the largest operator of roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) vessels in the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP). “Our main customer is the military,” said ARC Vice President Charles Diorio.

The company currently has five ro-ros moving military cargo to Europe: the Patriot, ARC Defender, ARC Independence and ARC Integrity in liner service, and the Endurance in “opportunity service.”

According to Heibel, the Endurance “is the only ship in the MSP that’s capable of carrying an entire combat aviation brigade in one lift, so the military really likes to use her for big ugly moves. We’ve got her in the Atlantic because that’s where the preponderance of these big moves are right now.”

Ukraine-bound cargoes being carried by ARC include wheeled and tracked vehicles — including Bradley Fighting Vehicles (BFVs) — as well as missile systems, including mobile HIMARS systems. A news release from the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) showed 60 BFVs being loaded aboard the ARC Integrity in Charleston, South Carolina, in January.

ARC ro-ros do not transport bulk ammunition or missiles. Equipment such as Stinger missiles are transported via container ships or breakbulk ships, said Heibel.

Tanks roll off the ARC Endurance in Gdansk. (Photo: ARC)

U.S. equipment for Ukraine and Atlantic Resolve is primarily loaded at two ports: Beaumont, Texas, and the TC Dock military terminal in Charleston.

Military equipment for Ukraine began shipping in January, a USTRANSCOM spokesperson told FreightWaves.

In general, military cargo is being discharged in Europe in Bremerhaven, Germany;  Gdansk and Gdynia in Poland; Aarus and Esbjerg, Denmark; Klaipeda, Lithuania; Alexandroupoli, Greece; and more recently, Muuga, Estonia.

Military specialists aboard some sailings

How do ARC and the military address security concerns given that ARC’s sailings schedules are posted on its website and its vessel positions are visible to anyone using a public ship-tracking service?

“We have regular meetings at the classified and unclassified level with USTRANSCOM,” Heibel explained. “The Military Sealift Command is present for those meetings and they do a threat assessment. In some cases, we carry specialized, trained Navy personnel on our ships. Those people bring on specialized communications gear and they use that gear to integrate us with the fleet that’s operating in the area.

“Our crew also trains with those military people. They’re trained on how to follow maneuvers and how to integrate into a fleet package.”

Asked whether Navy personnel are aboard all ARC ships carrying military equipment to Europe, he said it was only in some cases.

“In central Europe with our standard liner services, there’s a lower threat level than if you’re operating in other areas. The bottom line is that they communicate when they want us to have these [military personnel] packages onboard and we gladly accept them and follow all their rules.”

Equipment moving across multiple transport modes

ARC is just one cog in a much broader logistics operation that encompasses multiple shipowners, air cargo operations, trucking and rail.

“U.S. Transportation Command is inextricably connected with commercial carriers for air, land and sea modes of transportation,” said the USTRANSCOM spokesperson. “ARC, as well as other U.S.-flag carriers, are routinely contracted to deliver a wide variety of cargo for U.S. troop rotations and in support of allies and partners all over the globe.”

Trans-Atlantic shipping volumes have increased substantially, not only due to cargo for Ukraine, but also for Atlantic Resolve, which began in response to Russian military action in Ukraine in 2014.

“Atlantic Resolve has been going on for years as a NATO-U.S. joint exercise, but they changed the size and scope of the exercise after the invasion of Ukraine,” said Heibel.

Military vehicles transported aboard the ARC Endurance in Alexandroupoli, Greece. (Photo: ARC)

Commenting on the different transport modes that military cargo is taking, he explained, “A lot of the time-sensitive cargo is prioritized and moved by air. The drawback is that air has a limited capability in terms of the quantity you can carry per frame and it’s expensive.

“Then you’ve also got cargo that is actually being supplied within the theater. There are depots in Europe that have been providing equipment by rail and truck right up to the border [with Ukraine]. And in the U.S., you’ve got the major rail lines all involved in moving cargo from the forts and depots to the ports of load, and you’ve got the truckers involved as well.

“Where we play the biggest part is in large-scale unit moves. There’s really no other option for an armored brigade combat team other than a ro-ro vessel, and the nice thing is that once the cargo is in place, it’s sealed inside the ship so it’s not getting battered by the weather en route.”

While the war has led to a swell in cargo, there is not a shortage of vessel capacity in the Atlantic. “In terms of overall capability of commercial capacity and military capacity, there is enough sealift right now to support the requirements of the [NATO] exercise and the cargo to the Ukraine,” said Heibel.

Specialized vessels for transport of heavy machinery

Transporting tanks to Europe is a very different proposition than shipping automobiles. It requires a different breed of vessel and involves different loading and unloading challenges.

ARC’s fleet currently comprises nine ro-ros, eight of which are U.S.-flag. All of the U.S.-flag ships participate in the MSP and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement.

“Our vessels are not pure car and truck carriers [PCTCs],” said Diorio. “They’re built for oversize equipment and large machinery. We specifically target ships to bring into our fleet that have high doors and heavy decks that we can use for military cargo.”

According to Heibel, “Six out of our eight U.S.-flag ships have a door height in excess of 6.25 meters [20.5 feet]. The reason we look for ships with that door height is because that’s the height you need to carry a CH-47 Chinook [helicopter] and a V-22 Osprey [aircraft] in sealift configuration. The CH-47, in particular, is part of every Army combat aviation brigade or armored cavalry or air cavalry unit. So, you have to have the ability to handle that kind of unit.

“Additionally, all of our ships have a ramp that has a strength of 230 tons or higher. The reason you need that ramp strength is because today’s modern M1 [Abrams tank] weighs 72 tons and you need to have a deck with a ramp strength that’s strong enough to carry two M1s, because if you don’t have specialized equipment at a terminal, the only thing you can use to recover an M1 when it’s broken down is another M1, or an M88 [recovery vehicle], which is 60 tons.

“The bottom line is that you have to have decks with a certain strength that’s higher than you need to carry sedans and SUVs and you have to have a deck height that’s higher than you need to carry standard construction equipment and sedans and SUVs. So, these are special ships.”

Loading ‘much more difficult’ than commercial operations

In a typical automobile shipping operation, port workers (stevedores) handle the loading and unloading. Port stevedores are used in military loading as well, but there is a complication with loading specialized military equipment like tanks.

“There are two ways to support loading of specialized military equipment — equipment that requires specialized training to drive — which is primarily tracked vehicles like M1s, M2s and M88s. In most cases what happens is that those specialized drivers are from what’s called a port support activity, which is a group of soldiers capable of driving this specialized equipment,” said Heibel.

“In addition, in certain ports, such as Bremerhaven, we have a contract with a stevedore [company] that has gone out and gotten a specialized license for a small number of stevedores to unload tanks without the military being present, but that’s the exception to the rule.”

BFVs line up for loading in Charleston. (Photo: TRANSCOM)

Overall, he said, a military equipment loading operation is “much more difficult” than a commercial operation.

There is yet another difference: Working for a company that supports military operations is not the same as working for one that handles shipments of Pelotons and flat-screen TVs. ARC employees are playing an integral role in supporting troops at a time when Russia is waging a war in Europe.

“We’ve got a lot of veterans in this company and a lot of experience,” said Heibel. “There’s a huge sense of pride that we’re helping service members deploy to areas for exercises and operations. We’re taking some of the pressure off so they can focus on what they need to do once they’re in the theater.”

Click for more articles by Greg Miller 


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