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Sealift is America’s Achilles Heel in the Age of Great Power Competition

Sealift is America’s Achilles Heel in the Age of Great Power Competition

In 1921, U.S. Navy submarine R-14 returned to Pearl Harbor underneath sail, having run out of gasoline whereas on a rescue mission. Almost a century later, the concept that a U.S. Navy combatant would run out of gasoline is the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. With a globally distributed community of army infrastructure and a fleet of cargo and tanker ships, we all know that logistical wants won’t ever constrain operational flexibility. In any case, it is the spine of America’s capability to venture arduous energy round the world. This functionality has advanced considerably since the genesis of the underway replenishment in World Conflict I, and has enabled the United States and allied nations to decisively defeat Iraq in the First Persian Gulf Warfare, provide concurrent floor campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and keep almost 100 constantly deployed naval combatants since the 1990s.

This drive is additionally at the ragged edge of its capability to maintain present international operations, due in giant half to a dwindling pool of service provider mariners and decaying sealift belongings. This is worrisome as a result of it is occurring throughout routine peacetime operations, with out the influence of uneconomic dispersed operations and fight losses. It is necessary to delve into the issues dealing with America’s maritime energy projection — particularly the diminishing capability of the U.S. service provider marine at present and its influence upon future naval operations in an period of nice energy competitors. Upon a sound understanding of these issues, we will then discover an answer involving one of the Navy’s least publicized belongings: the Sea Hunter unmanned vessel.

The Primer

U.S. sealift capability is made up of a number of organizations, together with the Fight Logistics Drive, the surge sealift pressure, the Prepared Reserve Pressure, and the Maritime Safety Program.

The Fight Logistics Drive, owned and operated by the Army Sealift Command, is devoted to supporting naval combatants with meals, gasoline, munitions, and numerous different provides removed from established logistics amenities. This drive allows the underway replenishment of U.S. Navy floor combatants whereas out at sea, permitting them to stay on station indefinitely. With out these or comparable allied vessels, floor combatants can be required to transit to pleasant ports in order to resupply. Comprising solely 29 ships, the Fight Logistics Pressure is made up of two quick fight help ships, 15 fleet replenishment oilers, and 12 dry cargo and ammunition ships. With out the Fight Logistics Drive, the means of the Navy’s warships to undertaking energy can be severely curtailed as a result of they might be tethered to pleasant ports.

The surge sealift drive and Prepared Reserve Drive (hereafter known as the surge drive) are owned and operated by the Division of Transportation and are stored at various states of operational readiness to move “military cargo to critical areas of operation.” Per the Authorities Accountability Workplace,

Almost all of the surge sealift fleet is anticipated to…present hundreds of thousands of sq. ft of cargo carrying capability…to move Military, Marine Corps, and different models’ gear, fight help gear, and preliminary provide, as referred to as for in the preliminary phases of numerous Division of Protection operational plans.

This is the fleet that carried the preliminary gear to the Persian Gulf to arm coalition forces throughout Operation Desert Defend. Immediately it is composed of 61 federally owned vessels.

On common, these ships are 43 years previous. Surge pressure vessels are pushed by outdated propulsion crops, often growing older steam generators, for which the pool of certified operators and maintainers is small and quickly declining. Years of elevated operational demand and underfunded upkeep budgets has resulted in declining ship availability. As famous in current Authorities Accountability Workplace research, these ships are exhibiting readiness points:

[M]ission-limiting gear casualties — incidents of degraded or out-of-service gear — have elevated over the previous 5 years, and upkeep durations are operating longer than deliberate, indicating declining materiel readiness throughout each [Combat Logistics Force and surge force] fleets.

This worrying development has translated to a rise in mission limiting gear casualties by 77 % from 2012 to 2016. This lowered the operational availability of fleet replenishment oilers by 16 % and quick fight help ships by eight %, in flip reducing the Navy’s potential to replenish at sea.

The federal government owned fleet is augmented “in times of war or national emergency” by vessels of the Maritime Safety Program. Consisting of 60 “active, commercially viable, militarily useful, privately-owned U.S.-flag vessels and crews operating in U.S. international trades,” these vessels obtain a big annual subsidy in change for offering a further “3.1 million square feet and over 103 thousand [deadweight tons] of tanker capacity” to the Division of Protection. These vessels have “delivered more than 90 percent of the cargoes to Afghanistan and Iraq to support U.S. and Coalition forces” together with their authorities owned counterparts.

Past the 60 vessels enrolled in the Maritime Safety Program, there are solely 22 further U.S.-flagged vessels engaged in worldwide commerce and 100 privately owned vessels larger than 1,000 tons in home commerce from which to attract in occasions of nationwide emergency. Provided that mariners who serve in Army Sealift Command and the surge fleet routinely alternate between civilian and authorities employment, there is vital concern that “due to the historically low number” of U.S.-flagged service provider vessels (see Determine 1), there won’t be sufficient certified mariners for sustained sealift operations. Given stringent necessities to register underneath the U.S. flag and cutthroat competitors in the carrying commerce, this is a state of affairs that is unlikely to reverse itself in the close to time period, with vital impacts on the fleet’s means to maintain the struggle.

Determine 1: United States privately owned oceangoing self-propelled vessels 1,000 gross tons and above working in worldwide trades (1990 to Nov. 1, 2017)

As of late 2017, there is a “need [for] 11,678 mariners to man the shops [sic], and the pool of available, active mariners is 11,768. That means in a crisis every one of them would need to show up for the surge….” Resulting from the have to rotate civilian mariners from arduous obligation to durations of relaxation and rest, there is successfully a scarcity of “1,800 mariners…for any kind of long-term sustainment effort.” The Navy has lately acknowledged in testimony earlier than Congress that it will have the ability to maintain provide efforts for “the first 30 days [of prolonged activation]…but after that things start to tail off, [and suppling the armed forces] really becomes an issue.”

The Drawback

America’s potential to maintain its forces overseas and venture energy from the sea is brittle, tenuously maintained by an getting older fleet that is undermaintained and overworked. This is worrying as a result of it constrains operational effectiveness. As evidenced throughout routine peacetime operations, underway replenishments have decreased by 27 % from 2011 to 2015, whereas in-port refueling now compose roughly 30 % of floor combatant refueling. Provided that the quantity of ships deployed since the finish of the Chilly Conflict has persistently averaged round 100 (see Determine 2), this highlights the impression that decreased Fight Logistics Pressure availability has on constraining commanders throughout peacetime. This in flip raises the specter that the United States can be “unable to deliver the equipment, supplies, and forces called for in the initial phases of operational plans.” In a battle towards a peer adversary or nice energy, when many ports could also be closed as a result of injury or diplomatic restrictions, the solely assured supply of resupply might be what the Navy can convey with it.

Determine 2: Navy ships deployed and underway, 1998 to 2014

As introduced in the Navy’s 2018 Design for Sustaining Maritime Superiority, the fleet is shifting in the direction of an idea referred to as “Distributed Maritime Operations,” in line with which it should conduct extra extensively dispersed operations to reinforce the effectiveness of the floor fleet. This technique is the U.S. Navy’s response to the maritime problem posed by a rising China and a resurgent Russia, each of whom have constructed army capabilities that permit them to challenge kinetic drive hundreds of miles out to sea. When learning the impression of this larger geographic dispersion, the Authorities Accountability Workplace discovered that the geographic dispersion required by distributed operations will “generally increase the demand on the combat logistics force.”

The impression of this geographic dispersion is exacerbated by the have to replenish the logistics vessels instantly supporting the combatants. Traditionally, the Navy has embraced a shuttle/station ship idea, whereby vessels optimized to hold giant portions of both gasoline or dry cargo would carry their items ahead (shuttle) from the ahead logistics level to a multi-purpose replenishment ship hooked up to the working group. This notionally decreased the quantity of time spent resupplying the combatants (by permitting for a one-stop replenishment of meals, gasoline, and munitions) and allowed the multi-purpose vessel to stay on station indefinitely (see Determine three). Distributed maritime operations might toss this proper out the window and require a brand new replenishment idea, or else necessitate that Fight Logistics Drive ships rotate to the ahead logistics level themselves. The latter would scale back each geographic and temporal protection by resupply vessels.

Determine three: Idea of operations, the three-stage logistics practice

In an effort to meet the necessities of distributed operations, logistics vessels “might need to operate independently…which could put them at risk in contested environments.” Given the lack of further Fight Logistics Drive reserves, vital losses of these vessels might cripple the Navy’s means to function offensively. The Navy has additionally acknowledged that, given the dearth of out there floor combatants, most logistics ships should transit at the very least to ahead working bases with out an escort. Whereas sure stakeholders, comparable to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, have begun to look at the drawback, the wider Division of Protection doesn’t intend to formally research the influence of the distributed maritime operations modus operandi on Fight Logistics Drive operations till 2020. Provided that Russia and China each acknowledge the significance of logistics vessels to enabling American energy projection and have developed the means to interdict them, this is an oversight with probably dire penalties.

The Navy, Army Sealift Command, and the Division of Transportation try to deal with this drawback, with combined outcomes. The Navy is trying to cope with the lack of civilian mariners by way of the “Military to Mariner” program, aligning army certifications to these of their civilian counterparts in order to ease the transition into the service provider fleet. This program has not been round lengthy sufficient to guage its efficacy, however with no comparable improve in the U.S.-flagged civilian fleet to supply further employment, the results will possible be muted.

The Navy is additionally constructing further Fight Logistics Drive vessels, elevating the complete quantity from 29 to 32 by Fiscal Yr 2024. This is based mostly on a linear improve in the fleet of floor combatants from 167 to 184 throughout the similar time interval. This effort neither accounts for the impression of the proposed distributed operations, nor the insufficiency for present operations.

Past new development, Congress has approved the buy and conversion of civilian vessels to be used in the surge fleet in addition to the funding of further service life extensions of present vessels. There is vital concern that, even with these efforts, the United States will be unable to satisfy its sealift necessities to help operational planning assumptions. The said requirement of 15.three million sq. ft of sealift capability is presently not met organically by the surge fleet and requires vital augmentation by Maritime Safety Program vessels to satisfy extant necessities. If present developments proceed unabated, natural U.S. sealift capability will atrophy to 75 % of present ranges by 2027, and simply over 25 % by 2033, ensuing in a authorities owned carrying capability of lower than three million sq. ft (see Determine four).

Determine four: Projected surge sealift capability decreases over time, based mostly on programmed service life

The Proposal

So far, this work has highlighted a number of issues — corresponding to an inadequate mariner pool, declining strategic sealift capability, and the specter of an insufficient Fight Logistics Drive to satisfy operational necessities — that, taken in live performance, paint a nightmare state of affairs for strategists and operational planners alike. I now supply a possible answer at a complicated stage of improvement to go with ongoing efforts: the Sea Hunter unmanned floor craft.

Sea Hunter is a totally unmanned floor craft that is the end result of in depth analysis and improvement by the Protection Superior Analysis Tasks Company. Since 2014, the craft has efficiently demonstrated its capability to navigate independently at sea in compliance with “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) in operationally realistic scenarios.” Designed as a know-how demonstrator for future unmanned floor automobiles (and potential absolutely autonomous weapons), the Sea Hunter itself is solely 40 meters lengthy and, weighing in at a mere 135 tons, unsuitable for the logistics position. The potential of this technique is in taking the internal workings of the Sea Hunter — the autonomous methods that permit it to navigate and function independently with solely mission command updates — and making use of them to the design of future logistics ships.

By taking the demonstrated capabilities of autonomous navigation evidenced by the Sea Hunter and making use of it to logistics vessels (both purpose-built or retrofitted), the United States would remedy a quantity of the aforementioned issues. The proposed vessel would assume the shuttle ship position, carrying beans, bullets, and benzene from rear areas to the ahead working space. This might facilitate the focus of the Fight Logistics Drive to direct help of fight operations, allowing higher on-station time whereas the autonomous ships ply the long-haul routes to deliver ahead provides to their bigger, extra succesful brethren. They might additionally supplant vessels in the surge fleet and carry bulk warfighting provides ahead in the occasion of contingency operations.

In an effort to obtain speedy improvement, maintain down prices, and guarantee supply of a mature design, the implementation of this logistics vessel would essentially be phased. Initially, these vessels can be solely barely extra superior than at present demonstrated capabilities, succesful of carrying provides from ahead depots to afloat combatants, in addition to surge fleet provides to designated supply factors. Designing methods that may autonomously conduct an underway replenishment would possible delay supply of a crucial functionality to the fleet. Quite, early variations of this vessel may conduct skin-to-skin replenishments, the place human operators take native or distant management of the provide ship’s cranes and pumps whereas separated by deployed bumpers. Whereas not presently practiced resulting from the routine nature of shifting underway replenishment, such operations might happen in the hundreds of deep-water atolls or remoted islets that populate the Western Pacific, or else in the lee of geographic options. Designed with the gear essential to conduct underway replenishment as we perceive it at the moment, future technological developments would allow absolutely autonomous resupply operations. Mirroring the tanker position of the service air wing’s UCLASS, the final intent can be the full automation of maritime resupply and logistics. Moreover, these vessels could possibly be used to help dangerous operations, delivering provides or heavy gear to ahead outposts the place there is heavy danger to the supplying pressure or inadequate escorts for the mission.

This vessel might be given mission-type orders, getting instructed to hold its items between two ports, carry its items alongside a pre-planned route (just like German provide vessels supporting U-boats throughout World Conflict II), or loiter in an space till ordered elsewhere. These orders might come throughout predetermined replace home windows by way of satellite tv for pc or line-of-sight communications from a controlling unit. This lends itself to disaggregated operations the place a floor motion group commander may detach its designated provide vessel whereas pursuing sure activity, solely to rendezvous at a predetermined waypoint. These preparations could possibly be carried out with a minimal of betraying digital emissions which might be used to focus on such vessels with lengthy vary weapons.

There are vital authorized impediments to this proposal, foremost of which is the Worldwide Laws for Stopping Collisions at Sea requirement for upkeep of a lookout onboard to stop collision. A number of companies, led by Rolls-Royce, are pursuing modifications of these internationally agreed upon laws to allow autonomous civilian methods with out human beings onboard or in direct management.

In the present setting of renewed strategic competitors with Russia and China, the United States is analyzing the arming of its logistics vessels, evidenced by the inclusion of extra “Space, Weight, Power and Cooling” to help anti-air level protection techniques onboard the future fleet replenishment oilers (TAO-205 class). Carrying this curiosity over to the proposed vessel, this raises vital concern that, if armed, it will be a totally autonomous weapon. As a consequence of the possible requirement for vital durations of unbiased operations, real-time management of onboard weapons methods is neither attainable nor desired resulting from battlefield constraints. There is presently no provision in worldwide regulation for absolutely autonomous weapons, although improvement and deployment of such weapons is continuing round the world.

Implementation of autonomous vessels for the function of maritime logistics conveys a number of vital benefits. First, it permits the Navy to beat the limitations imposed by a dwindling workforce, enabling focus of valuable personnel assets the place they’re wanted most and never for routine navigation or the carrying of bulk cargo. Relying on the quantity of vessels constructed, it might permit for sustainment of a warfare effort with out pillaging the U.S.-flagged service provider fleet and debasing civilian commerce.

Second, by designing a logistics vessel that doesn’t anticipate to have a dwelling, respiration crew, the Navy might recapitalize on area in any other case used for human beings. This area might translate to larger carrying capability or extra armaments. Moreover, it might be used to allow smaller and extra quite a few logistics vessels, permitting the Navy to soak up battlefield losses, deliver extra provides afloat, or allow nonetheless larger temporal and geographic dispersion. The Sea Hunter program exemplifies the benefits of an identical recapitalization, with the 135-ton vessel (similar to a big yacht) attaining an operational vary of 10,000 nautical miles. The closest comparability is the Cyclone-class patrol vessel, which has lower than one fifth of the operational vary at over twice the tonnage.

Third, through the use of a system derived from the present Sea Hunter, the logistics vessel will profit from widespread programmatic developments. It will permit for extra speedy refinement of its onboard techniques, enhancing each its seakeeping capabilities and its means to include potential weapons methods. Additional, designing these vessels to function as a totally autonomous weapons system — at the very least in phrases of point-defense and anti-torpedo know-how — would permit the Navy to beat the dearth of escorts.

Lastly, early improvement of this know-how would grant the United States a bonus in a business area that is positive to develop in the years to return. Embracing and creating this know-how in conjunction with business companions might result in a renaissance of the United States’ worldwide service provider fleet, in addition to have essential influence on home shipborne commerce that is presently constrained by the Jones Act.


The USA has entered an period of renewed nice energy competitors, although with out the means to maintain a protracted warfare effort towards potential challengers. America’s maritime technique, which requires extensively distributed operations, is enabled by solely 29 vessels of the Fight Logistics Drive and supported by an extra 121 service provider ships. In an effort to treatment the Achilles heel that this single level of failure represents, the United States ought to pursue improvement of a totally autonomous logistics ship based mostly on the confirmed and mature know-how of the Sea Hunter. Failure to arrest the present atrophy of the Fight Logistics Pressure and surge fleet will scale back the credibility of the Navy to discourage battle and, when deterrence fails, reply decisively.


Lt. Elee Wakim is a floor warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed listed here are his personal and don’t characterize these of the United States Division of Protection or another group.

Picture: U.S. Navy photograph by John F. Williams

LBJ School - The University of Texas at Austin

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