The next administration must address the crisis in military sealift. In recent years, multiple studies, government officials, and experts have warned that the sealift fleet is in jeopardy. Unless a major effort is undertaken to correct the situation, the United States could lose its ability to project military power abroad and sustain forward-deployed forces. This means that the Department of Defense must be willing to spend resources on support vessels at a time when resources for major weapons programs will be strained by flattening or even declining defense budgets.
The U.S. has a well-deserved reputation for being able to deploy and sustain large numbers of forces and equipment virtually anywhere in the world. U.S. national security and that of its allies depends on this capability. Power projection depends, to a significant extent, on the ability to move equipment and supplies by sea. In the event of a major conflict, it is generally believed that the U.S. military would be required to rapidly assemble a sealift fleet in order to move equipment, ammunition and other supplies overseas.
Today, to accomplish this task, the military relies on what can rightly be characterized as a hodgepodge of capabilities. The U.S. government maintains three sets of ships as part of the military sealift fleet in different configurations that can be surged in times of crisis or war. These include twenty-six pre-positioning ships loaded with equipment and ammunition for the Army, Navy and Air Force; fifteen roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) surge force ships that are on commercial charter in peacetime; and forty-six ships in the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) that are maintained in pier-side readiness.
In addition, the U.S. government would have access in a crisis to an additional sixty commercial vessels in the Maritime Security Program (MSP). To further complicate the surge process, the first two of these groups are operated by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) while the third and fourth are managed by the Maritime Administration (MARAD), a part of the Department of Transportation.
The military sealift fleet, simply put, is in danger of aging out. Most of the ships in the RRF are obsolescent, well past their normal life expectancy. There are similar problems with both the 15 MSC RO/RO ships and those in the MSC’s fleet of pre-positioned ships. As a result, according to one study, the military sealift fleet will only be able to deliver half the necessary volume of equipment and supplies by 2035. According to the 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.”
In recent testimony before the Seapower Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, MARAD Administrator Mark Buzby warned that not only the surge fleet but the U.S. shipbuilding industry were in dire straits: “The U.S. Government-owned Ready Reserve Force (RRF) and Military Sealift Command (MSC) surge sealift fleets are aging and in need of recapitalization. The U.S. shipbuilding industry has largely lost the capacity to build, repair, and replace the large, commercial-type ships needed for sealift at a pace adequate to meet U.S. wartime needs.”
Even access to commercial cargo vessels through the MSP program is on shaky grounds. The number of U.S.-flagged commercial cargo vessels has been declining for decades. Were it not for the Jones Act, which requires that vessels engaged in commerce between U.S. ports be U.S.- built, flagged and crewed, there might be no domestic commercial fleet, ship repair industry or merchant marine to man them.
Recapitalizing the military sealift force will take time. More to the point, it will take money. The Navy published a plan in March 2018 called “Sea Lift That the Nation Needs” proposing a way forward. The plan proposes recapitalizing the surge sealift fleet by “extending the service life of some ships, buying used ships and modifying them to perform the sealift mission, and building new sealift ships.” Newly acquired commercial vessels will be placed in the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF), freeing up vessels with remaining service life to be placed in the RRF.
As part of the recapitalization plan, the Navy proposed acquiring new domestic-produced sealift ships. As the name suggests, the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP) program is intended to acquire U.S.-designed and -built hulls and ship systems as the basis for a new fleet. These vessels will be able to support multiple missions, including strategic sealift, aviation intermediate maintenance support, medical services, command and control, and submarine tending.
In order to reduce the cost and speed of the acquisition process, the design or designs chosen could be based on existing commercial ships, or an existing design and hot production line at a commercial shipyard. An example of the latter is the Expeditionary Sea Base being built by General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego.
Initially, CHAMP program ships would replace those in the MPF. Additional CHAMP vessels would be built to serve other missions such as medical support and submarine tending.
The challenge was to recapitalize the sealift fleet affordably. Therefore, the CHAMP program sought to use a proven, commercial design. Buying new ships rather than used commercial vessels also reduces overall maintenance costs and benefits the domestic shipbuilding industry.
Unfortunately, the estimated price tag for CHAMP came in at $1 billion per hull. The Trump administration refused to provide funds for the program in its proposed FY2021 budget. In response, the Navy went back to industry in a search for more economical solutions.
The next administration will need to bite the bullet on recapitalization of the sealift fleet. In doing so, it needs to take a long-term view that includes the need to support domestic shipbuilding and to maintain an adequate number of merchant mariners.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.