Moving Tanks Over Ocean to War - How Will the Pentagon Revitalize Sealift?

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By Dan Goure - for Warrior Maven

Goure is a Senior Vice President at The Lexington Institute

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Revitalizing U.S Sealift Will Require An All-of-the-Above Approach

The United States is a global military power. The effectiveness and credibility of that power rests on the ability to reliably move equipment and supplies by sea from U.S. ports to distant parts of the world. The overwhelming majority of U.S. military equipment and supplies is moved by ship. This material is transported by a combination of the government-owned organic sealift fleet and commercial vessels on contract. However, these fleets have been declining in numbers for decades. Much of what remains requires modernization to be relevant. The Nation must pursue all available approaches to ensure that it has sufficient sealift, both organic and privately-owned and operated, to support future military operations abroad.

While the U.S. Army is most dependent on sealift to move its equipment and supplies overseas, in fact, all the Services operating abroad rely on sealift for support and resupply, including underway replenishment for Navy ships. Even in its recent, limited conflicts, the U.S. military was sustained primarily by a steady flow of material transported halfway around the world on organic and commercial vessels. In any future conflict, but most certainly one involving a regional adversary or peer competitor, the ability to move large military forces and their supporting equipment to distant theaters and sustain them will be vital to fulfilling America’s commitment to protect allies and friends and defeat aggression.

Even as the U.S. military spends tens of billions of dollars modernizing their airplanes, combat vehicles and ships, it risks being unable to get their new capabilities to the fight or sustain them once deployed due to a lack of sealift. Over recent decades, the fleet of government-owned cargo vessels has declined in number and those that remain are badly in need of modernization. According to a recent report by the U.S. Army to the House Armed Services Committee: “Without proactive recapitalization of the Organic Surge Sealift Fleet, the Army will face unacceptable risk in force projection capability beginning in 2024 . . . By 2034, 70% of the organic fleet will be over 60 years old — well past its economic useful life; further degrading the Army’s ability to deploy forces.”

The U.S. Navy is looking at recapitalizing its organic sealift fleet. The common hull auxiliary multi-mission platform (CHAMP) program will use common, domestically-designed and built hulls and ship systems as the basis for a new fleet that can support multiple missions, including strategic sealift, aviation intermediate maintenance support, medical services, command and control, and submarine tending. The designs chosen could be based on existing commercial ships or exploit an existing design and hot production line at a commercial shipyard for a Navy support vessel. An example of the latter is the Expeditionary Sea Base being built by General Dynamics NASSCO.

The Navy’s strategy is for CHAMP program ships to replace those in the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) and to use the assets this would free up, which still have significant useful life, to replace the aging ships of the Ready Reserve Fleet. Additional CHAMP vessels would be built to serve other missions such as medical support and submarine tending.

It is vital also that this Nation maintain a fleet of U.S.-flagged, active, commercially-viable, militarily-useful and privately-owned cargo vessels and the shipbuilding and vessel repair industry behind it. These vessels have been instrumental both in the projection of U.S. forces overseas and ensuring that they can be sustained once deployed. The availability of foreign-flagged cargo ships cannot be guaranteed at the times and places they will be needed. In addition, the owners of foreign-flagged vessels or the nations in which they are registered may refuse to accept charters from the Department of Defense.

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An important tool for ensuring that there remains a U.S.-flagged cargo fleet is the Jones Act. This law, dating back to 1920, places restrictions on what is called cabotage, the movement of goods between U.S. ports and on U.S. waterways. It mandates that only U.S.-built and flagged vessels conduct this trade and that at least 75 percent of the crews on these ships be U.S. citizens. In addition, the Act restricts the foreign steel content of repair work on U.S.-flagged vessels, thereby restricting such activities to U.S. shipyards.

The Jones Act ensures the continuing existence and availability to the Nation in time of need of a commercially-viable and modern U.S.-flagged cargo fleet. The companies engaged in cabotage are able to justify remaining in that business as well as the expense of periodic modernization of their ships because of the assurance of business provided by the Jones Act.

Without the Jones Act, the U.S. Navy would be required to spend billions of dollars on additional ships that would spend most of their lives tied up to a pier. The shipbuilding and repair industry on which the Navy also relies would shrink further, raising maintenance costs for military vessels. In addition, the pool of U.S. merchant mariners would all but disappear.

An additional step that should be taken to support a domestic cargo fleet and Merchant Marine is to require that 100 percent of peacetime U.S. government cargoes be carried on U.S.-flagged vessels. The expansion of what is called “cargo preference” to all government cargoes is necessary for national security.

There is no single program that will ensure the availability of a U.S. sealift fleet that is adequate both in numbers and capabilities. Instead, the U.S. government needs to employ an all-of-the-above approach that involves building new vessels for the organic fleet and supporting the continued operation of a commercial, U.S.-flagged cargo fleet.

-- Dan Goure is a Senior Vice President at The Lexington Institute

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. Read his full bio* here.

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