Division of Ocean Sciences - Fall/Winter 2001 Newsletter
NSF 02-055
(Replaces NSF 01-127)

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Setting a Course for the National Academic Research Fleet


National Academic Research Fleet Plan

The National Academic Research Fleet has enabled the conduct of ocean research for decades. The fleet presently consists of 28 vessels that are coordinated by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS). Eleven of these vessels (seven of which are federally owned) will reach their projected service lifetimes within the next ten years.

A group of federal agency representatives, under the auspices of the Federal Oceanographic Facilities Committee (FOFC) of the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP), met over the last year and a half to develop a long-range plan for the fleet. As a result of extensive agency and UNOLS community efforts, FOFC produced a Fleet Plan that will guide us through the next 20 years. In early December, the Plan was accepted by the National Ocean Research Leadership Council (NORLC), which is the senior leadership of NOPP.

The Fleet Plan addresses renewals, retirements and technology upgrades for those vessels in the fleet over 40m (130 ft) in length (vessels traditionally federally owned). Four basic vessel classes are defined within the Plan: Global, Ocean, Regional and Local Classes. The Ocean Class is a new type of vessel classification introduced in the Plan. Ocean Class ships will fulfill a critical need in fleet modernization by replacing the currently aging “Intermediate” Class ships with vessels of increased endurance, technological capability, and number of science berths. While these vessels will be ocean going, they will not be globally ranging. Future Global and Regional Class vessels will continue to fulfill existing Class functions but with improved technological capabilities and, in some cases, increased number of science berths. These capabilities will be necessary to meet the growing trends towards larger, interdisciplinary science teams that use increasingly sophisticated research equipment. The Plan does not address the “local” class vessels, which are under 40m (130 ft) and, for the most part, are not federally owned.

The future number and geographic distribution of the research vessels proposed in the Plan is consistent with the anticipated demand for federally-funded academic research and a conservative fiscal outlook. The Plan accepts UNOLS projected operational life spans of existing fleet vessels and assumes a nominal 30-year life span for new vessels. Over the next two decades, at least one Global, six Ocean, and three Regional Class ships will be needed to maintain current fleet capacity and reinvigorate the fleet as aging and less capable ships retire. However, should optimistic budget scenarios enable new scientific thrusts outlined in the Plan to move forward, fleet size and composition may need to increase up to 13 new ships.

The Plan supports building a portfolio of Science Mission Requirements (SMR) and concept designs to play an integral role in developing a capable, modern fleet. In addition, vessels will be expected to undergo significant technology upgrades over their lifetimes to ensure innovation and access to the latest technologies.

The Fleet Plan will maintain flexibility by being reviewed and updated by FOFC at least every five years. This will ensure that the fleet continues to meet evolving science needs, priorities and funding trends. Federal funds for ship construction and operation will continue to be awarded on the basis of open competition.

To receive a copy of Charting the Future for the National Academic Research Fleet, please send a request to ocepubs@nsf.gov. The plan is also available electronically at http://www.geo.nsf.gov/oce/ocepubs.htm.

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