The Lexington Institute generally wants government to butt out, but when it comes to U.S.-flag sealift capacity, the stakes are too high for inaction.
That was one conclusion among several penned by Lexington Institute Chief Operating Officer Loren Thompson in a recent article for Forbes. Thompson examined a new Defense Department plan for remaking the U.S. Navy and stated that while much of the Battle Force 2045 strategy likely won’t come to fruition, “there are some elements within the plan that do not require heavy lifting to accomplish, because their cost is modest and bipartisan support already exists. Sealift – the capacity to move U.S. military supplies to foreign conflicts expeditiously – is one such element.”
Thompson said he anticipates limits on future Defense spending because of a “fiscal hangover” from the COVID-19 pandemic. He also stated that Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s plan “is so imposing – nearly a dozen new ship classes, half of them unmanned – that it would be challenging to implement even in normal times.” Throwing more support behind civilian-crewed military support ships is very achievable, however, according to Thompson.
“The nation’s sealift fleet, which would carry 90% of supplies in wartime, has been decaying for decades,” he wrote. “That partly reflects the low priority assigned to the mission, and partly reflects the decline of the U.S. commercial shipping industry. With fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels engaged in international commerce, there just isn’t much slack in the system if U.S. forces need to be surged overseas in an emergency.
“The Navy’s current assets consist of 15 prepositioned supply ships anchored overseas near potential trouble spots, plus an additional 15 ‘surge’ vessels maintained in a reduced state of readiness,” he continued. “These ships are operated by commercial companies under the supervision of the Military Sealift Command, and are designed so that military vehicles and supplies can be driven directly into cargo holds rather than needing to be lifted or broken down.” But that only offers approximately half of the capacity needed “to lift the Army and other services to a major war,” Thompson explained. “To secure the remainder, [the armed forces] must turn to the Transportation Department, specifically the Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF) maintained by the Maritime Administration, and to the private merchant marine.”
Thompson then explained the mission and condition of the RRF (which contains 46 former commercial ships) as well as the 60 privately owned, civilian-crewed vessels in the U.S. Maritime Security Program.
“There are all sorts of problems with mobilizing this diverse menagerie of vessels,” Thompson said. “The entire sealift fleet is aging and its availability will become increasingly problematic in future years. This challenge has been recognized for years, and explains why Secretary Esper explicitly cited the need to modernize sealift assets in his October 6 discussion of Battle Force 2045.
“The problem with Esper’s broader vision is that it requires so much money for so many initiatives that sealift would have to fight every year for funding against missions that have stronger constituencies,” Thompson continued. “However, viewed in isolation it is not a particularly expensive activity. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2019 that it would only cost a little over $1 billion per year going forward to recapitalize and operate the sealift fleet. That represents 2-3 hours of federal spending at current rates. So, whatever the fate of Battle Force 2045, sealift is an eminently fixable challenge. The Navy’s three-pronged approach, disclosed in 2018, is to extend the service life of the most modern vessels in the Ready Reserve Fleet, buy second-hand foreign commercial ships for modification, and build a new class of auxiliary vessels in domestic shipyards.”
The latter undertaking, named the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP), “would provide both new sealift and various other support vessels the fleet requires, but the initiative was rebuffed by the White House Budget Office in preparing the 2021 budget submission due to high per-vessel costs,” Thompson said. “Congress has already begun funding the life-extensions of the Ready Reserve Fleet and purchase of used foreign ships. The Navy is not ready to give up on CHAMP, because it meets multiple service requirements and would produce sealift assets superior to what can be obtained by the other two parts of its strategy. The service probably will prevail in the end, because there is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for building new sealift vessels to commercial specifications in the nation’s shipyards.”
He concluded, “The unanswered question is whether the sealift mission can stay afloat now that Secretary Esper has called into question virtually every facet of the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding plan. The political landscape is in such disarray that congressional champions will have to protect sealift from becoming a bill-payer for bigger, more visible missions. Time will tell whether those champions come forward. However, there is a bottom line to the sealift story that military planners would do well to heed: If you can’t get to the fight on time, then you are probably going to lose the war.”
Thompson was deputy director of the Securities Studies Program at Georgetown University. He has taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and holds doctoral and master’s degrees in government from Georgetown.
The Lexington Institute is a non-profit entity whose mission statement in part says that the organization “believes in limiting the role of the federal government to those functions explicitly stated or implicitly defined by the Constitution. The Institute therefore actively opposes the unnecessary intrusion of the federal government into the commerce and culture of the nation, and strives to find nongovernmental, market-based solutions to publicpolicy challenges. We believe a dynamic private sector is the greatest engine for social progress and economic prosperity…. By promoting America’s ability to project power around the globe we not only defend the homeland of democracy, but also sustain the international stability in which other free-market democracies can thrive.”