House Committee Seeks Answers to the Decline of U.S. Sealift Readiness

Ro/ro ships of the Ready Reserve Fleet, center left (USN file image)

Published Feb 7, 2024 8:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

The chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party is sounding the alarm on a familiar problem: the acute deficit of government-owned sealift capacity. Drawing a comparison with China's vast shipping resources, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) called the much-reduced size and limited readiness of the U.S. sealift fleet a “screaming national security vulnerability.”

The advanced age and physical limitations of the government-owned Ready Reserve have been well-publicized for years, but efforts at reversing the trend depend upon budget availability. The slow decline of the sealift fleet would be a problem in the event of a Pacific conflict, Gallagher said, since these ships (and other U.S.-flagged vessels) would have to carry 90 percent of American military equipment and supplies to war. 

"In the middle of a new Cold War, the United States finds itself with neither the sufficient military nor civil resources to meet our sealift objective," said Gallagher in a letter to Transportation Command chief Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost and Maritime Administrator Ann Phillips. "Although the Navy has put forward plans to acquire foreign commercial vessels to be incorporated into the military sealift fleet, there is little indication that such efforts are being pursued at the scale and pace that the moment requires."

He noted that the commercial U.S.-flag merchant marine is also small relative to historical levels and near-peer competitors. Only about 180 vessels remain in the U.S.-flag fleet, a fraction of what was available a few decades ago. 

In the letter, Gallagher asked Van Ovost and Phillips to define their plans to restore sealift capability - including their plans to acquire U.S. or foreign merchant ships to join the Ready Reserve or Military Sealift Command. (The majority of government sealift ships are preowned foreign vessels, and fleet restoration plans have historically been structured around this model.) He also made sure to ask if they planned to buy any merchant ships from China, the world's largest shipbuilding and shipowning nation. 

Gallagher also asked for an assessment of the practicality of using foreign-flag, foreign-crewed ships to carry America's weaponry in time of conflict - including which countries would be willing to come to the United States' aid.