[By Dr. Daniel Goure]
The Department of Defense (DoD) has focused heavily on modernization and its associated concept, innovation. Emblematic of enthusiasm for change is the strategic approach memorandum released last year by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown titled “Accelerate Change or Lose.” Each of the services has set up ambitious acquisition programs designed to radically change their force structures by adding new advanced capabilities. These vary from long range precision shots and hypersonic missiles to sixth generation fighters, a new generation of attack submarines, and a new large area fighter. While many of these programs and plans predate the November election, evidence to date suggests that the Biden administration plans to continue supporting the Pentagon’s modernization campaign and new operational concepts.
The desire to acquire new platforms and weapon systems is understandable. For the first time in 75 years, the United States faces the prospect of facing not one but two high-powered competitors, both of whom are investing heavily in advanced capabilities. However, the intense focus on acquiring new and better combat capabilities with which to establish over-compatibility with emerging high-end competitors may have prevented the Pentagon leadership from recognizing that without sufficient strategic sea transport , many modernization efforts can be in vain.
It is difficult to overstate the US military’s reliance on strategic maritime transport to both achieve combat and sustain itself during crisis or conflict. Personnel and some essential equipment and supplies may be relocated by air. But for any major deployment abroad, let alone for a high-end conflict, the US military is and will remain dependent on maritime transport. As Rear Admiral Mark Buzby (retired), former Head of Maritime Administration (MARAD) observed: “This is how we move our forces from [the continental United States] to anywhere else in the world. We can put part of it in the back of a C-17 [aircraft] but not much … If you want to take real combat power anywhere, it has to be in a ship.
While the overall size of the U.S. military has shrunk considerably since the end of the Cold War, as has the number of advanced formations deployed in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, this does not mean that the demand for strategic maritime transport decreased proportionately. On the contrary, the opposite may be the truth. Because it is primarily based in the continental United States, the United States military will have to move large amounts of equipment and supplies thousands of miles of ocean in the event of a crisis or conflict in Europe or in the Indo-Pacific. Once deployed, these forces will need to be resupplied and sustained.
In addition, the U.S. military seeks to harness these forces in new ways, generally characterized as distributed operations, with small formations spread over large swaths of space, constantly moving to improve survivability and put harsh test the targeting of the opponent. For example, the new Marine Corps operational concept envisions smaller formations capable of fighting at any time and surviving within the threat zones of adversaries’ long-range precision strike weapons through a combination of signatures. reduced mobility and relative freedom of a logistical queue. For several years, the US Air Force has been experimenting with its Agile Combat Employment concept, in which units avoid large developed facilities and move between dispersed and austere bases with limited logistical and maintenance support to complicate an adversary’s capability. to detect and target them.
These distributed forces will not be able to carry large amounts of supplies, refills for their missile systems or fuel. They also want to free themselves from dependence on large fixed installations, whether for operations or logistical support. But it does mean that US forces will be even more dependent than they are now on just-in-time resupply. While some of this responsibility may be assumed by airlift assets, there will be an increased need for strategic maritime transport if the DoD is to maintain a force posture comprised of more widely distributed and frequently maneuvering forces, especially in the vast Indo-Pacific theater.
This is of particular concern given the precarious state of the US strategic maritime transport fleet. In peacetime, the movement of some supplies may be done by contracting with the merchant navy, but in the event of a conflict the willingness of commercial shippers – virtually all of them foreign flags – to enter a conflict zone is questionable.
The ability of the US military to conduct large-scale combat and sustain itself once deployed depends on just over 100 ships: 46 in the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) operated by the Maritime Administration (MARAD), 15 vessels for the surge operated by Military Sealift Command (MSC) and some sixty US-flagged commercial vessels that are part of the Maritime Safety Program (MSP), which provides a restraint incentive to ship owners to ensure that these ships are available to DoD if necessary.
But over the past decades, the number of hulls in the government-owned portion of the Strategic Shipping Fleet (the RRF and MSC) has declined and the remaining ones are aging poorly. In his testimony, then MARAD administrator Buzby warned the House Armed Services Committee that the RRF and MSC sea transport fleets, approximately half of the total strategic sea lift capacity available to the military, are seriously aging and in need of recapitalization. To highlight the problem, MARAD and MSC conducted a “turbo-activation” exercise designed to test their ability to pop up for a major eventuality in September 2019. Of the 39 ships that were called in to support the exercise, only 25 were ready to be assigned and only 16 were able to operate at the expected performance level.
This test simulated what is perhaps the most serious vulnerability the US military faces in preparing for high-end conflict. The lack of adequate strategic maritime transport could wipe out the billions of dollars that the US military is investing in next-generation weapons systems and platforms. The military will not be able to use these “miracle weapons” to fight or support them if they are deployed. According to the US Army’s G-4 Logistics Directorate: “Without proactive recapitalization of the organic surge shipping fleet, the military will face an unacceptable risk in terms of force projection capability from 2024 onwards. . “
It should seem obvious that the recapitalization of the strategic sea transport force should be at the top of the Pentagon’s modernization goals. If the DoD was serious about fully securing its strategic maritime transport capability, it would actively work to do so by recapitalizing the US maritime transport fleet with ships designed and built in the United States.
But that is not possible. There is neither the shipbuilding capacity nor the supply chain to support such an effort. Moreover, in the age of constrained defense budgets, the cost would be prohibitive. Buying new ships in foreign ports would send scarce defense dollars overseas doing nothing to support and maintain the domestic capabilities of building, repairing and maintaining US ships.
It appears that the only viable approach to revitalizing the Strategic Shipping Fleet is to acquire pre-owned commercial vessels which would then be refurbished and modernized at U.S. commercial shipyards. These new vessels would be placed in the RRF, replacing its aging and increasingly obsolete assets. An effective way to revitalize this part of the Strategic Sea Lift Force would be to convert these used commercial ships into multi-mission supply ships rather than for single use.
The current RRF recapitalization plan is a step in the right direction. This will slow the erosion of the United States’ strategic maritime transport force. But this should only be the beginning of the effort to restore the country’s ability to project its power on a global scale. Maritime energy advocates have proposed a $ 25 billion fund to accelerate the Navy’s shipyard revitalization plan. This is a prime example of smart infrastructure spending that would benefit national security and the economy.
In accordance with this plan, consideration should be given to expanding the strategic maritime transport force. A simple step would be to increase the restraint provided under the MSP program, encouraging private companies to make their vessels available to the military when needed. Another step would be to expand the size of the RRF and MSC surge fleets. A new study on mobility capabilities and needs currently underway is likely to support the conclusion that the US military needs a larger strategic maritime transport fleet, which similar studies have recommended in the past. It would also be wise to create a special fund for the strategic recapitalization of maritime transport, parallel to the proposed fund for the modernization of US shipyards.
Recapitalizing the government-owned portion of the strategic maritime transport force should be one of the top priorities of the DoD. Without adequate, accessible, and responsive shipping, the United States will find itself at a profound disadvantage in its efforts to deter or counter the growing strength of major power competitors.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is vice-chair of the Lexington Institute Public Policy Research Think Tank. Gouré has a background in the public sector and the US federal government, having recently been a member of the Department of Defense transition team in 2001.
This article is courtesy of CIMSEC and can be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.