National Maritime Security: Counting Ships

Longshoremen load military vehicles onto the Ready Reserve Force vessel Cape Rise (ex name Saudi Riyadh), Anchorage, August 22 (USAF image)

Published Oct 29, 2019 8:18 PM by Denise Krepp

The U.S. sealift capacity is at an all time low and absent a significant course correction, our military will face unacceptable risk in force projection capability beginning in 2024.  That’s the prediction of the Army, and as a former Maritime Administration Chief Counsel, I support the assessment. 

Per Navy documentation, fleet oilers managed over 1,600 refuelings at sea in 1950, the beginning of the Korean War - some 1,750,000 barrels of oil and 171,0000 barrels of aviation gas. Other replenishment ships delivered 7,665 short tons of ammunition.

Three years later the supply chain in the Pacific included 368 Military Sea Transportation Service vessels. They moved over one million tons of cargo and 50,000 passengers each month. 

Fast forward to 2019: the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command operates 125 civilian crewed ships that replenish Navy ships and transport Army and Marine Corps personnel and cargo.  The Maritime Administration manages the National Defense Reserve Fleet, a fleet of approximately 100 vessels, including the 46 vessels in the Ready Reserve Fleet. There are 81 more vessels in the commercial U.S. flag fleet, and we’re nowhere near the number of vessels used during the Korean War. 

Last month, the government triggered a turbo activation of 28 Military Sealift Command and Maritime Administration ships. They did so for one reason - Department of Defense officials wanted to know if we had the capability to move cargo and men in the event of military conflict.

The results of the September activation haven’t been made public, but the Army made its views clear in a letter sent to the House Armed Services Committee last fall: “(w)ithout proactive recapitalization of the Organic Surge Sealift Fleet, the Army will face unacceptable risk in force projection capability beginning in 2024.”

So why didn’t anyone act sooner? The Department of Defense’s 1992 Mobility Requirements Study recommended that by 1999 the RRF consist of 142 ships, 63 of which would be kept in a high-priority readiness status. Of these 63 ships, 36 would need to be able to activate in 4 days and 27 would have to be ready in 5 days. Why didn’t we achieve the goal? Bureaucratic infighting, limited funding and lack of a comprensive strategy, as I outlined in an earlier essay.

Meanwhile, the U.S. deep-sea fleet available to supplement MSC and RRF in time of conflict has shrunk drastically over the decades, falling from 1,288 in 1951 to 408 in 1990. Only 81 vessels remain today.

Changing the current trajectory includes a blunt assessment of the recent turbo activitation. The lessons learned from this experience should be the basis for a request to Congress for funding to recapitalize the government-owned sealift fleet.  A similar assessment has to be made regarding the current U.S. deep sea fleet - based on historical data, do we have enough to support an over-the-horizon conflict?

Congressional members with Navy and Coast Guard bases understand what’s at stake. Members in the middle of the country don’t have ports. Merchant mariners don’t live in their districts, but their residents are serving in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. If the military logistics chain starts collapsing in 2024, it may have difficulty delivering necessary supplies to these servicemembers in time of need. Please remind your representatives of this fact and encourage them to act.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a former Coast Guard officer and former Maritime Adminsitration Chief Counsel.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.