only limited salvage training. T-ATFs are designed, however, to accept portable salvage and diving systems as well as numerous specialized military and commercial oceanographic systems, and they can berth and feed 14 persons in addition to their normal crew.
Navy SUPSALV maintains an inventory of salvage equipment in its worldwide network of Emergency Ship Salvage Material (ESSM) facilities. This equipment is designed and palletized for transport to and loading aboard the T-ATFs. Fleet Mobile Diving and Salvage Units (MDSUs) maintain Fly-away Dive Systems (FADS) and salvage equipment ready for deployment aboard T-ATFs. The T-ATF is versatile, and when outfitted to meet the needs of a specific operation, it can fulfill the mission of several specialized ships in salvage, deep sea diving, deep ocean search, ROV operations, ocean towing, or firefighting. Presently, three T-ATFs are based in Norfolk, Virginia, two in San Diego, California, and one each in Guam and Singapore.
Two or three T-ATF 166-class ships, strategically located and properly outfitted and backed up by ESSM facilities, could restore much of the lost traditional salvage capability along the coasts of the continental United States.
One method by which these vessels could be made available for commercial work would be to provide them on a bareboat charter basis to commercial operators, who would keep them on standby to supplement existing commercial assets while also performing Navy work within a designated area. Alternatively, private salvage companies could maintain the vessels, in the manner of the two commercial vessels based on the West Coast, with a skeleton crew backed up by a full crew that can be assembled in two hours. In either case, the contract could be written to allow immediate redelivery to the Navy in the event of a national emergency with or without the civilian crew. This approach would require legislative and/or regulatory changes and the consent of both the Navy and existing commercial operators.
The Navy scaled back and ultimately abandoned similar commercial arrangements in the 1970s due to escalating costs and continued pressure on limited budgets. (A major cause of the problem then was the decline in commercial salvage business, which had been used to offset out-of-pocket costs to the Navy. That situation has not changed and is probably worse now from a salvage business viewpoint, although it is much better from the shipowner's and the environmental perspective.) For such arrangements to be viable now, nondiscretionary Congressional direction and a reliable, long-term source of funding would be required.
Absent such a commitment from the Congress and the administration, any improvement on the status quo is unlikely. The Navy salvage community will continue to compete with other important defense programs for funding. Unless the legislative and executive leadership take a strong stand on this issue, it is likely that Navy salvage assets will be reduced further. Moreover, without a national commitment, it is unlikely that the Navy will be provided the resources for increased salvage protection in areas beyond its own operating venues.
The Navy has significant floating, dedicated salvage assets that are not generally available to the private sector. Some of these assets are being phased out as the Navy alters its salvage mission following the end of the Cold War.
Surplus assets, particularly the T-ATF class of ships, if operated by the private sector and strategically deployed, could go a long way to restoring the traditional salvage capability of the United States, particularly in rescue towing. The operation of these vessels by the private sector would require substantial subsidy, as it has been demonstrated in the United States and elsewhere that salvage revenues cannot cover the costs of operating and maintaining the vessels and their crews. The excess costs could be covered, as they were in the past, through the Salvage Facilities Act, and the