2016-02-18 By Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake and Murielle Delaporte
Logistics is the oft forgotten dimension of combat power. For the sea services, this means that the key role of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) can never be overlooked or forgotten. It is just a notable fact that the MSC can be too often overlooked for what it is – the enabler of the sea services shift towards distributed operations.
And they do not have a powerful seat at the table in the Pentagon to gain access to resources, because the MSC mariners spend their lives at sea, not Inside the Beltway.
The Navy has clearly underscored its shift towards a more distributed fleet with distributed lethality to extend the global reach of the carrier strike force.
As a harbinger of this, the USN-USMC team has already seen a shift in how its basic combat force is deployed.
Historically, the Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Force or the ARG-MEU has deployed in a three-ship formation over a 200 mile sea space. With the integration of the Osprey into the fleet, the ARG-MEU now operates on ships often deployed a thousand miles from one another.
It does not take a genius to understand that resupplying ships that are 1,000 miles from one another is not the same as 200 miles from one another, and enhances the demand function on the MSC fleet.
And with the shortfall of combat ships in the fleet, the Military Sealift Command is being pressed to do more. A case in point is the newest supply ship in the MSC fleet, the T-AKE ship. The 14 T-AKE ships are completed and the final two ships were funded at $825 million which would make per ship cost around 412 million.
The ship has been designed to provide flexible, blue water support in any Ocean of the world to the fleet. A well designed ship for any climate and sea state T-AKE ships have significant cargo space, including ammunition support, with efficient and well thought-out elevators to enable the crew to move cargo to the delivery to the point of support. Coupled with the use of modern logistical and inventory control IT systems the ships crew can find the cargo in its location quickly and efficiently.
Given the shortage of ships for the USCG and the US Navy, the T-AKE ship fleet has been tasked to do a diversity of missions far beyond simple fleet replenishment.
- Given the high demand on the tanker fleet, T-AKE ships have also become an ocean going tanker.
- The Marines are using it as mini-amphibious support ship in the Pacific.
- Currently T-AKE con-ops can already support either military helicopters for fleet replenishment at sea or commercial helicopters for other mission sets
- Its helo deck has landed Ospreys and there an important consideration of perhaps modifying the two-helo hanger arrangement into a space for 24/7 Osprey operations
- As the surface Navy is discovering for the distributed operational fleet, it makes good sense to rely on the Osprey as a significant operational connector.
A blunt fundamental question in today’s resource battle for assets is; can the MSC actually support Navy plans to more widely distribute its fleet in the years ahead?
The answer currently can only be a provisional yes, given the shortage of ships, and the proliferation of new high demand drivers such as the Littoral Combat Ship. In addition to a declining merchant fleet there is a growing shortage of trained and experienced civil mariners generated by the decline in the US merchant marine.
The key to an expanded role of the Military Sealift Command must be met by having a supply of experienced mariners and a robust number of US merchant ships to generate these qualified mariners.
With the continued and rapid decline of the US merchant fleet and the declining shipbuilding base in the United States, core military capabilities envisaged for the period ahead may not be realized.
Without the logistics base necessary for globally distributed operations, it will be necessary to cut back the tasks and operational reach of the sea services.
The expenditure on the land wars has clearly challenged the future of the sea services, notably with regard to its logistical support structure.
During a recent visit to the Military Sealift Command in Norfolk Virginia, we discussed a number of these issues with the head of MSC, Admiral Shannon. The Admiral is a Surface Warfare Officer who has a distinguished naval background.
He served in various parts of the USN surface fleet as a consumer of MSC support but in his words, “I always wanted to be on the other end of the probe taking oil.”
As a former carrier strike group commander, he certainly has brought to the job a deep knowledge of the needs of the customer, and notably those in time a global stretch for the USN-USMC team.
He expressed concern that the decline of the US merchant marine has clearly highlighted the challenge of being able to recruit the requisite numbers of civil mariners to the MSC fleet.
According to Admiral Shannon: “One thing I wake every morning thinking about is if the President declares the need for the country to go to war, how will the logistical side of the military meet the challenge?
This is a challenge for airlift, land transportation, and for us, of course, sealift, since around ninety percent of the world commerce moves by sea.”
The magnitude of the challenge generated by the decline of the Merchant Marine fleet was highlighted by Admiral Shannon.
“Three decades ago, when I came into the U.S. Navy, we had around 400 ships in the merchant marine. Today that number is down to 77 in the international trade. Just a few months ago, that number was around 80. That is a drop from the beginning of 2015.
We are getting close to that magic number where we clearly will not have enough U.S. flagged merchant ships to generate the mariners, which MSC will need to operate, notably when we mobilize. And it is not just a question of mariners; it is about the shipbuilding base and ship repair facilities being available in the United States.”
And along with the decline in the pool of US civil mariners, there is the question of the block retirement of the current generation of civil mariners.
In an interview with the Skipper of the fleet replenishment oiler USNS Kanawha (T-AO 196) during the same visit to MSC in mid-December, Master Mariner Jim Dolan, argued:
“As the American commercial fleet declines, there’s going to be a shortage in the pool of skilled mariners. No doubt about it. And we’re starting to see that in MSC.
And my peer group, of 35 years of experience, is retiring, so you will see new Captains onboard the fleet. Good captains but without our experience. You can not put a price on experience.”
Dolan has been in the service for 35 years with MSC by May 2016, the last 15 aboard tankers and has been a Master Mariner for around 25 years.
The decline of the merchant marine and the availability of civil mariners is a problem now in terms of peacetime, but clearly the problem of attrition in conflict would create a significant problem for MSC and its ability to support the Navy.
Admiral Shannon noted that for Iraqi Freedom there was no real threat to MSC transit “Let us take the case of our support to Iraqi Freedom.
For example, on a single day in 2003, 167 ships under the cognizance of Military Sealift Command were moving cargo to support the operation in the Middle East. Because the sea was uncontested, this was relatively a walk in the park.
Fast-forward to today’s Pacific, where there clearly are powers capable of contesting us at sea.
How then do we do the logistical support necessary for the operation of the sea services operating forward in a contested environment?”
How then to deal with this shortage and ensure that the sea services have the kind of logistical support they need in a conflict environment?
For Admiral Shannon, the answer must begin with strengthening the US merchant marine and enhance its ability to supply civil mariners to the MSC. According to Admiral Shannon “The Jones Act and the Maritime Security Program are important but not enough. We need things like more cargo preference to ensure that we have adequate U.S. merchant shipping.
I know some people consider cargo preference corporate welfare. I consider cargo preference an investment in our national security because if you put some cargo on the table, the U.S. flag will see an opportunity and they will acquire or build U.S. flag ships. They will flag them in the United States if there’s some cargo there for them to haul.”
In other words, from the MSC perspective, one could look at cargo preference as a proactive incentive, which supports the logistical side of sea service operations.
And the Admiral tied the need for civil mariners as well to the mobilization tasks, which the National Command Authority would generate when conflict becomes serious.
Admiral Shannon added “with such an approach, we can build capacity in the merchant marine and, in turn, expand the base of mariners available to us in time of need. Those mariners are critical to us because when you look at today’s MSC report, we have 61 ships in a reduced operating status.
Forty-six of those are over at the Maritime Administration and 15 of them are with Military Sealift Command. And they’re mostly large roll-on/roll-off vessels and dry cargo vessels; and they’re strategically dispersed around the country with 10 to12 mariners on each ship.
When the president rings the bell, we go to the union halls and we man the ships up to whatever their manning requirement is It’s typically about another 20 persons per vessel.
So, right there, 60 times 20, we need 1,200 mariners to fall in from somewhere, and where they’re going to fall in from is the U.S. flagged merchant fleet.
The capacity of a robust U.S. flag merchant marine and its manpower is the engine which enables us to carry our country to war when ordered.”
An edited version of this article was published on Breaking Defense on February 18, 2016.
Challenges for the Military Sealift Command