General testifies government ships insufficient sealift for major contingency
by Michael Hansen, Hawaii Shippers Council, May 4, 2017
The Washington Examiner reported in a May 2, 2017 news article (US would struggle to resupply forces after 30 days of war in Korea, general says) that the U.S. Government does not have the sealift capacity to support a major overseas contingency such as a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
The issue was raised during testimony by Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, before the U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee chaired by Senator John S. McCain.
Gen. McDew said, “The U.S. military has enough planes and ships to flow forces into the war zone for 30 days, but after that it would become difficult because of the inability to send commercial vessels into a contested war zone.” Further, he said, "The initial force can be brought by organic fleets, and then we would have to see what we can do after that."
The Examiner reported, “McDew testified that the U.S. military cargo ship fleet is "aging out" and asked Congress to approve the purchase of used commercial vessels as a stopgap measure until new military ships can be built.”
And, separately, “The Pentagon says the average age of the Military Sealift Command's "surge fleet," needed for rapid response in a crisis, is now 39 years, and that over a recent five-month period fewer than 60 percent of sealift ships were able to activate during planned exercises due to various maintenance problems.”
Sealift is the ocean shipping capacity available for the transport of matérial in support of U.S. military operations overseas. The term “organic fleet” means U.S. government owned and operated cargo ships of various kinds. The “surge fleet” refers to the “Ready Reserve Fleet” (RRF), which is the subset of government ships that would provide the organic sealift to resupply for the first 30 days of a major overseas operation.
Gen McDew’s description of the situation is contrived to create an impression that the Congress needs to fund construction in U.S. shipyards of a new fleet of ready reserve ships in particular to replace the ageing 31 deep sea roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) ship.
Gen McDew ignored the U.S. flag foreign (or, international) trade fleet of 81 privately owned ships of which 60 are receiving a Maritime Security Program (MSP) subsidy of U.S. $5.00 million per ship per year in exchange for making the ships available to the military for sealift. This is exactly why the Government is paying the subsidy.
In addition, during the first Gulf War in 1992, the Military Sealift Command (MSC) used commercial shipbrokers and ship chartering practices to charter in a significant number of allied-controlled shipping to augment organic resources and U.S. flag shipping. Contrary to Gen McDew’s reported testimony, the commercial ship owners and operators did sail in to the war zone utilizing special war risk insurance coverage. This approach was based upon the British experience in the Falklands War in 1982.
As Gen McDew testified, there would be the possibility to purchase second hand ships from the international market as the government did during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, when they acquired 27 foreign-built deepsea Ro/Ro’s from foreign owners. The practical problem with this proposal is that deepsea Ro/Ro’s, which are excellent for sealift, have not been built since the 1970’s, and would have to be ordered as newbuildings.
The extraordinary cost of major ship construction in the U.S. is prohibitive and the Government is finding funding for domestic shipbuilding all but impossible to arrange, while the alternative of constructing these ships far more competitive allied shipyards creates political problems for the military with the U.S. maritime industry and their allies in Congress.
There is not a national security problem with constructing these kinds of cargo ships in allied shipyards, as there would be in terms of the design and construction of combatant ships.
National Reserve Defense Fleet (NRDF) / Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF)
The U.S. government-owned fleet of militarily useful merchant ships is known as the National Reserve Defense Fleet (NRDF). Section 11 of the Merchant Ship Sales Act of 1946 established the NDRF to serve as a reserve of ships for national defense and national emergencies. As of December 31, 2015 there was a total of 101 NRDF ships. The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), is responsible for managing the NRDF.
The active subset of the NRDF is known as the Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF), which was formed in 1976 to support the worldwide deployment of U.S. military forces especially Army and Marine components. The 48 ship RRF provides nearly one-half of the government-owned surge sealift capability. MARAD contracts out to civilian ship management companies the management of the 48 RRF ships. MARAD awarded the current ship management contracts in 2016 to seven commercial ship management companies for a four year base period (the years 2016 through 2020) with two two-year renewal options.
Of the 48 cargo ships in the NRDF more than half are foreign built and nearly all were built during the 1970’s. The most important subgroup are the 31 deepsea Roll-On/Roll-Off (RO/RO) ships of which 27 were foreign built in the 1970’s and approaching 45 years of age. The deepsea RO/RO’s can efficiently carry the military rolling stock so necessary to support the U.S. Department of Defense (USDOD) missions across the world’s oceans and discharge the cargo at underdeveloped and damaged ports.
The deepsea RO/RO’s were built in the 1970s largely in Europe to service ports where full container terminal facilities had not yet been constructed, and were subsequently replaced by more efficient cellular containerships when container terminals became widely available. During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the USDOD was able to take advantage of these foreign built ships coming out of foreign flag service and acquire highly suitable low cost ships for conversion to U.S. flag.
The USDOD is facing replacement of these RRF ships, and as no one in the world is building new deepsea RO/RO’s, this will mean ordering newbuildings. There is a big controversy brewing between the U.S. major shipbuilding industry who want the replacements built in the U.S. and many in the defense establishment who would prefer to build the ships overseas in view of the potential budget savings.
U.S. Flag Foreign (or, International) Trade Fleet
The U.S. flag foreign trade fleet is comprised of foreign-built U.S. flag oceangoing ships, which are not Jones Act qualified and not eligible for coastwise trading. The U.S. flag foreign trade fleet of ships over 1,000 gross tons stands at 81 ships as of April 1, 2017. Approximately half of the fleet is foreign-owned through specialized U.S. trusts. These ships are subject to full U. S. Coast Guard (USCG) vessel inspection standards and required to be manned with a full U.S. crew (all officers and 75% of unlicensed crew must be U.S. citizens and the balance of the unlicensed crew must be resident aliens, also known as green card holders). The U.S. flag requirements makes these ships more expensive to operate than their international competition which are largely operating flag of convenience (FOC). These ships are supported by federal subsidy programs including U.S. cargo preference and the Maritime Security Program (MSP).
The U.S. military has enough planes and ships to flow forces into the war zone for 30 days, but after that it would become difficult because of the inability to send commercial vessels into a contested war zone, said Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, commander of U.S. Transportation Command.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McDew said he has been closely coordinating with Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, the U.S. Korea commander, about what he would need in the event of war against the North.
"We have a sufficient force today, and I have talked to Vince Books and his staff, to provide him what he needs in the first 30 days organically," McDew said.
Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concern about the shortage of military ships and the possible impact on a conflict.
"We do not have the capability I wish we had," responded McDew. "The initial force can be brought by organic fleets, and then we would have to see what we can do after that."
McDew testified that the U.S. military cargo ship fleet is "aging out" and asked Congress to approve the purchase of used commercial vessels as a stopgap measure until new military ships can be built.
The Pentagon says the average age of the Military Sealift Command's "surge fleet," needed for rapid response in a crisis, is now 39 years, and that over a recent five-month period fewer than 60 percent of sealift ships were able to activate during planned exercises due to various maintenance problems.