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The development of the oiler paralleled the change from coal- to oil-fired boilers in warships. Prior to the adoption of oil fired machinery, navies could extend the range of their ships either by maintaining coaling stations or for warships to raft together with colliers and for coal to be manhandled aboard. Though arguments related to fuel security were made against such a change, the ease with which liquid fuel could be transferred led in part to its adoption by navies worldwide.
The forerunner of the modern replenishment oiler was a Kriegsmarine (German navy) ship, the Dithmarschen, which was built in 1938. The Dithmarschen was designed to provide both fuel and stores (including munitions) to the German fleet. After World War II she was claimed by the United States as a war prize and commissioned into the United States Navy as the USS Conecuh (AOR-110). The ship proved the feasibility and flexibility of this sort of vessel in supporting task forces at sea.
The fast combat support ship (AOE) was developed first by the United States Navy as a logistics support vessel for aircraft carrier task forces, but the resulting vessel, while capable of high speed and of maintaining station as a component in the task force, was at the time the most expensive auxiliary ship ever procured by the United States Navy. For other applications not requiring high speed, such as anti-submarine groups, a smaller, less capable but much less expensive variant was desirable. This variant was the Wichita-class AOR.
For smaller navies, such as the Royal New Zealand Navy, replenishment oilers are typically one of the largest ships in the navy. Such ships are designed to carry large amounts of fuel and dry stores for the support of naval operations far away from port. Replenishment oilers are also equipped with more extensive medical and dental facilities than smaller ships can provide.
Such ships are equipped with multiple refueling gantries to refuel and resupply multiple ships at a time. The process of refueling and supplying ships at sea is called underway replenishment. Furthermore, such ships often are designed with helicopter decks and hangars. This allows the operation of rotary-wing aircraft, which allows the resupply of ships by helicopter. This process is called vertical replenishment. Furthermore, such ships, when operating in concert with surface groups, can act as the aviation maintenance platform where helicopters receive more extensive maintenance than can be provided by the smaller hangars of the escorting ships.
Their size, additional facilities, and ability to support the operation of other vessels, means that replenishment oilers have been used as command ships, with some ships, such as the French Durance-class, this capability being built into the vessels from the start.
Because the replenishment oiler is not a combat unit, but rather a support vessel, such ships are often lightly armed, usually with self-defense systems (such as the Phalanx CIWS close-in weapons systems), small arms, machine guns and/or light automatic cannons. They may also carry man-portable air-defense systems for additional air defense capability.
Replenishment oilers include:
- Durance class (French Navy)
- Provider class and Protecteur class (Royal Canadian Navy)
- Boris Chilikin class (Soviet Navy/Russian Navy)
- Fort Victoria class (Royal Navy)
- Wichita class (United States Navy)
- Berlin class (German Navy)
- Etna class (Italian Navy)
- SPS Patiño and SPS Cantabria (Spanish Navy)
- Fusu-class replenishment ship, Fuqing class replenishment ship and Qiandaohu class (People's Liberation Army Navy of China)
- SAS Drakensberg (A301) (South African Navy)
- Deepak class (Indian Navy)
- "Petrolero de Flota 'Marqués de la Ensenada' - Surface Ships". armada.mde.es. Armada Española. 2011. Retrieved May 4, 2011.
- DANFS USS KALAMAZOO (AOR-6) website
- US Naval Vessel Register
- KMS Dithmarschen
- Spanish Navy Patino Class AOR
- HMAS Success, AOR-304
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