Navy Secretary Calls for Used-Ship Buy to Recapitalize Sealift Fleet

Cape D-class vessels, built in Europe in 1972-3 and bought used by the U.S. government in 1985. The average age of the RRF fleet is twice the global average for merchant vessels, and maintenance costs are spiraling (MARAD)

Published May 17, 2019 7:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

At a forum at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments on Thursday, U.S. secretary of the navy Richard Spencer said that he is advocating for buying used ro/ros to replenish America's sealift capacity. Spencer said that he is still looking at the Navy's newbuild option -  called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMP) - but he is also making the case for a more cost-efficient solution. 

"Just putting my business hat on for the business case, I can't afford a lot of $600 million ships. I can't really afford a lot of $400 million ships when I can go out and buy used ro/ros for $35 to $40 million," he said. "I'm up [at Congress] asking to get a little more relief. I don't want to abandon ship building, don't get me wrong, but I need a quick little shot in the arm for the ability to rebuff and rebuild . . .  my ability to deliver on the high seas. We'll see how that plays out because that's an interesting two edged sword."

As there are relatively few U.S.-built ro/ros trading today, a purchase of the type Spencer described would likely require sourcing foreign-built used ships. This was an established practice in years past, as seen in the MARAD Ready Reserve Force fleet, which is primarily composed of foreign-built vessels.

In a question-and-answer session, Spencer acknowledged the tensions between purchasing enough sealift capacity, setting priorities for the Navy's budget and sustaining the American shipbuilding industrial base. "I am responsible for keeping the health of [the shipbuilding] industry, but that certainly doesn't mean that my checkbook is wide open indiscriminately," Spencer said. "We have to make every dollar count and we have to work on this situation . . . I totally get it that buying a used ship does not promote the shipbuilding community. I need to balance [new construction] and the ability to have the requirements fulfilled."

Gen. Steve Lyons (U.S. Army), the commander of Transportation Command, has also asked Congress to accelerate the funding to buy used vessels quickly in order to recapitalize America's sealift capacity. Many of the vessels in MARAD's Ready Reserve Force fleet are past the end of a normal commercial lifespan: the average age of the fleet is 44 years, and MARAD warns that the cost of maintenance is growing rapidly. Maritime Administrator Rear Adm. Mark "Buzz" Buzby (USN, ret'd) described the RRF's readiness as "on the ragged edge" last year, and no policy change has occurred since.