In early May, the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) announced it was partnering with the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) to solicit articles on strategic sealift. These articles were posted online during what was dubbed “Strategic Sealift Week” in late June, and included insights from eight different subject matter experts.
They examined different components of the American maritime industry, but concluded – without exception – that U.S. mariners and American-flag bottoms remain crucial to protecting national, economic and homeland security.
Salvatore R. Mercogliano focused on the history of the merchant marine, and the importance of civilian crews operating militarily-useful ships. Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, pointed out, “Following the Vietnam War, the fleet of troopships and government-owned freighters were largely eliminated, with movement of personnel shifting to aircraft and contracts awarded to American shipping companies to handle cargo. [The Military Sealift Command] also rediscovered an old mission when the oiler Taluga was transferred to their control and the Navy crew replaced by merchant mariners. Civilian crews on Navy supply ships date back to the age of sail, and in the modern Navy to 1899, when the fuel ship USS Alexander received a merchant marine crew. That mode of crewing ended at the start of the First World War. But with the Navy facing personnel issues and the priority to crew warships over auxiliaries, the Navy resurrected this concept.
“Over the span of decades, civilian crewing of auxiliaries grew with MSC operating not only shuttle ships – those that provide fuel and supplies from shore facilities – but to station ships providing underway replenishment to strike groups,” he continued. “The first MSC station ship went online in 1991. By the time of the Iraq War in 2003, half of the oilers, store and ammunition station ships supporting strike groups were operated by MSC. In 2010, the last Navy auxiliary transitioned over to civilian merchant marine crews. This change, along with a realignment of missions in the mid-1990s that transferred container operations to U.S. Transportation Command, oriented MSC to more of a Navy fleet support vice cargo mission.” James Caponiti addressed the importance of civilian mariners. Caponiti, a 37-year veteran of the Maritime Administration, said, “The availability of a trained and qualified mariner pool sufficient to support the activation and operation of the U.S. Government’s surge sealift assets is a key element of U.S. strategy and planning. This organic lift includes the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force (RRF) which currently numbers 41 ships and the Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) 19 Large Medium- Speed Roll-on Roll-off ships (LMSRs). These vessels are maintained by commercial ship managers in prescribed levels of readiness and outported in reduced operating status (ROS) in commercial berths or in government facilities, available to be activated when crises arise. To promote readiness and to enable rapid transition to operational capability, ROS vessels are partially crewed while idle. Once activated and fully crewed, all of these assets, RRF and LMSR alike, fall under MSC’s operational control. The surge sealift capabilities comprised from these vessels enable deployment of combat forces in the early stages of a conflict. Of course, the vessels themselves are essentially useless without trained civilian crews to maintain and operate them.
“The government relies on a partnership with U.S.-flag operators and maritime labor organizations to assure access to commercial sealift capability and civilian merchant mariners,” he continued. “The investment also works to ensure the continued viability of both a U.S.-flag fleet engaged in international trade and the pool of seafarers to crew those vessels. Without a viable U.S.-flag commercial fleet, and the American merchant mariners this fleet supports, the United States would be unable to deploy and effectively sustain its military forces on a global basis.”
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute, described the importance of recapitalization. “Over the past several decades, the number of hulls in the government-owned portion of the strategic sealift fleet (the RRF and MSC) has declined and those that remain are aging badly,” he explained. “In testimony, the then-MARAD Administrator (Mark) Buzby warned the House Armed Services Committee that the RRF and MSC surge sealift fleets, about half of the total strategic sealift capability available to the military, are aging severely and in need of recapitalization. To underscore the problem, MARAD and MSC conducted a ‘turbo activation’ exercise designed to test their ability to surge for a major contingency in September 2019. Of the 39 vessels that were called on to support the exercise, only 25 were ready for tasking and just 16 were able to operate at the expected level of performance. (Seafarers LOG editor’s note: None of the perceived shortfalls during the activation involved the crews, but instead the vessels themselves.)
“This test simulated what is possibly the most serious vulnerability the U.S. military faces in preparing for a highend conflict,” he continued. “The lack of adequate strategic sealift could outright negate the billions of dollars the U.S. military is investing in next-generation platforms and weapons systems. The military will not be able to get these ‘wonder weapons’ to the fight or support them if they are deployed. According to the U.S. Army’s G-4 logistics directorate: ‘Without proactive recapitalization of the Organic Surge Sealift Fleet, the Army will face unacceptable risk in force projection capability beginning in 2024.”
He concluded, “It should seem obvious that the recapitalization of the strategic sealift force should be at the top of the Pentagon’s list of modernization objectives. If DoD truly desired to fully secure its strategic sealift capability, it would actively work to do so by recapitalizing the U.S. sealift fleet with ships designed and built in the United States.”
Maj. John Bowser stressed the importance of the nation’s sealift capabilities, citing potential conflict with China.
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