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Break-Bulk General Cargo Carrier

The Department of Defense (DOD) must be ready to ship hundreds of thousands of tons of military equipment, ammunition, supplies, and subsistence items to overseas locations in the event of an outbreak of hostilities, either limited or general. Many commodities to be shipped are unsuitable for transporting on modern containerships, and many overseas ports lack the specialized facilities needed to accommodate such ships. Ships with cranes and cargo handling equipment -- commonly referred to as break-bulk ships -- capable of loading and unloading alongside piers or barges are needed. Break-bulk ships are designed to transport palletized units or individual packages of general cargo. They are compartmentalized with several "holds" for stowing cargo. Each hold is serviced by shipboard cranes which lift the cargo from alongside the ship into and out of the holds.

In prior periods of military hostility, such self-sustaining ships were available in the merchant marine, supplemented with those in the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF). The National Defense Reserve Fleet consists of ships laid up in a preservation status and maintained by the Maritime Administration. This fleet provides supplemental shipping capacity that the United States can rely on during a military or commercial shipping crisis.

By the end of the 1970s this condition was changing because the maritime industry was retiring most of its break-bulk fleet and replacing them with containerships which rely on sophisticated ports to provide specialized material handling equipment. By 1979 the Department of the Navy required the Military Sealift Command (MSC) to make 10 break-bulk ships available to receive cargo within 10 days in the event of a contingency. In an effort to meet this quick-response requirement, MSC initiated a program whereby chartered commercial ships were placed in a reduced operational status (ROS) when not required for routine military sealift missions. These ships are docked and sometimes partially crewed, but were otherwise in a ready-to-sail condition.

In January 1978, MSC controlled 23 dry cargo breakbulk ships each over 9,000 deadweight tons, 20 of which were commercial ships chartered by MSC. The ships were put in the ROS fleet when not needed to meet routine sealift requirements, rather than being returned to the owner, In thir way, MSC maintained control over the ships, thue ensuring their availability on short notice. A number of ships in the NDRF were upgraded to provide quick-response capability -- the Ready Reserve Fleet. The upgrading of break-bulk ships in NDRF raised considerable doubt regarding the need to continue placing chartered ships in ROS to ensure quick-response shipping capability. The cost to maintain ships in the Ready Reserve Fleet is far less than the cost to charter commercial ships, and the response time of reserve ships is within the time frame specified by the Navy.

Break-bulk cargo means general goods, commodities or wares which are customarily shipped in boxed, bagged, crated or unitized form, held in the vessel's general holding areas, and handled by the piece, unit or in separate lots; without limiting the generality of the foregoing definition of break-bulk cargo, that term includes road motor vehicles and other odd-size cargo, but shall not include containerized cargo or bulk cargo. Break-bulk cargo, so named for non-palletized items that could later be consolidated on a pallet or in a container, commonly consists of lightweight manufactured components, individual packages and small parcels.

Breakbulk ships are characterized by large open hatches and fitted with boom-and-winch gear or deck cranes. They are primarily used at ports which, either because of low cargo volumes or local economic factors, lack the modern facilities and inland rail/highway connections required to support efficient containership operations. In competition with containerships, breakbulk ships are no longer commercially viable. Fewer of these ships are being built each year, and none has been built for US flag owners in recent years.

Break-Bulk ships have always been routinely used for deployed and resupply in the past, that is, during WWII, Korea, and Southeast Asia sealift operations. With their open deck, multiple cargo holds, and service by booms and/or cranes, these ships can lift most military cargoes. These are the most versatile ship types for in-the-steam or LOTS-type operations. The military advantages of general cargo or breakbulk ships include flexibility in the load composition afforded by open decks and multiple cargo holds and the ability to discharge cargo without the use of port facilities. Their military disadvantages include time-consuming cargo operations and the requirement for large numbers of trained personnel to load and unload. For these reasons, the break-bulk ships are no longer commercially competitive with the containers and RO/RO ships and are being phased out of the commercial trade routes. The government has purchased many of the newer break-bulk ships and put them into the Ready Reserve Fleet for use in an emergency.

At the time of Operation Desert Shield in 1990, the Ready Reserve Force fleet lacked critical crewmen skilled in the operation of machinery in the older ships, some of which had not been adequately maintained. As a result, many of the crews had difficulty firing up the boilers of their ships, getting them to designated ports of embarkation on time, and keeping them in operation once underway. The RRF included plenty of older break-bulk freighters, but not enough roll on/roll off ships. Since the United States dominated the seas, however, foreign chartering firms did not hesitate to satisfy the American request for more ships. Gulf War observations showed that a full onload of containerized ammunition could take anywhere from 48 hours under optimum conditions to 70 hours under worst-case conditions. A break-bulk ammunition ship onloading the same cargo could take from eight days under ideal conditions to 14 days with multiple problems.

The Mobility Requirements Study Bottom-Up Review Update (MRS BURU) published in 1995 concurred with a 1992 mobility requirements study that recommended two acquisitions to modernize sea-lift capabilities. The first acquisition was for 19 large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (LMSR) ships, some of which USTRANSCOM could use to preposition equipment. The second acquisition was to establish a fleet of 36 smaller roll-on/roll-off ships for the Ready Reserve Force. Once the USN acquired these, they could remove several older break bulk ships from the Ready Reserve Force. The MRS BURU also recommended relying on the commercial shipping contracts to sustain supplies in both theaters, estimating a requirement for 6,000 to 6,500 20-foot-equivalent containers per week to carry cargo, plus 13 to 16 containerships to deliver ammunition. By 2001 numerous conventional break-bulk cargo ships were being replaced by Large Medium Speed Roll-on Roll-off ships.

In early times, cargo ships were differentiated by such characteristics as size, speed, draft, or sail arrangement, but not by type of cargo. The goal of the ship's designer was to make every vessel suitable for all cargoes. This goal was largely achieved, and the inefficiencies inherent in achieving it were accepted. This situation began to change with the introduction of iron and steel ships and steam propulsion whose cost demanded more efficient revenue generation. The change which began with the introduction of specialized tank vessels has now progressed to the point where the traditional general cargo vessel has all but disappeared from the high seas, to be replaced by the container ship, which carries general cargo in shore-loaded standardized containers, and by specialized vessels which carry the various cargoes once carried by the general cargo vessels.

These vessels have cargo holds, tween decks and conventional weather deck hatch covers. They are designed to handle a multitude of break-bulk cargo e.g., pallet loads, bags, drums, cartons, cases and crates. Additionally, containers can be accommodated on deck and sometimes under deck. In some instances, deep tanks for cargo oils may be fitted in holds. These carriers have their own cargo cranes; therefore, cargo is generally loaded aboard using vessel's gear and forklift machines. Although this is the traditional method of ocean cargo carriage there is a growing trend toward container or Ro-Ro type vessels due to the labor intensity of general cargo handling.

A breakbulk vessel is a cargo ship that carries a variety of products of nonuniform sizes, often bound on pallets to facilitate loading and unloading. Break bulk is the process of assimilating many small shipments into one large shipment at a central point so that economies of scale may be achieved; to commence discharge of cargo. Many transporters own or operate transfer facilities (sometimes called ''break-bulk'' facilities) as part of their transportation activities. At these facilities, for example, shipments may be consolidated into larger units or shipments may be transferred to different vehicles for redirecting or rerouting. The break bulk area of the "hub-and-spoke" distribution system is the "hub" activity to which multiple shipments are consigned for further distribution by way of transportation routes, or "spokes," within a predetermined transportation system.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:40:40 ZULU