Report: U.S. Sealift Lacks Personnel, Hulls, National Strategy

 In China, ASEAN, GDI, Industrial, Defense

A UH-60 Black Hawk is raised from Military Sealift Command’s voyage-char­ter, gen­er­al-pur­pose, heavy-lift vessel MV Ocean Grand at the pier in Sattahip, Thailand, Aug. 17, during an offload of equip­ment that will be used during exer­cise Hanuman Guardian 2018. 

An aging and inac­tive gov­ern­ment fleet depen­dent on a shrink­ing pool of mer­chant mariners to get under­way is how a new report describes the U.S. military’s strate­gic sealift capa­bil­i­ty.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments took an in-depth look at the health of the nation’s mar­itime indus­try – includ­ing the fleet of U.S.-flagged ships in the sealift fleet, the public and pri­vate ship­yards asked to build and main­tain the ves­sels and the work­force expect­ed to serve aboard the fleet.

If a large-scale troop build-up were needed to occur quick­ly over­seas, the U.S. strate­gic sealift capa­bil­i­ty would be unlike­ly to meet the Pentagon’s dry cargo, muni­tions or tank­ing needs, accord­ing to the report’s authors, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at CSBA; Timothy Watson, a research fellow at CSBA; and Adam Lemon a former research assis­tant at CSBA and cur­rent­ly a staffer for Sen. Tom Cotton (R‑Ark.).

“To effec­tive­ly com­pete, the U.S. gov­ern­ment should stop con­sid­er­ing the com­mer­cial and nation­al secu­ri­ty con­tri­bu­tions of the mar­itime indus­try as large­ly dis­tinct,” the con­cludes. “Instead, the United States should adopt a new approach that rec­og­nizes the inher­ent link­age between the two and fos­ters a health­i­er pri­vate mar­itime indus­try that can sup­port U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty.”

If the Pentagon were to mobi­lize a large expe­di­tionary force quick­ly, the first wave of ships car­ry­ing equip­ment to the­ater would come from two sources – the 46 ves­sels in the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force and the 15 ves­sels in the Military Sealift Command (MCS) surge fleet of fast sealift and large Medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships.

U.S.-flagged com­mer­cial ships would then be hired by the Department of Defense to con­duct sus­tain­ment sealift – the resup­ply of forces and gear to the the­ater. If needed, the Pentagon would also char­ter for­eign-flagged ships to deliv­er sup­plies.

The Problem

CSBA report

The U.S. strate­gic sealift capa­bil­i­ty is facing a myriad of chal­lenges, includ­ing an aging fleet com­prised of ships in many cases more than three-decades-old, an aging work­force to crew the ships and work in the yards build­ing and main­tain­ing the fleet and insuf­fi­cient num­bers of ves­sels in the fleet. These prob­lems have been form­ing for decades, with­out a uni­fied strat­e­gy to address them, accord­ing to the report.

In September, the U.S. Transportation Command tested the abil­i­ty of the nation’s mar­itime Ready Reserve Force to set sail on short notice. However, only about 40 per­cent of the ves­sels deemed ready to sail left port, accord­ing to retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, the admin­is­tra­tor of MARAD. Buzby detailed the exer­cise during an appear­ance at the 2020 Surface Navy Association sym­po­sium.

Part of the prob­lem, accord­ing to the CSBA report, is the U.S. Merchant Marine is short by about 2,000 mariners to prop­er­ly crew ships if the MSC, MARAD and MCS Surge Sealift Fleets were all acti­vat­ed to deliv­er equip­ment and resup­plies during a pro­longed U.S. mil­i­tary engage­ment.

The fleet also doesn’t have enough ships to oper­ate during a pro­longed period. If all avail­able MSC and MARAD ships were used, the report esti­mates the Pentagon would still need to char­ter about a half-mil­lion square feet of addi­tion­al cargo capac­i­ty on either U.S. or for­eign-flagged ships.

Part of the short­age is because the exist­ing fleet is old. Part of the short­fall was caused by a decades-long decrease in the number of U.S.-flagged ships, caused by a com­bi­na­tion of tax policy, com­pe­ti­tion against state-sub­si­dized for­eign ship­ping lines and chang­ing global eco­nom­ics.

The Department of Defense’s fuel tank­ing capac­i­ty is even more dire, accord­ing to the report. The Pentagon has access to about 10 per­cent of the tankers needed to supply an over­seas force. The Pentagon would need to hire 76 more fuel tankers to meet the antic­i­pat­ed demands of fuel­ing a force.

“DoD’s sealift capac­i­ty gaps will likely only worsen. Most gov­ern­ment sealift ships will need to be retired during the next decade, and DoD’s fuel require­ment is expect­ed to grow as mil­i­tary ser­vices adopt oper­a­tional con­cepts that rely on dis­trib­uted forces and maneu­ver to improve sur­viv­abil­i­ty and lethal­i­ty,” accord­ing to the report. “The gap in cargo and tanker capac­i­ty will require either recap­i­tal­iz­ing and expand­ing the MSC and MARAD surge sealift fleets or bring­ing more ocean­go­ing com­mer­cial ships under U.S. flag.”


Chinese Coast Guard vessel

The report’s authors call for estab­lish­ing a nation­al mar­itime strat­e­gy to address the var­i­ous rea­sons why the nation’s sealift capac­i­ty is in such poor shape.

Already, the ben­e­fits of a uni­fied strat­e­gy can be seen by look­ing to China, the report states. The Chinese gov­ern­ment has invest­ed heav­i­ly in build­ing the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Chinese Coast Guard, the People’s Maritime Militia, and heav­i­ly sub­si­dized state-owned ship­ping com­pa­nies. The result is the world’s largest gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial fleets. The Chinese gov­ern­ment, through its Belt and Road Initiative, has also gained port access around the globe for com­merce, logis­tics and naval oper­a­tions.

“In con­trast to China’s inte­grat­ed mar­itime strat­e­gy, during the past few decades the United States has adopt­ed a pre­dom­i­nant­ly mil­i­tary strat­e­gy designed to syn­chro­nize mis­sions and capa­bil­i­ty pri­or­i­ties between the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, but not at the whole-of-soci­ety level,” the report states.

The U.S. must expand par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Maritime Security Program – which pro­vides U.S.-flagged ship oper­a­tors with stipends to help defray the costs asso­ci­at­ed with being part of the U.S. sealift capa­bil­i­ty.

The U.S. needs to attract more people to become mer­chant mariners and to sta­bi­lize the work­force at ship­yards.

U.S. offi­cials should con­sid­er replac­ing the gov­ern­ment-owned prepo­si­tion­ing fleet with MARAD-char­tered com­mer­cial ships. The ships in the prepo­si­tion­ing fleet would then join the MSC surge fleet, which would be assigned to MARAD.

“The U.S. gov­ern­ment can con­tin­ue mis­al­lo­cat­ing increas­ing­ly scarce funds on a flawed model. Or, guided by a new nation­al mar­itime strat­e­gy, the nation can adopt a whole-of-soci­ety approach to cul­ti­vat­ing a vibrant mar­itime indus­tri­al base that spurs inno­va­tion and enhances American pros­per­i­ty and secu­ri­ty,” the report con­cludes.

Source: USNI

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