For several years, a mysterious and relatively unassuming ship called the Carolyn Chouest has plied the waters of the Pacific, executing an unknown number of secret special operations missions whose details may never be known.
But the ghost-like vessel with a fascinating history, known now as an afloat staging base, may have finally encountered an unbeatable adversary.
The Pentagon's budget axe.
At a time when U.S. military leaders continuously refer to China as a “pacing threat” of great concern, the Pentagon wants to save money by ending its lease of the Carolyn Chouest. It's a unique, multi-purpose converted submarine support vessel now used by special operations forces in the Pacific. Unless Congress insists otherwise, that mission will end Thanksgiving week.
In a document released late last month, the Pentagon said it wants to “discontinue” the Special Operations Command Pacific Afloat Staging Base under a plan to trim $2.7 billion by retiring “vulnerable systems and programs that no longer meet mission and/or security needs to support more relevant modernization efforts.”
That decision has raised questions on both the Senate and House Armed Services committees. Each tell The War Zone that they want an explanation about the impact of no longer having the Carolyn Chouest's capabilities.
While the Pentagon document does not mention the ship by name, the Carolyn Chouest “directly supports 335 days of uninterrupted availability” for Special Operations Command Pacific and Naval Special Warfare Command “operational requirements and mission planning,” according to U.S. Special Operations Command’s FY 22 Operation and Maintenance budget.
But beyond that, little is known about the current capabilities of this mysterious ship, which does not appear in the Navy’s Military Sealift Command inventory list even though MSC manages the ship’s operational budget as part of the Navy’s Working Capital Fund. Another special operations boat - the highly modified MV Ocean Trader - is also leased by MSC but does not appear on its inventory list. You can read more about that elusive mothership here.
The Carolyn Chouest was most recently spotted by ship trackers near Marine Air Corps Station Iwakuni, Japan on March 2.
The elusive ship actually has a remarkable past, with its mission changing dramatically over time. As a result, it appears radically different from the vessel that was launched in 1994.
The Carolyn Chouest was originally built as a 238-foot offshore support vessel with a displacement of just under 1,600 tons. It was constructed at North American Shipbuilding's yard in Larose, Louisiana, which is associated with the Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO) company, at a cost of between $15 million to $20 million, according to a story published in 2000 in the Cape Cod Times. The Carolyn Chouest is one of at least four ECO vessels currently operating under contract to the Navy.
At least as originally built, Carolyn Chouest's main power came from two 12-cylinder Caterpillar diesel engines that pushed out a combined 10,800 horsepower to two Kort Nozzle variable pitch propellers. A state-of-the-art, computer-controlled 1,000 horsepower, drop-down, variable speed, omnidirectional thruster gave her enhanced maneuvering capabilities and the ability to stay on station without an anchor. The ship could turn in her own length, and accurately maintain position, even in high seas, as well use its bow thruster to work in shallow waters and for docking.
The U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command first chartered Carolyn Chouest in the mid-1990s to support the activities of the NR-1, a highly specialized nuclear-powered mini-submarine capable of diving to extreme depths. The 146-foot long, 12-foot wide boat mini-sub entered service in 1969 and was the Navy’s smallest nuclear submarine, being capable of "underwater search and recovery, oceanographic research missions, installation and maintenance of underwater equipment to a depth of almost a half a mile."
NR-1 was used for a variety of classified missions, as well as research and development and test and evaluation tasks. In 1976, the Navy disclosed that NR-1 had been used to help recover sensitive portions of an F-14 Tomcat, including at least one AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile, after the jet fell off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and into the Atlantic Ocean during an exercise. It also supported non-military missions, including helping to recover components of the Space Shuttle Challenger after it was destroyed in an explosion shortly after its launch in 1986.
In 1995, with the help of Carolyn Chouest, NR-1 was used to survey the wreck of the HMHS Britannic, the sister ship of the RMS Titantic, which was used as a hospital ship during World War I and had sunk off the coast of Greece after hitting a naval mine in 1916. In 2002, the pair helped chart the location of the Civil War-era USS Monitor, the Navy's first ironclad ship, which sank during a storm off the coast of North Carolina in 1862.
Carolyn Chouest carried out various other missions that did not involve NR-1. In 1999, it helped with the recovery of the wreck of EgyptAir Flight 990 off the coast of Massachusetts. The ship deployed a remotely operated underwater vehicle, or ROV, named Magnum to help with those efforts. The ship also towed the Canadian Navy's Victoria class submarine HMCS Chicoutimi back to port after it suffered a major fire, which killed one sailor and injured two more, off the coast of Ireland in 2004.
During its time as a submarine support vessel, the Carolyn Chouest was considered “a flat-bottomed ocean-going tug that didn't cut the waves very well,” according to a 2018 Kitsap Sun article about the NR-1, which didn’t have the power to travel to sea on its own and needed the help of the Carolyn Chouest. The ship also featured its own onboard laboratory facilities and could accommodate up to 40 people at a time, including its crew and supporting personnel, such as the crew of the NR-1.
In 2008, the Navy decommissioned NR-1. Carolyn Chouest continued to operate under contract to the Navy, but the details about its subsequent service are murky.
Pictures of the ship show that, at least by 2011, it had been reconfigured to some degree with an additional superstructure installed over its previously open rear deck. The addition featured multiple cranes and the ship was seen carrying various cargo containers on top, which might have been configured for use as various kinds of workspaces.
Sometime between the 2011-2012 and 2017-2018 timeframes, Carolyn Chouest underwent a much more significant conversion into a sea base platform specially configured to support U.S. special operations forces in the Pacific region. The cost of the modifications is unclear. They are not spelled out in budget documents and officials from SOCOM, the Navy and the Edison Chouest Offshore shipyard did not provide answers. INDOPACOM declined to comment. It was also repainted in the process, trading its orange hull and yellow superstructure for a much more discreet blue-and-white motif.
In its current configuration, Carolyn Chouest still features the raised superstructure at the rear, with pictures showing containers, again possibly being used as workspaces or for storage, as well as a catapult for launching small drones, on top of it. The ship's central superstructure has also been enlarged, which would provide additional spaces for personnel accommodation, mission planning, and more. Overall, it is now also absolutely festooned with antenna domes typically associated with satellite communications systems, as well as other kinds of extremely-high-frequency (EHF) and ultra-high-frequency (UHF) communications arrays.
Pictures and videos of Carolyn Chouest from ship spotters in Japan show it can also carry a variety of jet skis, rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB), and other watercraft commonly employed by U.S. special operations forces. The imagery on multiple occasions shows it loaded with at least two Naval Special Warfare Combatant Craft Assault special operations speedboats, which you can read more about here.
Carolyn Chouest, which has been spotted operating around Japan, Singapore, and Guam since 2017, according to online ship tracking software, has been serving a role very similar to that of the MV Ocean Trader, the other far more elaborate shadowy special operations sea base operating under contract to the Navy. It has also been spotted equipped with a drone-launching catapult and carrying CCA boats.
However, unlike Carolyn Chouest, Ocean Trader, which was most recently spotted off the coast of southern France, features hangars to go along with a large flight deck on top that can support various kinds of special operations helicopters. The ship also has a large garage-like bay that can carry all types of vehicles, in addition to its Combat Craft Assault boats that sit behind apertures on the sides of its upper hull.
Questions about when, why and how it was modified were also unanswered Wednesday afternoon by SOCOM, the Navy and the shipbuilder, Edison Chouest Offshore.
We will provide those answers as soon as they are available.
But there's more to the decision to end the Carolyn Chouest's lease than just wanting to stop paying for a vessel that cost U.S. Special Operations Command upwards of at least $40 million since 2008.
The issue, a defense official told The War Zone, is that the Carolyn Chouest had been chartered using what was known as overseas contingency funds. That was money designed to fight the so-called global war on terrorism. However, with the end of the war in Afghanistan looming and fewer troops deployed to Iraq, the Biden administration emptied that pot of money in April, 2021.
So with that money no longer available, the current lease will not be renewed.
The ship is in SOCOM's budget out of expediency, according to the defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the process.
Sometime around 2008, the geographic combatant command then known as U.S. Pacific Command had a need for this type of vessel. It just so happened that the Carolyn Chouest's main mission, as a support vessel for NR1, was ending. So it was the right-sized ship at the right time to meet PACOM's needs.
And because SOCOM already had a contract with the Edison Chouest Offshore shipyard, the lease for the Carolyn Chouest was put under its purview, but paid for by OCO funds.
At the time, PACOM was assisting the Philippines in its ongoing fight against Islamic insurgents, so that was how the funding was justified.
In December 2018, the Navy signed off on the first of three contract extensions for the Carolyn Chouest.
ECO was awarded a $7.4 million contract to exercise an option under a previously awarded firm-fixed-price contract “with reimbursable elements for one maritime support vessel,” according to the Defense Department.
“This vessel will be utilized to launch, recover, refuel, and resupply of small crafts” in the then-U.S. Pacific Command (now INDOPACOM) region.
The contract included a 12-month base period, three 12-month option periods, and one 11-month option period.
If all options were exercised, it would have brought the total value of the contract to a little more than $41 million.
Two subsequent contracts were set by the Navy, one in December 2019 for $7.6 million, and one in December 2020 for $7.7 million.
Work on the third contract was to be performed in the INDOPACOM region. It was “expected to be completed, if all options are exercised by Nov. 21, 2022,” according to the Defense Department. “The option will be funded by fiscal 2021 (Navy) working capital funds in the amount of $6,001,581 that will expire at the end of the fiscal year; and fiscal 2022 (Navy) working capital funds in the amount of $1,738,974 that will expire at the end of fiscal 2022.”
The U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command, Norfolk, Virginia, is the contracting authority.
Though the Pentagon now wants to discontinue leasing the Carolyn Chouest, a former commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines told The War Zone that afloat staging bases like it are important assets for special operations forces in the Pacific.
“It is my opinion that US SOF would greatly benefit from an afloat staging base through INDOPACOM,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel who worked with the USNS GySgt. Fred W. Stockham afloat staging base when he served as the commander of JSOTF-P in 2006 and 2007.
Afloat staging bases “provide support, staging, and command and control capabilities when land bases are not available due to operations in the vicinity of denied areas or due lack of host nation access in the region which might be due to political considerations,” said Maxwell. “It will provide SOCPAC and assigned SOF the agility and flexibility to operate throughout the region.”
SOCPAC, he said, “should have an organic capability so assigned SOF can routinely train using this capability in order to be ready when contingencies arise.”
Special Operations Forces, he added, “should not conduct operations from an afloat staging with the first time use being during a contingency.”
Maxwell said there is another advantage of afloat staging. It “provides SOF the ability to base forces in the vicinity of operational areas and potentially outside of an adversary's engagement ability.”
The vessels offer the ability “to launch and recover SOF teams” and can serve “as an intelligence platform to support mission planning and deployed elements,” he said. “It can provide logistical support to deployed forces.”
When Maxwell commanded JSOTF-P, “we employed an afloat staging base to support operations by Philippine special operations forces throughout the Sulu archipelago to great effect.," he said. "I think this is a very necessary capability and I would recommend it be fully resourced.”
Two key Congressional committees share concerns about the Pentagon's decision to end the Carolyn Chouest lease.
“I am always concerned, and many of my colleagues are too, when the Department of Defense ‘divests to invest,’ because oftentimes, investment never follows,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe, (R-Okla) told The War Zone. “In this case, as we always do, the Armed Services Committee will look at the proposal closely to decide whether the risks to mission and force are acceptable.”
The House Armed Services Committee is going to look into the Pentagon’s decision to end the Carolyn Chouest lease as well.
“We’re beginning dialogue with the Department to understand the impact and why this decision was made,” a House Armed Services Committee aide told The War Zone Tuesday afternoon.
The Carolyn Chouest wasn't the only vessel the Pentagon is seeking to cut from its budget as part of the $2.7 billion re-prioritization initiative.
Several other Navy vessels - including both Montford Point class expeditionary transfer dock ships - are also on the chopping block. You can read more about those ships here. Then again, the Carolyn Chouest is a leased capability, so it isn't exactly the same as divesting ships from the fleet. Regardless, it is a very low cost asset to keep available compared to the Navy's far more costly to operate warships.
But the Pentagon now has a number of extremely capable Expeditionary Sea Base ships in its inventory.
The ships - 785-long, displacing 90,000 tons fully loaded and based on the Alaska class crude oil tanker - were originally called Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) and the MLP Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), respectively, according to the Navy.
The ESBs, designed for aviation facilities, berthing, equipment staging support, and command and control, have a four-spot flight deck, mission deck and hangar. You can read more about these ships here.
These are massively more capable ships than the Carolyn Chouest, and one of them, USS Miguel Keith (ESB 5), is now operating in the Pacific. This could be one factor that led to the Carolyn Chouest's lack of funding. Still, these are absolutely massive ships, they do not offer the extremely low-profile and low cost of operation that something like the Carolyn Chouest provides. They are also not fully tailored to the special operations support mission. And, of course, a ship can only be in one place at one time. Not every mission requires a gigantic ESB. In fact, the vast majority of them do not. So it could be argued that these assets could be seen as complementary more than swappable.
As the Pentagon's decision on that afloat staging base makes its way through the congressional budget process, more information about the vessel and its capabilities will likely become public. And it is quite possible that enough rationale will be provided to get this shadowy ship's lease renewed.
Update 6:50 PM EST:
U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Army Col. Curt Kellogg has provided additional information about the Carolyn Chouest lease. In Fiscal Year 2017, the U.S. government put out a bid for a contractor-owned and operated vessel.
“Several companies submitted bids with Edison Chouest Offshore winning the contract resulting in their making modifications to the Carolyn Chouest to meet the requirements of the contract,” Kellogg said. The contract “is for a base year plus four option years at a pre-negotiated price for the option years. Total value of the 5-year charter is $60.1 million, including all operating costs for ship, civilian mariner crew, fuel, port services, food and other miscellaneous support services per the contract.”
The vessel is at the end of a 5-year Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract, “and USSOCOM ended the budget line to fund other higher priority requirements,” he said.
Contact the author: Howard@thewarzone.com