Military Sealift Command's Special Mission Program controls 24 ships that provide operating platforms and services for unique US military and federal government missions. Oceanographic and hydrographic surveys, underwater surveillance, missile flight data collection and tracking, acoustic surveys and submarine support are just a few of the specialized services this program supports. Special mission ships work for several different U.S. Navy customers, including the Naval Sea Systems Command and the Oceanographer of the Navy.
Both civil service and contractor-employed mariners operate the special mission vessels. Technical work, survey operations and communications are conducted by embarked military personnel, civilian scientists and related technicians. Special mission ships average 25 days at sea and five days in port each month.
Oceanographic survey ships study the world's oceans using multi-beam, wide-angle, precision hydrographic sonar systems to collect bathymetric data. One coastal survey ship, USNS John McDonnell, surveys the sea bottom and collects data in the littorals areas along coastlines. Information gathered is used to develop accurate maritime charts. Four of the five ocean surveillance ships work directly with the Navy's fleets, listening for undersea threats.
MSC operates one cable-laying ship which transports, deploys, retrieves and repairs submarine cables. USNS Zeus was built specifically for the Navy; the ship can lay up to 1,000 miles of cable in depths of 9,000 feet during a single deployment before having to restock its cable supply.
Missile range instrumentation ships provide platforms for monitoring missile launches and collecting data which can be used to improve missile efficiency and accuracy. USNS Observation Island monitors compliance with strategic arms treaties and supports U.S. military weapons test programs. Other ships provide communication, flight safety, photographic coverage and missile tracking capabilities in support of fleet ballistic missile flight tests.
In addition to its government-owned ships, the Special Mission Program was responsible for six chartered vessels as of 2005. These ships handle several varied and unique US government operations, such as deep water search and rescue missions, Navy submarine test support escorts and Navy and Marine Corps warfare development.
MSC began operating special mission ships in 1958 with four ships. The original mission of these ships was to collect marine science data for the Navy and the scientific community. Without the unique blend of Military Sealift Command ships working side-by-side with scientific and technical military commands, the world's knowledge of the hydrosphere would be greatly diminished. MSC's special mission ships make it possible for us to better understand, manage and interact with undersea land masses, global waterways and the creatures that inhabit them, including humans.
The Special Mission Program carried out diverse assignments for a wide variety of Department of Defense sponsors in FY 2005. Civilian mariners employed by companies under contract to MSC crewed the majority of special mission ships, while customer-provided technicians and U.S. military personnel conducted the mission work and performed specialized shipboard tasks. Three special mission ships were crewed by federal civil service mariners — USNS Zeus, a cable-laying/repair ship, and the command ships USNS Coronado and USS Mount Whitney. In October 2005, USS Coronado was decommissioned, and the name and designator were changed to USNS Coronado (T-AGF 11). USS Mount Whitney was transferred to MSC for operation in October 2004 and, following a shipyard period in Norfolk in the winter of 2004 to accomplish civilian mariner habitability modifications and essential repairs, assumed duties as the Sixth Fleet flagship at Gaeta, Italy, in March 2005 under the command of a U.S. Navy captain.