House Lawmakers Call For Long-Term Strategy For Sealift After Decades of Neglect

May 19, 2021 7:09 PM
An undated photo of a Watson-class LMSR. MSC Photo

House lawmakers are calling on U.S. Transportation Command and the U.S. Maritime Administration to create a sealift strategy amid decades of concerns over the capacity of the sealift fleet.

During a joint hearing between the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee and readiness subcommittee on Tuesday, lawmakers criticized and expressed concern over the lack of a cohesive strategy to build up the sealift fleet.

“Throughout this hearing, it appears as though the effort that has been made by MARAD, by TRANSCOM, Navy and by the committee has not been successful,” HASC readiness subcommittee chair Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said. “We’ve made a little bit of progress here and there, but we really have not been able to really put in place a comprehensive strategy and then carry it out. We’ve had bits and pieces.”

Garamendi pointed to several components contributing to a strategy – the tanker security program Congress created, recent legislation mandating the U.S. military transport its cargo with U.S. planes and ships, and MARAD’s construction of National Security Multi-Mission Vessels – but said an overarching strategy is necessary.

The HASC readiness chair suggested lawmakers hold a roundtable so Congress and officials from the Defense Department and Transportation Department can produce a cohesive strategy to incorporate into this year’s defense policy legislation and possibly the appropriations bill.

“Here’s what I am proposing … is that we have a roundtable. Invite members of the two committees – Mr. Courtney’s committee and my committee – to participate, staff and members of the maritime committee, of the [House] Transportation [and] Infrastructure Committee,” Garamendi said. “That sometime within the next month we sit down, invite [U.S. Transportation Command commander Gen. Steve] Lyons or whomever you would like to send to that meeting, and that we develop for this year’s NDAA a strategy that would provide over both dealing with the immediate – meaning now, this year, next year – appropriations, as well as the NDAA, and long-term.”

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the ranking member of the seapower panel and the vice ranking member of HASC, echoed Garamendi’s concerns about the lack of a strategy.

“There doesn’t seem to be one. If there’s not a long-term strategy about how we recapitalize, then it deeply concerns me, especially because we’ve been emphasizing this. Now I know – between Chairman [Joe] Courtney and myself, Chairman Garamendi and Mr. [Doug] Lamborn now – this is going on four years and we still haven’t gotten to the point of getting two additional ships in. And I can tell you by any other measure, in any other place, that would be unacceptable. And I would say it’s unacceptable here,” Wittman said.

While Congress in the Fiscal Year 2021 policy bill authorized the Navy to purchase two used sealift vessels and in the FY 2021 appropriations bill allotted $60 million for those ships, the service has yet to get them on contract.

“We don’t have a contract – or it doesn’t look like right now contracts have been let for at least for the two new sealift ships that have been authorized by the NDAA. So that’s being held up, or it just hasn’t been done yet. The two of the seven have not been contracted yet,” Sal Mercogliano, an associate professor of history at Campbell University, told USNI News. “And then the other thing I think that’s really important out of this is, again, the requirement from Garamendi and Wittman for the development of a sealift strategy. And I think that was the talk that he had about putting this roundtable working group together to develop a sound sealift strategy akin to the 30-year Navy strategy.”

During the hearing, Wittman also expressed concern over the recent decrease to the Ready Reserve Force, which went down to 41 ships from 46. According to Mercogliano, MARAD took SS Cape Mohican (T-AKR-5065), SS Cape May (T-AKR-5063), SS Flickertail State (T-ACS-5), SS Grand Canyon State (T-ACS-3) and SS Petersburg (T-AOT-9101) out of the force.

“Why have we had to reduce those number of ships? I understand it’s about Coast Guard certification, but it seems like to me that that would even heighten the importance of bringing new ships, or newer ships, into the force,” Wittman said. “And what’s the practical impact of this reduced force structure? I mean, if the call goes out tonight, you know this is pretty precarious.”

Lyons told Wittman that former Defense Secretary Mark Esper established a team under the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office to evaluate sealift and that the retirements were a result of the CAPE team’s work.

“A couple of those were retired because it was no longer a utility – two of them were [Cape May and Cape Mohican] that were required for special missions. A couple were crane ships that were no longer required based on [operational] plan analysis,” Lyons said.

During the hearing, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), the vice-chair of HASC, also voiced concern over a lack of a maritime plan.

“I would just say that it feels like we just keep saying that we’re waiting on a plan, and we’re waiting to refine the plan,” Luria said.

Lucinda Lessley, MARAD’s deputy administrator, said she is examining the maritime transportation strategy released under the Trump administration to assess whether it’s in sync with the Biden administration’s aims.

Luria asked a series of questions drawing attention to the current state of the U.S. maritime industry. Lessley confirmed to Luria that there is no mandate that U.S. cargo, besides government cargo, be transported on ships built and flagged by the U.S.

Mercogliano also noted the uncertain state of the maritime industry, pointing out that the Navy must buy the used sealift ships from the international market.

“I think one of the biggest things that wasn’t discussed, or was kind of touched on there but not really discussed so much, was the issue about the really decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine and the fact that there are not sufficient ships to draw upon or infrastructure to draw upon,” Mercogliano told USNI News.

“All those ships they’re talking about buying – those sealift ships they’re talking about buying on the open market – are all foreign vessels,” he added. “They have to go on the foreign market because there are just no U.S. vessels available.”

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

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