U.S. Still Developing Gaza Pier Details as Crews Work to Prepare Components

March 18, 2024 8:35 PM - Updated: March 18, 2024 9:54 PM
US Army soldiers prepare mobile causeway sections to be loaded aboard MV Roy A. Benavidez on March 15, 2024. USNI News Photo

ABOARD MOTOR VESSEL ROY A. BENAVIDEZ – Two weeks after President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to build a pier to ferry humanitarian aid to the war-torn residents of Gaza, the steel chunks that will make up the promised lifeline have been coming together in Newport News, Va.

Army, Navy and civilian stevedores are now massed at the Port of Virginia’s Newport News Marine Terminal working 24 hours a day. They are loading the pieces of the modular causeway and other equipment that will build the pier to Gaza and the floating dock two miles offshore. Under the current plan, the cargo ships will drop off aid at offshore to be ferried to the pier by U.S. Army watercraft, U.S. Navy Capt. Jamie Murdock, commodore of Military Sealift Command Atlantic, told reporters on Friday.

Brian Carroll and the ship’s chief engineer were on vacation when they got the call to ready MV Roy A. Benavidez to sail. Formerly a Navy supply ship, the 35,000-tom roll-on/roll-off cargo ship was transferred to the Maritime Administration in 2022 to join the national ready reserve fleet. The Bob Hope-class cargo ship has an internal cargo deck with the storage space of about two-and-a-half Super Wal-Marts and will ferry the pier parts from Newport News to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Last week the Army started moving the causeway pieces 18 miles down the James River from Joint Base Langley Fort Eustis, Va., to nestle against the starboard side of the massive cargo ship built for hauling tanks around the world. A pair of warping tugs pushed the Army’s modular causeway system down the river. The tugs resemble the pieced of the causeway with a tollbooth perched on top.

Mobile causeway components aboard MV Roy A. Benavidez on March 15, 2024. USNI News Photo

Once in place, Benavidez’s four cranes began plucking the causeway sections from the water to the ship’s top deck that will eventually form both the pier and the Roll-On/Roll-Off Discharge Facility (RRDF), Army Capt. Mary Cloninger, commander of the 331st Transportation Company, told reporters on the pier Friday.

Cloninger and the soldiers of the 331st are part of the overall force of 500 soldiers from the 7th Transportation Brigade of the 18th Airborne Corps heading to the Eastern Mediterranean. On Tuesday, four of the Army vessels left Eustis for a 30-day Atlantic crossing to support the operation.

Unlike the flat-bottomed Army vessels that top out at 10 knots and have to pick their way across a southern route to avoid the weather over the better part of a month, Benavidez can cross the Atlantic at 24 knots and reach Gaza in about half the time. Officials at the pier would not say when Benavidez would get underway, but depending on the timing, it could beat the Army vessels to the region. For the Navy’s part, the service is sending the San Diego, Calif.-based Naval Beach Group 1 to assist with the operation.

While the basics of transporting and the pier are moving ahead, how the pier will operate in conjunction with the international aid and what military commands will oversee the operation is a work in progress.

A specialized Army craft designed to move pieces of the mobile pier on March 12, 2024. USNI News Photo

Israel is in U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, while Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean are in U.S. European Command territory. Cyprus is now set to be the staging base for aid coming to Gaza from the sea. Several defense officials have told USNI News over the last week that the commander of the operation is still unclear. Likewise, the U.S. has yet to settle on a partner on the ground to do both the physical anchoring of the pier and offer a layer of force protection to the soldiers working the pier. In his speech, Biden promised no American troops would set foot in Israel.

“CENTCOM and DoD are working with partners over in the area. I’m not going to go into the specifics of who we’re working with in order to anchor the pier, but we will have some assistance to be able to do that,” Army Brig. Gen. Brad Hinson, the assistant commanding general for support of the 18th Airborne Corps, told reporters on Tuesday.


MV Roy A. Benavidez on March 15, 2024. USNI News Photo

Last week, NBC reported Israel was considering having security provided by international security contractors, a move that did not sit well with Pentagon officials.

While the details are still in flux, the work at Newport News and aboard Benavidez keeps going.

“We’ve only been going for about a week… and the ship is close to ready to go,” MSC’s Murdock told USNI News.
“It’s a testament to the Army, the 7th Transportation Battalion and the ship and everybody else that’s moving out as fast as they are to get it done.”

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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