The USNS Herschel “Woody” Williams is neither fast nor heavily armed. And while she may look like a commercial cargo ship, the Navy's new vessel is also one of the most useful ships in the entire U.S. military.
Called an “expeditionary mobile base,” the Woody Williams can do just about any job, whether that means supporting a fleet of minesweepers or potentially hosting F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. The Williams was recently christened by builder General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) and is set to join the fleet soon.
One major maritime blog called the USNS Woody Williams “,” and to be honest it’s not a unfair statement. Call it the cargo pants of boats. The 785-foot long, 164 foot-wide, 90,000-ton ship is based on the civilian , also built by NASSCO, and despite the gray paint job it still looks like it. This is where the similarity with an oil tanker ends, however.
As an expeditionary sea base, Woody Williams is designed to support amphibious operations from the sea, including seaborne invasions. The ship’s huge size allows it to carry up to 25,000 square feet of armored vehicles and military equipment inside, as well as 380,000 gallons of JP-5 aviation fuel. Here's a video of the Woody Williams during sea trials shot by General Dynamics and originally shared by gCaptain:
Woody Williams is designed as a connector between ships carrying heavy military equipment—such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and howitzers—and the shore. The United States maintains several ships filled with heavy equipment for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, but these ships typically need a port or pier to land on. Previously, an amphibious invasion would need to capture such shore facilities early on to allow for rapid reinforcement by “roll on-roll off” (RORO) vessels.
With an expeditionary sea base around, that need becomes less of a priority. RORO vessels packed with Army and Marine Corps gear can sidle up to the Woody Williams and transfer the gear to the floating sea base. From there, heavy lift helicopters such as the CH-53K King Stallion and can ferry the equipment, including 70-ton main battle tanks, to shore. The net result is that U.S. forces can land without a port and those troops on the ground don’t need to quickly capture port facilities. This makes U.S. forces less predictable and eases the pressure to attack a well-defended objective.
Like a floating Swiss Army Knife, the Woody Williams has many additional uses. The ship would function as a local, seagoing base for a wide variety of forces, including special forces, small , and even minesweepers. During earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters an expeditionary sea base can provide a floating warehouse and helicopter base in places where local infrastructure has been washed out or destroyed.
One of the more intriguing possibilities for the Woody Williams is as a pocket aircraft carrier hosting the vertical takeoff and landing version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. The massive ship can operate two CH-53K helicopters at a time, aircraft that are about in the same size and weight class of the F-35B. While this could probably be done in a pinch, there are better places to host the F-35B, including the and -class amphibious assault ships. Operating the F-35B from a ship like the Williams would also singe her flight deck, as the fighter directs its powerful engine thrust straight down onto a ship’s deck when taking off and landing. Thermo-resistant coatings to prevent such damage do exist, however.
The Woody Williams and her four sisters: USNS Montford Point, USNS John Glenn, and the USS Lewis B. Puller are truly “unsexy” ships. That having been said, they can do things no other ship can do, and when the chips are down--whether it be war or disaster—they are an absolutely essential tool in the Pentagon's toolbox.