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Official: U.S. Military Sealift Capacity is ‘On the Ragged Edge’

National Defense Reserve Fleet Suisun Bay, Calif. in 2014. US Navy

NATIONAL HARBOR. Md. – The merchant fleet that would carry the U.S. military to war is in dire need of recapitalization and might not prepared to fight its way to a conflict zone, said a panel of officials tasked with oversight of military sealift.

“We are not in a good position today. We have to start recapitalizing that sealift fleet,” Rear Adm. Peter Clarke of U.S. Transportation Command said on Tuesday. The numbers of American-flagged ships continues to age and a congressionally approved buy of two vessels to add to the American-flagged fleet was only a start.

“We need to build sealift vessels” as part of the Navy’s long-term shipbuilding plan, he said. As an example of the aging of American-flagged ships 26 vessels operated by the Maritime Administration are steam-powered. They are so old that spares and large parts of their plants are no longer manufactured.

“We’re on the ragged edge,” Kevin Tokarski, associate administrator at MARAD, said.
“Foreign countries [especially China] are eclipsing us” in building, maintaining and operating commercial fleets.

In addition to the age of the fleet, the merchant fleet must contend with new threats enrooted to the battlefield. Before weighing anchors, the fleet needs to realize that contested does not just mean torpedoes or shellfire, Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Nadeau, assistant commandant for prevention policy, said.
“We’re going to be challenged at home” in areas not immediately seen as vulnerable – such as GPS.

U.S. Mariners are not used to operating in contested environments like straits near Yemen, Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne, head of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command said. He noted 90 percent of the combat power the United States deploys has to come by sea.

“We have to ensure training to avoid detection” where possible, and targeting and what to do “in how to survive.” He added it was a lesson that had to be taught in the merchant marine academies and carried into union halls.

While the United States remains the number one naval power, its ranking as an important merchant marine nation has been declining. China now has the second largest navy and the second largest merchant marine.

Tokarski said breaking down Chinese investment into its One Belt/One Road initiative with its strong maritime overlay shows that Beijing has committed $1.7 trillion to it and has brought it economic involvement in 68 countries – including an intense focus on building, operating or controlling ports and warehouses nearby.

Most notably, China has established its first overseas naval base in the Horn of Africa and has invested heavily in Panama port and harbor facilities near the canal.

“They understand the importance of commercial dominance.” He added 25 percent of Chinese exports are shipped in its vessels while less than 2 percent of the United States exports are moved in American vessels.

“People have forgotten why we have a merchant marine,” Tokarski said.
They “don’t want to pay for that readiness” that comes with having American-flagged vessels available in times of crisis. To be there then, these ships, masters and crew have to have work in peacetime.

Nadeau added, “We absolutely need that readiness level.” To get there and recapitalize the ships in NSC and MARAD, “it will take a significant, sustained investment.”

  • leesea

    In regard to sealift, the best comment was the last by Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Nadeau


    Desert Storm showed the weaknesses of the US merchant marine fleet used in support of the operation. Although it worked, three key lessons learned (but apparently not taken to heart). 1) The 90 plus ships reactivated took longer than expected to reactivate necessitating chartering some foreign flag ships, 2) the age of the ships required skill sets no longer currently normally found such as steam plant engineers, break deck cargo bosuns, and ship carpenters. The age of some of these mariners was noticed by the occasional message to the hospital ships of, for example ’65 year old merchant sailor onboard SS…. with chest pains needs MEDEVAC’. Finding enough merchant sailors, period, was a challenge and only successful through extraordinary efforts of the seafaring unions and USCG working together to rapidly license new crew, and 3) the naval merchant ship control unit (reserves, of course) did great work, incredibly so, but pretty much manually without a lot of backup technology. The control unit still did a great job, but some cargo ships were idle in ports where no cargo arrived. The Navy never seems to put any emphasis on the merchant fleet until a significant military action occurs and then the navy (and the army in particular) needs the merchant fleet and needs them, badly. We rose to the challenge then, but can we, today?

  • Curtis Conway

    Got to have a solid Maritime Force for Logistical Support, and it should be able to move reliably, effectively, efficiently and always be on time. Like aircraft over the ocean looking for a tanker, combat ships are the same at sea. We need redundancy and defense in depth on the logistical side of the equation. We have just about given all that up, and are planning to fail. Young warriors study tactics, where as old warriors study logistics.

  • Gill Strong

    We need to rebuild the USMM by allowing shipping companies to make money and not depend on government hand outs. Do that by changing regulations to meet today, not WW II. reduce manning of deck crew to two on watch, one Mate , one AB, put OS (two) on days and build up engine crew by using two wipers. steward dept. as needed to support crew size. Also no taxes, o. And 100% first year write offs, then US shipping companies can compete with forgien compies.

    • USNVO

      The government could also do things like mandate that all US Aid be delivered in US flagged ships and revitalize the coast wise trade to reduce traffic congestion on places like the I-5 and I-95 corridors (you would have to facilitate making Ro-Ro facilities, change crewing rules for coast wise traffic, rein in the longshoreman’s unions, etc.). The US is about the only maritime country on earth that doesn’t seem to think a strong merchant marine is important.

  • Rob C.

    We have to have enough commercial shipyards to actually be interested in producing additional ships once the Congress is convinced that new sealift ships are needed. Last new commercial ships i’m aware of are over 40 years old, made at American shipyards that no longer exist.

    • USNVO

      There have been numerous merchant ships made in the US in the last 40 years, primarily for Jones Act Trade. For instance, NASSCO built the Orca Class Ro-Ros for Tote Alaska as well as several LMSRs and the Alaska Class tankers. Aker Marine built numerous product tankers, and there have been numerous yards building drill ships and off-shore platforms that could easily build merchant ships if there was a market. But there has to be a market.

  • tim

    Seems to me the USA has to give an advantage to those willing to enter into an agreement with the government. Nothing comes from nothing. American flagged ships under special “treatment” could also train some young folk for qualifications they seem to not get around to in the Navy any more. This Co-Op would befit both sides and build a better understanding of real world / commercial needs and in turn gives commercial operators an insight of what is expected from the Navy. In Switzerland they had a Programm that if you bought an SUV approved 4 wheel drive, you had to pay no taxes on it, but in an emergency the army could take them over. Fod for thought 👍

  • publius_maximus_III

    “As an example of the aging of American-flagged ships 26 vessels operated by the Maritime Administration are steam-powered.” — Rear Adm. Peter Clarke of U.S. Transportation Command

    Oh, how absolutely Robert Fulton of us!

    It might surprise everyone to know that an overwhelming majority of power plants around the world are steam-powered. That includes conventional coal-fired power plants, combined cycle power plants, and even them new fangled NUCK-u-lar power plants. What to do, what to do?

    • Jrggrop

      Are you referring to *ship* power plants? Because very few modern merchant ships still use oil or coal fired steam plants.

      • publius_maximus_III

        No, I was not referring to marine power plants. Just the large land-based power plants that generate nearly all of the world’s electricity.

        I was merely trying to counter the Admiral’s implication that “steam” is a relic of James Watt and the Industrial Age. It is not. It is still the working medium of most turbines in operation today.

        Combined cycle plants (combinations of gas and steam turbines) are twice as efficient as simple cycle steam turbines OR simple cycle gas turbines. The waste heat from a gas turbine’s exhaust is used to generate steam for a steam turbine. Might be something for today’s naval architects and marine engineers to look into, could result in a vessel whose voyages could be made with one-half the fuel costs.

  • Gerry Wright

    The F-35 program is much more important than some stupid Merchant Marine Fleet. Just spend some money on a new F-35 cargo variant and problem solved. We only need an Air Force and a Space Force. Time to move on.