Sustaining the Integrated Distributed Force at Sea: The Military Sealift Command Challenge


By Robbin Laird

With the strategic shift from the land wars to full spectrum crisis management, the sea services face the challenge of prioritizing maneuver warfare at sea.

But it is impossible to execute maneuver warfare at sea if you have no fuel, or go Winchester with regard to weapons.

That challenge needs to be met by the logistical enterprise write large.

This means that as the fleet distributes across the maritime maneuver space and prepares to execute its offensive and defensive capabilities, a logistics enterprise has to function at full tilt to provide for the kit needed for operational effectiveness.

In the land wars, Fed Ex and commercial shipping could provide inputs to the land-based depots.

This is hardly the support model facing high tempo combat operations, where the supply chains themselves are key targets for adversaries.

If you distribute the force, then the question becomes not simply how do you supply the fleet from external assets, but it also means that the fleet can shape ways to cross support as well, notably with high value supplies which a combat force might need.

With the coming of the CMV-22B to the fleet, the focus has been upon the C-2 being replaced by the new asset to do carrier support.

But there is no reason, that an Osprey cannot do cross fleet support, by air transporting WITHIN the fleet of critical supplies.

And for that matter, the assets which the Marines have bought for ship to shore force insertion, could as well.

With the coming of the much more capable CH-53K to the fleet, there is little doubt that it could play a role in intra-fleet support as well if so desired. This then raises questions about the numbers of such assets within the fleet as well.

With the reimagining of the amphibious fleet, such a role surely could be considered.

And we have also seen in recent months, new roles for the USAF in supplying ships at sea as well, such as C-17 support to boomers at sea.

When one considers the wider question of the logistics enterprise, shaping the demand side is crucial as well.

One good example of this is the Littoral Combat Ship which was never designed to support itself, and has challenged the logistics enterprise to do so.

This needs to be a consideration as well for any shipbuilding plans in terms of sustainability: how would I sustain this new ship or class of ships?

And If they are relying on external support primarily, how likely is this to happen in times of significant conflict?

And design of new combat ships to ensure more rapid transfer of supplies is key as well.

During my visit to the USS Gerald R. Ford, we learned that the ship has been designed to take on pallets rather than simply bulk cargo. With those pallets offload to the new carrier, they go below deck by elevators and where appropriate can be loaded directly into refrigeration units.

The time scale is measured in hours with regard to the time necessary to do resupply at sea for the Ford versus the Nimitz class because of this new design feature onboard the USS Gerald R. Ford.

But the bulwark of support at sea will be delivered by the Military Sealift Command and its ships and its contracted commercial fleet as well.

The shift from the land wars to support of a distributed blue water fighting force is a significant one for MSC.

A measure of the change is that the last two commanders of MSC come from strike groups, and very familiar with the demand side of the support equation.

After my recent visit to the USS Gerald R. Ford, I had a chance to visit with the current commander of MSC, Rear Admiral Michael Wettlaufer.

Wettlaufer previously commanded the Dambusters of VFA-195, USS Denver (LPD 9), USS John C Stennis (CVN 74) and Carrier Strike Group 3 during the 2018-19 around-the-world deployment.

He deployed multiple times to the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf flying the A-6E Intruder with VA-85 and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 1 aboard USS America (CV 66) including Operation Desert Storm. Forward deployed from Japan aboard USS Independence (CV 62) and USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) as a Dam buster department head and CVW-5 operations officer, he flew the FA-18C and he deployed to the Pacific as executive officer aboard USS John C Stennis (CVN 74).

In his current role, Wettlaufer is serving as commander, Military Sealift Command.

Wettlaufer has 3,800 hours flying 50 different aircraft types and over 900 arrested landings on 14 carrier decks and conducted developmental Joint Strike Fighter flight control trials aboard HMS Invincible.

I can tell you from talking with him, he is no shrinking violet.

He and his team clearly understand the magnitude of the challenge facing the MSC reset to deal with blue water combat support operations, and are working hard to deliver the best capability which the current system allows to the blue water fighting force.

We started by going back to World War II and discussing the big blue blanket and the vast certainly by modern times support fleet, which included more than 30 fleet oilers in the Pacific alone.

The Rear Admiral underscored: “We cannot do that today.

“But we have to be able to distribute logistical support to a maritime distributed force.

“There will certainly be no maneuver if you do not have a solid logistics tail.

“You have to be able to have logistical support at the scale, the scope and scale, and more importantly, the tempo, required to support maneuver warfare.”

He emphasized the nature of the challenge by underscoring that several variables which have to be synchronized: “There’s distance, there’s time, and there’s the appropriate number of assets to be able to span the distance in the time required to meet the requirements, whatever those requirements are and then to be able to adjust to the operational realities.”

With the end of the Cold War, and the past two decades of fighting the land wars, there was a shift to commercial logistics and just in time deliveries.

But in the strategic shift what was considered operational efficiency can now become a combat disadvantage.

The need now is to sustain combat operations are distance and in maneuver space.

How do you do this?

As the Rear Admiral put the challenge: “We need to cascade supplies to get them to the scale required at the time required and delivered to the point of need. Or before point of need.”

And the cascade that the Rear Admiral highlighted is based on working appropriate arrangements between the commercial sector and the military.

“This cascade doesn’t work without effective commercial integration with the military, and that includes the commercial mariner, the operating company side and commercial industry side.

“We are so integrated with commercial industry at MSC because of our operation model that was delivered in 1991, essentially, to be commercially reliant, which has risk.

“And that commercial reliance is on repair, processes, and shipyards in the United States actually to deliver the combat logistics force.

“Integration with the commercial sector and the civilian workforce is the only way that we can make this work.

“And to do this, we are masters at contracting. We can shoot more contracts than any country can shoot missiles, in a day.”

I then raised a question about upgrades to the fleet.

When Ed Timperlake, and I visited MSC several years ago, the coming of the T-AKE ship was a key piece of the puzzle being introduced to upgrade and update MSC capabilities.

Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Supply (T-AOE 6) conducts a vertical replenishment with nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65). Enterprise and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 1 are underway on a scheduled deployment. (U.S. Navy Photo/mass communication specialist Petty Officer 2nd Class Stacee Fitzgerald)

I asked him is there a ship coming soon that would have a similar effect?

Rear Admiral Wettlaufer: “We are part of the requirements generation process for ship building that supports logistics or other special mission support requirements.

“We’re scheduled to put 20 new ships to sea in the next five years.

“We are replacing the tankers, and that new ship fits the bill of what your question posed.

“The T-AO-205 class, the John Lewis class ship is going to make a difference for us. The first one gets delivered in September of 2021. There are significant advancements on the new ship with regard to modernization of the equipment onboard the vessel, both in terms of reliability and redundancy.

“We will be able manage more fuel, and heavier loads as well.

“This will give us more capability to support a distributed fleet.”

The Rear Admiral and his team see significant strides in unmanned support systems as well.

By this they referred to the support for manning the ships and repairing the ships, not the multiplication of maritime remotes.

The Rear Admiral noted: “The commercial industry based simply upon financial imperative will reduce manning. COVID-19 obviously has been a big challenge, but what it has highlighted is there are new, innovative ways to deliver repair support through virtual means.

“The workflow changes as you leverage automation and virtual support.

“We have used our virtual capacity to get to virtual attendance on our ships.

“Whether it’s an inspection for a post repair requirement from ABS, the American Bureau of Shipping or it’s a tech rep going and attending the Mercy, while she was doing her mission in Los Angeles to make sure that O2N2 plant was up and operating, we did those things virtually and we’ve transformed into that remote support model where we can. That’s the future.

“It’s also the future of ship repair, from a battle damage perspective, potentially as well. If a ship is battle damaged some place, we already have measured the inside of the ship. We understand what that design is inside that vessel. And remotely we can develop the repair plan and deliver that forward.”

The Rear Admiral then discussed digital twinning in the MSC fleet.

“We have digital twin technology in our Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) fleet formerly known as the Joint High-Speed Vessel.

“Instead of time-based maintenance, we are targeting condition-based maintenance. And we are taking this model onto our new classes of ships as they come to the fleet. Digital twinning is part of our warfighting effectiveness approach.”

We discussed as well the C2 side of the effort and he underscored that the US Navy and MSC are working hand in hand for C2 integrability across the fleet as well.

Obviously, this is a key element of being able to bring the logistics enterprise and fleet operations into the kind of synchronization crucial to combat success.

We then shifted to the training side of the equation.

Next year, I am publishing a book entitled: Training for the High End Fight: The Strategic Shift of the 2020s.

What the Rear Admiral underscored, that a key part of such training needed to encompass the logistics integrability with the kill web maritime force.

“If we are both a civil service and commercial mariner fleet operating government owned and contractor owned vessels in some mix, delivering logistics, the training for that entire ecosystem is just as critical as the front-line combat force.

“They’re going to have to transit whatever the level of contestation the environment is, whether it’s leaving a port in CONUS, that may have a cyber-attack or some other challenge against it, to delivering to the LHA that maybe is in a less contested environment, that whole piece has to be supported by training and it’s training of all those mariners who are sitting in, euphemistically sitting in a union hall some place, or under a union waiting to get hired for the job, or to get pulled to get picked up on a ship, as well as MSC’s training processes to make sure our workforce is up to date on what those requirements may be. Because they have to operate in the same space. At different levels, zones of contestation.”

The Rear Admiral concluded by highlighting the significance of the five Rs and underscored that MSC is working efforts in all five Rs.

“Admiral Williamson talks about the five Rs: Refuel, Re-arm, resupply, repair and revive. If we can’t do those things at the scope, scale, tempo required to support distributed maritime operations then we’re not going down the right path. And we have lines of effort in each of the five Rs.”

The featured photo of the Rear Admiral was shot last year during his service as commander of a carrier strike force.

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, commander, Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 3, speaks to Sailors during an all-hands call on the fo’c’sle of the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale (DDG106) in the Arabian Gulf, March 31, 2019. The Stockdale is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of naval operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and the Pacific through the western Indian Ocean and three strategic choke points. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Abigayle Lutz).