Buying nine used cargo ships is a first step toward the much needed modernization of Military Sealift Command’s fleet, but the sealift enterprise requires the revitalization of American shipbuilding and yard maintenance to experience long-term benefits, the top general leading U.S. Transportation Command said Wednesday.
MSC “ships are 46 years old. We have to keep 60- to 70-year-old engineers to keep them running” because the ships are steam-powered, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost said in an online Center for Strategic and International Studies forum.
She added that the idea of buying used cargo ships is 30 years old and needs to proceed.
Van Ovost noted the problem of an aging MSC fleet grows each year, questioning the continued service life of its roll-on, roll-off ships.
The Desert Shield/Desert Storm days where the United States “offloaded ships with impunity” and cargo from aircraft are over. “Contested logistics” is a phrase that means more than threats from Russian or Chinese precision weapons but also exposure to cyber attack on data and attack from space on navigation.
“Now there are no borders,” Van Ovost said.
In those situations with jamming occurring, she rhetorically asked, “so now as a young pilot what do I do?” The Air Force general said she never faced a question like that flying cargo in the first Gulf War.
The logisticians have to know “where are the joint forces [and] where are the maneuver forces going” in 21st century warfare. This is critical because “logistics is an explicit task” that must be considered in planning and operations, Van Ovost noted.
She expects the upcoming National Security Strategy, expected out this month, to highlight Transportation Command’s role.
“We’re going to be fighting and sustaining at a higher tempo” than before, she said, noting that an increased pace requires adapting machine learning and artificial learning to better harness the streams of data coming in. Turning that data into knowledge “will give us time and space to give commanders options.”
A goal would be to make available to all echelons of the joint force and allies and partners the knowledge “to make better decisions” more quickly. When asked if she believes Russia and China are competing in advancing AI, Van Ovost said, “I do. I do.”
Van Ovost said, “we do integrated deterrence every day” to project forward and sustain operations. After 100 days in command, she said “we prepare the entire enterprise … for the what ifs.” One of the command’s strengths is that it can move assets around to meet the needs of regional combatant commanders.
“Logistics is noisy” because ships can be identified and may not “have a good comms [communications] suite” to make them resilient, she added. The need for resilience applies equally to commercial sector ships that TRANSCOM uses to meet demand, as it does to those under federal control through MSC or the U.S. Maritime Administration.
The need for resilience and good cyber practices extends beyond the ship itself to the port and all the nodes connected to the networks of moving cargo from one place to another. Van Ovost praised the steps the commercial sector has taken in working with the National Security Agency and other federal departments in sharing best practices with each other to defend themselves against cyber attack.
The command is continuing discussions with the private sector over the feasibility of delivering “rocket cargo” loads similar to what a C-17 can carry from one specific point to another, as well as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver cargo into hot zones.
“I think, ‘why not?’” Van Ovost said, pointing to “critical” items like spare parts and food. She said the question TRANSCOM is posing to industry is “what do you have?”
In her opening remarks she said that 85 percent of TRANSCOM’s assets are based in the United States and added it is heavily dependent on National Guard and reservists to keeps its aircraft flying and ships moving.