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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Without A Robust Sealift Capability, The U.S. Is No Superpower

US Navy
GULF OF ADEN (May 17, 2016) Members of the visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) alongside guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66). Gonzalez is currently operating with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.

What are the measures of a superpower? Is it the number and diversity of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems? Is it the size of its Army? Or the number of ships in its fleet? These are necessary, but not sufficient, measures of a nation’s military capabilities.

A unique strategic advantage for the U.S. is its capacity to move large amounts of forces and supplies across oceans and sustain them while engaged in combat, often for years. This is essential for the military’s ability to achieve integrated deterrence, conduct expeditionary and humanitarian operations, and provide reassurance to friends and allies. Should deterrence fail, moving forces to a fight and sustaining their presence is vital. That makes sealift an important measure of U.S. military power.

How does the U.S. military deploy overseas? Personnel and some equipment can go by air. But around 90 percent of the military’s equipment and supplies, particularly for the Army and Marine Corps, move by sea. Even though the Air Force and Navy can to some extent, self-deploy, they need to be supported in transit by aerial and at-sea refueling. Once deployed, they also need to rely on sea-based transport for munitions, spare parts, and other critical supplies. As one former senior official with the Maritime Administration (MARAD) observed: “This is how we move our forces from [the continental United States] to anywhere else in the world. We can stuff some of it in the back of a C-17 [aircraft] but not a whole lot…If you’re going to take real combat power someplace, it’s got to be in a ship.”

Even at the height of the Cold War, when a significant fraction of the U.S. military was deployed overseas, the ability to reinforce and resupply those forces from the continental United States via sealift was an essential element of this nation’s deterrent posture and warfighting capability. The need to deploy forces abroad actually increased in the post-Cold War era, as the bulk of overseas forces were brought home. Today, the requirement for projecting power has made sealift more important in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, which identifies Russia and China as simultaneous major threats. What makes the requirement to project power all the more challenging is the United States’ desire to deter and defend forward, both in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific.

The United States will not be able to support its national security objectives without a robust capability to move enormous amounts of equipment and supplies anywhere in the world. The trouble is that the U.S. military is reliant on a dwindling, aging sealift capability to provide global mobility. For years, defense publications have published reports on the declining state of U.S. sealift, government-owned and commercial components alike.

The military sealift fleet, simply put, is about to go off a waterfall. All four components of the sealift fleet – prepositioned ships (prepo), surge sealift ships, the Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF), and U.S.-flagged commercial vessels that are part of the Maritime Security Program (MSP) – are facing serious challenges. The U.S. government’s sealift fleet suffers from a combination of obsolescence, deferred maintenance, and a lack of skilled crews. The Navy warned years ago that unless aggressive action is taken now to recapitalize prepositioned and RRF ships by 2035, the military sealift fleet will only be able to deliver half the necessary volume of equipment and supplies.

The Navy, Department of Defense, and Congress have struggled for some years to define a pathway to ensuring a viable public sealift capability. The solution now generally agreed upon can be characterized as rolling recapitalization. This would involve acquiring used commercial ships, refurbishing them, and placing them in the prepo fleet. The now excess prepositioned ships would be cascaded into the surge fleet and RRF. The Navy also is pursuing a service life extension program for the newest prepositioned and RRF ships.

There has been concern expressed in Congress that the Navy is not moving fast enough with sealift recapitalization. Several members of Congress, notably Representative Rob Wittman, have suggested turning over the responsibility for refurbishing the surge sealift force to MARAD.

But even with a modernized fleet of government-owned sealift assets, the U.S. will be dependent on U.S.-flagged commercial vessels in the event of a large-scale conflict. This is the purpose of the MSP, which pays a retainer incentive to the operators of member vessels in exchange for their availability during times of need.  For example, private U.S. shipping companies such as Crowley Maritime have played a vital role in support of U.S. humanitarian relief efforts in places like Haiti and West Africa.

The U.S.-flagged commercial fleet on which the military relies for surge sealift is also under constant pressure from cheaper foreign competitors. The national security interest of the U.S. in maintaining a viable commercial sealift capability is the critical reason for measures such as the Jones Act and cargo preference.

The Jones Act requires that all vessels carrying cargo on inland waters or between U.S. ports be U.S.-flagged and -crewed. Providing incentives for U.S. companies to stay in the commercial sealift business is a relatively cheap way of ensuring the survival of this sector. Despite criticisms that the Jones Act impedes responses to humanitarian crises, this has not been proven to be the case. Rather, the Jones Act helps preserve the critical national security capabilities that both ships and trained crews provide.

The same is true for cargo preference, which refers to the U.S. laws, regulations, and policies that require the use of U.S.-flagged vessels in the movement of cargo that is owned, procured, furnished, or financed by the U.S. government. All military cargoes and 50 percent of government agency and agricultural cargoes fall under the umbrella of cargo preference. Cargo preference also helps provide an assured base of business for U.S.-flagged carriers that are available to respond to a national security incident.

Marine Expeditionary Force

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Austin Cardenas, a food service specialist with Combat Service Support Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force Support Battalion, I Marine Expeditionary Force, wears a full combat load during a field exercise (FEX) at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 16, 2018. The FEX exposed battalion Marines to field conditions, and will prepare them to meet operational and training objectives in the upcoming year. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck)

The U.S. possesses the world’s most modern and lethal Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. It maintains a globe-girding array of alliances and friendships. But these assets need to be deployed and supported to deter conflict and prevail in war. Ultimately, without a robust sealift capability, the U.S. will cease to be a superpower.

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.


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Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Eric-ji

    November 16, 2022 at 11:45 am

    Ah the sealift lobbying again.

    “But these assets need to be deployed and supported to deter conflict and prevail in war. Ultimately, without a robust sealift capability, the U.S. will cease to be a superpower.”

    By that definition then, there are no superpowers in the world today. We’re likely better positioned with the resources we have to take the fight to them than “they” are to take the fight to us.

    If the military capabilities we have today are insufficient deterrent I doubt a sea lift capability will change that.

    The better approach is to work to avoid war. If it comes, that’s the time to develop the necessary capabilities. If sea lift is one of those, so be it.

    It’s more likely that should a next war come it will be vastly different from wars of the past — isn’t it always that way? It could be this essay is really fighting the last war — meaning it’s irrelevant, save in the minds of sea lift proponents.

  2. 403Forbidden

    November 16, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    US is a hyperpower today and thus no longer a superpower.

    It has well over 700 military bases all over the world, from san diego to caracao to bahrain to norway and to just off arctic region.

    Besides that empire of bases, US has overwhelming and all encompassing economic control globally, with even an entire or whole army of minions to provide support and backing.

    Truly a hyperpower.

    But, but US is unable to prevent itself from becoming a victim of imperial overreach and this is its achilles heel.

    It is even tryjng to establish a space NATO or NATO military pact in space using like-minded vassals & commercial companies.

    US truly an amazing mega ultra power or hyperpower but one hobbled by the menace or pain of overreach. Overreach pains worsened by frequent bouts of hyperventilation. Hmm.

  3. Sammy

    November 16, 2022 at 3:21 pm

    Why no mention of the Merchant Marine graduates from the USMMA? This institution has been kneecapped by Congress and know one is willing to report on its’ demise.

  4. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 16, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study logistics”

    As militaries evolve from the Industrial age dumb weapons to the Information age smart weapons, the logistical needs to make war have crashed and changed.

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

    For example: The logistics of the M1 Abrams tank (a dumb weapon the US Marine Corp got rid of) is 70 tons + 4 men + fuel (3 gal/mile) + ammo + parts & maintenance etc. vs. Javelin 50lbs + 1 man + infantry supports

    In the Ukrainian war no one can deny that smart weapons like Javelin and HIMARS are doing most of the work in destroying the Russians, and that these smart weapons are being airlifted to Ukraine in comparatively small numbers.

    Logistics are the single most important determining factor in war. But, the nature of that transport and what is transported has changed. Sealift which takes weeks or months to deliver, is too slow and too vulnerable to attack. Violating the Strategic principle of dispersion by putting all your eggs in one basket for weeks and months at a time, is just begging the enemy to destroy you. 60+ million tons of shipping were destroyed during WWII.

    Cheap, long range, attritable UAVs can deliver all the smart weapons needed for victory, securely (dispersion) and efficiently (timely) to the battlefield.

  5. GhostTomahawk

    November 17, 2022 at 12:06 am

    If a real war broke our the US govt would commandeer any and every viable US flagged ocean going vessel to be used for deploying troops and materiel.

    The End

  6. exordis

    November 17, 2022 at 3:18 am

    Cargo capacity in itself is not sufficient. A war with Russia and/or China will involve attempts to interdict US sealift by submarines, surface ships, and missile carrying long range bombers. Air and naval escorts for sealift vessels is mandatory, or these ships are just floating targets. Do these escort assets exist? Probably not.

    In World War 2 during the Battle of the Atlantic a massive effort by the US and Royal Navies, the US Army Air Force, and the Royal Air Force was necessary to get sealift convoys from US and Canadian east coast ports across the North Atlantic.

  7. Duane

    November 17, 2022 at 7:53 am

    Dumb comment:

    “Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons”

    A smart weapon is extremely costly and difficult to maintain and deploy compared to a dumb weapon. If a smart weapon is the most effective way to destroy a particular target, then the cost is worth the effects. But in the majority of the time in actual real world combat, dumb weapons are just fine and far more useful. Such as in saturating an area with artillery fire to not only destroy enemy assets but to demoralize them and force them to keep their heads down and to degrade their ability to fight, without having to pick out individual targets. It is simply unaffordable to do that with rounds that cost millions each or at least hundreds of thousands each to deploy vs. a few hundreds or few thousands to deploy.

    HIMARs has been great for the Ukrainians in taking out high value targets with known GPS coordinates. But most of the actual killing by the Ukrainians is being done with AK-47s, mortars, grenades, and machine guns.

    Think of this as a sniper vs. a machine gunner decision. The sniper is great for taking out a single high value target in an otherwise unfavorable climate for routine fires such as hidey holes or very long rangs. But if your position is being stormed by hundreds of bad guys a hundred yards away, or jumping into your positions, a sniper is useless – what you need are machine guns, pistols, and other automatic and semi automatic fire weapons, hand grenades, and dumb mortars to stop them.

    Generalities are dumb rhetoric, and almost always miss the mark.

  8. Duane

    November 17, 2022 at 7:59 am

    Mr. Goure is correct, sea lift is essential. But one of the things we as a nation should consider is if we can create additional incentives for foreign flagged ships to become American flagged ships, which in turn would enlarge the maritime sea lift pool of vessels.

    Another key consideration is how well we protect ships from attack by a capable peer power. Even if we have thousands of ships available, but China can sink or heavily damage them at a high rate, then we still lose. One way to better protect ships is to provide more armed escorts. And perhaps design modular defense systems that can be deployed on just a standard merchant vessel, combining sensors with shooters. A bit outside the box, but then container ships were outside the box 70 years ago.

  9. David N. Tate

    November 17, 2022 at 10:59 am

    The United States has massive logistical capability. In terms of “Sea Lift” the United States maintains 10 amphibious assault ships. Each of these can lift a battalion sized element. The US also maintains 12 amphibious transport docks with another five either fitting out, building, or under contract. The US maintains 10 Landing Ship Docks. This is far more capability than any other nation state or potential adversary maintains. Essentially, this is nearly enough capability to lift two US Marine Divisions. Now, the US Army is tied in very closely with the United States Air Force. The USAF has more than enough capability to lift at least one US Army Division and perhaps more. No other nation state maintains this kind of capability or capacity. The author is simply asking for more burden for the American taxpayer. The Defense Budget is already $800 Billion annually. The poor American taxpayers do not need an additional burden that would never be used for anything.

  10. Jimbob

    November 17, 2022 at 11:11 am

    Sealift is critical to overseas operations. Elevate the Military Sealift Command to a Branch with the Merchant Marine Academy as its main officer pipeline. The bulk of the service would be reservists that would be mobilized to man the fleet (most of which would be in a reserve status) in wartime. They would utilize and train on ships/craft stationed across the country on rivers, lakes and coasts. This would be a cost effective way of ensuring a consistent sealift force with trained crews to man them.

  11. David N. Tate

    November 17, 2022 at 11:29 am

    The United States has massive logistical capability. The United States conducted 20 years of combat in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) providing logistical support to combat units in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. This included providing logisitical support for host nation combat units and allied combat units. The United States was more than capable of supporting it’s obligations in CONUS, in the Pacific Ocean Area, and in Europe. There were no shortages of equipment or material. The United States is currently supporting an ongoing high intensity war in the Ukraine to the point where the Ukraine has superior firepower to their adversary. The American taxpayers do not need to spend any more money. There is more than enough logistics capability for the United States to project power anywhere on the globe. The American taxpayers spend nearly $800 Billion annually to ensure that.

  12. Mike K

    November 17, 2022 at 6:50 pm

    This is an oft repeated argument. It is similar to the “China now has a larger Navy than the US” or this time last year – “Russia has 10,000 tanks”: counting pieces of equipment and comparing the same to US-only capabilities ignoring the contribution of US allies. If WW III breaks out in Europe, US will have major allies that are home to huge merchant fleets: Maersk (Denmark), Hapag-Lloyd (Germany) CMA (France). Similarly, in Asia: Taiwan – Wan Hai, Yang Min, Evergreen Marine; Japan – Ocean Network; South Korea – HMM. During an average 48-hour period, there are over 100 ships offloading or looking to offload at Long Beach alone- lots of Chinese-flagged ships that can be confiscated. The Philippines provides over 600,000 sailors to the world’s merchant marines – most of whom speak English and who will be out of jobs when the fireworks start. If our Asian allies are not fully on board in terms of a war over Taiwan, then “strategic ambiguity” provides US with cover not to intervene. If China were to attack US installation in Philippines, South Korea, and Japan, then these allies are all in. The shipping needs are really 2-6 months out from start of hostilities and what we have already in terms of specialty-built ships is sufficient to move the number of 72ton tanks that cannot be moved on standard merchant vessels (of which none are required in the Pacific unless China physically invades the Philippines). To think that our allies will not supply 100 plus ships with crews (or the US Navy and is allies can’t seize some good portion of China’s 300,000,000 ton merchant fleet) in the first two months of a war really sells everyone short. Money is better spent on more on long range bombers, missiles, drones, ISR to fight during those first two months. If we don’t hold during that period, then we don’t need follow on shipping.

  13. Alex S

    November 18, 2022 at 9:15 am

    Avoiding war – meaning being strong in statecraft and having a longer vision than an election cycle – means integrating our trade agreements and commerce strategies with diplomacy, and providing an opportunity for our Nation to have sufficient numbers of US flag merchant ships trading internationally and competitively. This means mariners who are working and ready, ships that are not on shelves for DoD to budget. If conflict arises, the fleet and the mariners are available.

    The center of gravity of sealift is the US flag merchant fleet *in trade*. If the fleet is sparse, as it is now, we won’t have the mariners to crew the RRF “ships on shelves”. I’m a master mariner and sailed on US flagged ships for 14 years, and crewed some old RRF ships in breakout exercises. The US strategic sealift business model is old and nearly irrelevant because the industry has changed, the character of warfare has changed, and our adversaries are smart.

    The US flag fleet struggles to be competitive for a number of reasons. One that isn’t talked about is how the PRC has dominated shipping for many years and changed the market. Don’t you think executing stronger trade and security agreements could have provisions for US-flag marine transportation, particularly with those nations which are partners and allies? Relationships and hard work set the conditions. Why is our ability to trade internationally with our ships still not a priority?

    The PRC has certainly shaped global shipping to their strategies – why can’t we? Or is there simply no political will?

  14. Pavel

    November 20, 2022 at 1:50 am

    If a war starts between the USA, Russia and China, then the navy is not needed, since during the first day of the war 2/3 of the US citizens and 1/2 of the Russian population will die!

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