What is a Mothball Fleet?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A mothball fleet is a collection of ships which are not in active use, but could potentially be used in the event of need. Mothball fleets are maintained by many navies around the world, and by some civilian companies, as well. The fate of the ships in a mothball fleet is often uncertain, as they typically fall into disrepair, ultimately forcing administrators to scrap them, rather than attempting to repair them. Given this fact, some people wonder about the wisdom of maintaining mothball fleets or “ghost fleets” at all, since the ships are rarely, if ever, used.

Older vessels may be anchored together after retirement and kept in varying stages of readiness.
Older vessels may be anchored together after retirement and kept in varying stages of readiness.

The arguments for maintaining a mothball fleet are quite logical, even though such fleets are often never used. The idea is that in a period of war or sudden need, the navy might need a much larger number of ships than it currently controls. To keep enough ships for emergencies on full active duty would be prohibitively expensive, and a major waste of resources. By establishing a mothball fleet, however, a navy can theoretically ensure that the resources are available, if they are needed.

Classically, mothball fleets are anchored reasonably near navy bases or other military facilities, so that they can be quickly accessed. The ships are usually prepared for their period of rest by being stripped of equipment and weapons systems, which are put into storage, and protective measures like sealing the hull and windows may be taken to keep the ship in operable condition. Typically a number of ships are anchored together, allowing a minimal crew to care for them.

Unfortunately, most ships in a mothball fleet deliquesce rapidly, rusting, taking on water, attracting mold and animals, and eventually breaking down altogether. They are also rapidly made obsolete, thanks to constant advances in military technology, so even if such ships are kept in good condition, they and their equipment would be woefully inadequate when a time of need arose.

Ultimately, the ships in a mothball fleet are usually sold or scrapped. These practices are somewhat controversial, as many naval ships contain traces of radiation and toxins which could be dangerous for the average company to deal with, and some people feel that navies should handle the scrapping of their mothball fleets personally, for the safety of the environment. In some communities, the presence of a mothball fleet has generated a great deal of ire, as citizens protest the quietly rotting ships docked offshore. In some cases, the ships in a mothball fleet are cleaned up as much as possible and used to create artificial reefs, thereby solving the disposal problem and benefiting the environment.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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