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U.S. Department of Defense

March 12, 2020
By David Vergun

Low Supply, Old Ships Put Sealift at Risk, DOD Officials Say

The mission of U.S. Transportation Command is to move people and materiel globally over land, sea and air.

Transportation is in high demand since about 85% of the force is stationed in the United States and that force often deploys, said Army Gen. Steve Lyons, commander of U.S. Transcom.

Lyons testified yesterday at a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittees Seapower and Projection Forces and Readiness.

The National Defense Strategy states that the military must be able to project the force globally even if under persistent attack on the land, sea, air, space and cyber domains, he said.

"Today, I am confident in our ability to successfully execute our mission, but the risk is increasing," he said, referring to the insufficient quantity and aging fleets of sealift vessels and aerial refueling tankers.

Mark H. Buzby, maritime administrator at the U.S. Maritime Administration, also testified and detailed the risks mentioned by Lyons.

MARAD operates the vessels that are part of U.S. Transcom. They include government-owned ships, U.S. flagged commercial vessels, and intermodal systems.

"This is an efficient and effective force for moving cargoes worldwide during peacetime," Buzby said. "[But] I'm concerned about its ability to reliably project and sustain power globally in a contested environment. To address this, we must strengthen our sealift capability and reverse declines in the U.S.-flagged commercial fleet and U.S. shipbuilding and repair industry."

To address these declines, recapitalization of the fleet is the top priority, he said, explaining that recapitalization includes surface life extensions for old vessels, acquiring and converting used vessels, and building new vessels in U.S. shipyards.

MARAD recently released a request for proposal for a vessel acquisition manager who will identify, purchase, modify and potentially operate these vessels, he said.

Another concern Buzby mentioned is the decline in domestic capacity to build and repair large commercial ships.

Of the seven large shipyards that existed several decades ago, three are now closed, one no longer does commercial work, and two perform conversion work only. Only one retains its ability to build large sealift ships, he said.

The number of vessels is slightly up, but it is nowhere near what it needs to be, he said. Last year, there were 81 ships in the commercial fleet. Today there 87, but that's still down from the 106 ships available in 2010.

There's a second related problem. "Due to declines in [the] U.S. flagged fleet, I'm concerned about our access to enough qualified mariners," he added.

Navy Vice Adm. Ricky L. Williamson, deputy chief of naval operations, fleet readiness and logistics, also testified. The Navy purchases the vessels operated by MARAD.

Navy leadership is aware of the problems, he said.

"We are working hard to balance the needs of the sealift fleet with those of the combatants," he said.

The sealift fleet transports 90% of war materiel globally and the combatants are warships such as destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers.

"We haven't made significant investment in a while," he said. "We expect that investing now will yield returns of increased long-term readiness as we work to recapitalize the sealift ships."

Air Force Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, also testified at the hearing. He mentioned modernization of the tanker fleet and some challenges of availability.

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