Strategic Sealift: A Fleeting Capability?
SUBJECT AREA Strategic Issues
Title: Strategic Sealift: A Fleeting Capability?
Author: LCDR G. Mark McLamb, United States Navy
Thesis: The United States Armed Forces are becoming more
and more dependent upon a strategic sealift capability that is
becoming less and less capable.
Background: The United States has long pursued a defense
strategy designed to engage our enemies as far forward as
possible. In carrying the war to the enemy, the United States
has always heavily depended upon strategic sealift to deploy
and sustain troops abroad. Like most developed maritime
nations, we have become heavily dependent upon the U.S.
maritime industry to provide contingency sealift assets when
called upon. As our maritime industry continues its unchecked
decline, we have been forced to look more and more to foreign
sources to meet our sealift contingency needs. As our new
defense strategy is calling for fewer troops based abroad, we
are only becoming more reliant upon sealift for power
Conclusion: Unless the United States is willing to
substantially invest in a healthy and viable maritime
industry, the pattern of increased dependence upon foreign-
sourced strategic sealift assets will continue. In that we
cannot always depend upon foreign governments to back our
cause in war, our strategic sealift capability is threatened.
In an era of reduced defense budgets and less government
spending, it is doubtful the situation will improve in the
foreseeable future. Consequently, we must recognize the
fragile nature of our strategic sealift capability and how it
may very well become the limiting factor in our power
STRATEGIC SEALIFT: A FLEETING CAPABILITY?
Thesis Statement. Our nation's armed forces are becoming more
and more dependent upon a strategic sealift capability that is
becoming less and less capable.
I. Strategic Sealift Readiness
A. Military Sealift Command
B. MSC's Control led Fleet
1. Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force
2. Special Mission Support Force
3. Strategic Sealift Force
C. Strategic Sealift Mission
II. Role of U.S. Maritime Industry
A. Merchant Marine Decline
B. Containerization and Obsolescence
III. Sealift Enhancement of the Eighties
A. Sealift Enhancement Program
B. Strategic Sealift Contingency Forces
1. Afloat Prepositioning Force
2. Fast Sealift Ships
3. Ready Reserve Force
4. National Defense Reserve Fleet
5. Additional Sealift Readiness Assets
C. Adequacy of Strategic Sealift Capability
IV. Strategic Sealift During Desert Shield/Desert Storm
A. Strategic Sealift Tested
B. Lessons Learned
V. Strategic Sealift and National Defense
A. Power Projection Limitation
B. Future Implications
STRATEGIC SEALIFT: A FLEETING CAPABILITY?
The United States has pursued a national strategy that is
designed to engage our potential enemies as far forward as
possible. Since we are largely isolated from potential
adversaries by vast oceans, we are especially dependent upon
sealift to support military operations. In fact, it is
recognized that 95 percent of the equipment and supplies
required to deploy and sustain troops abroad will be
transported by ship.(3:2)
Our nation has long recognized the heavy dependence upon
strategic sealift in carrying war to the enemy. This
dependence is only becoming greater as we pursue a U.S.
Defense Strategy that finds fewer forces based overseas to
fulfill our commitment of rapid response to global
crisis.(4:13) However, as important as strategic sealift is
to our national security, questions remain as to the adequacy
of this crucial instrument of national policy.
Despite its significance, the Department of Defense (DOD)
actually owns, and thereby directly controls, only a small
portion of the strategic sealift assets required to deploy and
sustain troops in a major crisis. Instead, DOD relies heavily
upon non-government sources within and outside the United
States to meet its sealift needs. However, the continuing
decline in the U. S. maritime industry is finding our
strategic sealift requirements becoming more and more
dependent upon foreign-flag shipping, a source that cannot be
relied upon in every wartime situation. As the United States
military is becoming less forward deployed, the implications
upon strategic sealift are clear. Our nation's armed forces
are becoming more and more dependent upon a strategic sealift
capability that is becoming less and less capable. To
understand the scope of this problem requires a close
examination of the complex structure of our strategic sealift
capability as well as a critical analysis of its performance
during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
MILITARY SEALIFT COMMAND
DOD's transportation system is managed by the United
States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM). One of eight
Unified Commanders established in 1987, USTRANSCOM's mission
is to provide global air, land, and sea transportation to meet
national security objectives. The three components that
comprise this organization are the Military Airlift Command
(MAC), the Military Traffic Management Command (MTMC), and the
Military Sealift Command (MSC). MAC and MTMC deal with air
and land transportation requirements while MSCmanages sealift
The Military Sealift Command is responsible for ocean
transportation of DOD supplies and equipment in both peace and
war. The origins of MSC date back to World War II when four
separate government agencies controlled sea transportation.
In the reorganization of America's defense structure in 1949,
DOD ocean transportation was placed under a single U.S. Navy
agency, the Military Sea Transportation Service.(2:3) In
1970, the agency's name was changed to Military Sealift
MSC's CONTROLLED FLEET
MSC operates its ships in three separate forces--the
Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, Special Mission Support Force,
and the Strategic Sealift Force. Collectively these forces
comprise the MSC controlled fleet.
The Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force provides direct support
to Navy combatant ships at sea. This force of 48 government
owned vessels includes oilers, ammunition ships, stores ships,
surveillance ships, and ocean tugs that work directly with the
active fleet. (2:10)
The Special Mission Support Force of 22 government owned
vessels carries out a variety of specialized missions such as
oceanographic research, missile tracking, and cable laying and
The Strategic Sealift Force (SSF) provides sea
transportation of materials and supplies for all the military
services in peace and war. The SSF is sized annually based on
anticipated requirements and is comprised of privately owned
as well as government owned vessels. At the end of fiscal
year '90, the SSF contained 171 vessels of which 56 were
government owned and 115 were privately owned.(2:10)
STRATEGIC SEALIFT MISSION
MSC's strategic sealift mission is its predominant task
in terms of ships, manning, and expenditures. Providing
sealift during peacetime is a fairly routine process that
employs regularly scheduled U.S. flag liner ships and
privately owned dry cargo ships and tankers under long-term
charter to the U. S. Navy. This combination of ocean liners
and chartered ships provides the necessary DOD peacetime
sealift of cargo that includes ammunition, sustainment
supplies, and petroleum products.
Although MSC has ample access to sealift assets in
peacetime, a war or contingency situation would dramatically
increase the demand for military shipping. As shown, MSC
relies heavily upon the U.S. maritime industry to get the job
done. This Navy/Maritime industry relationship has long
existed and is not uncommon throughout the world's developed
nations. It reflects the simple economic fact that maritime
nations must depend upon a strong merchant marine to provide
shipping in time of war. No maritime nation could financially
afford to own and lay-up the shipping assets required to meet
its wartime needs. Hence, our heavy reliance upon the U.S.
Merchant Marine. However, this is an industry in serious
MERCHANT MARINE DECLINE
The decline in the U. S. maritime industry is not new nor
has it gone unnoticed. Unfortunately, despite various fixes
over several decades the decline has continued. U.S.-flag
shipping has been declining at an alarming rate partly due to
economic and political considerations, but primarily from the
growth of foreign competition.
There are approximately 360 active, privately owned ships
flying the U.S. flag. At the end of World War II, that number
was 2,114.(16:49) Similarly, from 1970 to 1990, the number of
U.S. merchant seagoing billets shrunk from 69,000 to about
10,000.(16:50) The Commission on Merchant Marine and Defense
projects that by the year 2000 the number of active U.S.
commercial ships will have declined to 217, with only 5409
billets available for merchant seamen, whose average age will
be over 65.(16:50) It is important to also realize that fewer
than two-thirds of these ships will offer any military
From an economic perspective, it has simply become
cheaper for American shippers to use foreign-flag ships.
Maritime union wage pressures, in combination with
protectionist policies, have resulted in U.S. shipping crews
becoming the most expensive in the world.(10:4) Since U.S.
crews are required on U.S.-flag vessels, it is understandable
that alternative shipping means are sought.
Ships flying "flags of convenience" from countries such
as Panama and Liberia have provided attractive shipping
alternatives because of liberal licensing and crewing
requirements and lower taxes. Foreign crews work for
approximately one-eight of the union wages paid to U.S.
mariners.(10:4) Combine these economic realities with the
heavily subsidized and competitive merchant fleets of the
world and it is easy to understand the continuing
deterioration of our maritime industry.
CONTAINERIZATION & OBSOLESCENCE
Not only has our merchant fleet continued its decline,
but in the late sixties, ocean shipping began utilizing
container ships to take advantage of new technology in
transportation means. Containerization allowed commercial
shippers a highly efficient means of rapid origin-to-
destination transport. Through the use of standardized
containers, cargo could be rapidly off-loaded at specially
designed terminals directly onto awaiting trains or tractor
trailers, reducing both costs and delaysin movement.
Commercial fleets began using container ships to such an
extent that other types of vessels became commercially
unprofitable. Containers however, are not adaptable to
military unit equipment such as tanks, trucks, and
helicopters. As a result, the availability of ships, such as
breakbulk and roll on/roll off vessels, that could handle
military unit equipment became threatened due to obsolescence.
In a war or contingency situation, surge sealift requirements
consists primarily of these bulky items that cannot be
containerized or placed upon container ships.
REMEDY OF THE EIGHTIES
These alarming trends did not go unnoticed and Congress
approved a major sealift enhancement program in 1982, to
address the lack of militarily useful ships in the event of
war.(2:4) In addition to funding specific sealift programs,
the Sealift Readiness Program was instituted to allow MSC to
directly requisition U.S.-flag assets through call-up in the
event of war or contingency. Also in 1984, the U.S. Navy saw
strategic sealift designated as one of its four major
functions along with sea control, power projection, and
strategic deterrence.(2:4) The significance of strategic
sealift was finally becoming better appreciated.
STRATEGIC SEALIFT CONTINGENCY FORCES
Between 1982 and 1989 more than $7 billion for strategic
sealift programs was spent to attempt to ensure the adequacy
of sealift in wartime.(6:101) To meet MSC's contingency
sealift needs, the Navy acquired a squadron of Fast Sealift
Ships (FSS), a Ready Reserve Force (RRF), two hospital ships,
and two aviation logistic support ships. Additionally, an
Afloat Prepositioning Force (APF) was formed consisting of
Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) and Afloat Prepositioning
Ships (APS). Each of these acquisitions significantly
enhanced MSC's strategic sealift capability and merit detailed
AFLOAT PREPOSITIONING FORCE
The Afloat Prepositioning Force was established to
improve response time by prepositioning, near a potential
theater of operations, ships loaded with military unit
equipment and supplies necessary to support contingency
operations. Currently, there are 24 ships comprising APF of
two types--Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) and Afloat
Prepositioning Ships (APS).(6:101) Each of these ships are
U.S.- flag merchant ships that are immediately available,
loaded, and forward deployed with full merchant marine crews
The 13 MPS ships are divided into three squadrons located
in the Western Atlantic (East Coast), Indian Ocean (Diego
Garcia), and Western Pacific (Guam).(6:101) Each squadron is
designed to support a Marine Expeditionary Brigade of 16,500
troops for 30 days of combat.(3:6) Each squadron is under the
command of a U.S. Navy captain, embarked with his staff.
The 11 APS ships are not as specialized as the MPS ships
and are basically a collection of militarily useful cargo
ships primarily located in Diego Garcia.(6:101) Ship types
include LASH (Lighter Aboard Ship) barge-carrying ships,
breakbulk ships, tankers, and one heavy lift ship. These
vessels are loaded with U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy
equipment. APS ships do not form an administrative squadron
but like MPS are intended to be off-loaded at unimproved
FAST SEALIFT SHIPS
Fast Sealift Ships were acquired to address the
disappearance of ships capable of transporting military unit
equipment and to allow for the very rapid deployment of a
mechanized Army division.(3:5) The Navy purchased eight of
the fastest container ships in the world and converted them
for the rapid deployment of surge equipment.
Forming Fast Sealift Squadron One, headquartered in New
Orleans, these ships are almost as large as an aircraft
carrier yet can cruise at speeds of 33 knots.(3:5) These
ships are equipped with self-contained ramps for rolling
wheeled and tracked vehicles on and off, twin cranes amidships
and aft to unload equipment and stores where port facilities
are lacking, and helicopter landing and storage facilities.
These are capabilities not generally found in the world's
FSS ships are normally maintained in a reduced operating
status with a nucleus crew of nine maintaining each. FSS
ships are designed to be activated within four days notice and
require an additional 33 crewmembers for activation.(3:5)
These ships, which are contract operated and crewed by U.S.
merchant mariners, are periodically activated for exercises.
The squadron is under the command of a U.S. Navy captain,
embarked with his staff.
READY RESERVE FORCE
The Ready Reserve Force is a fleet of 96 inactive ships
maintained by the Maritime Administration in a 5, 10, or 20-
day readiness status.(5:30) The RRF is made up primarily of
cargo ships that have been taken out of the National Defense
Reserve Fleet (NDRF) and modified for military use and quick
call-up. The RRF was envisioned to provide a significant
portion of the surge shipping capability required to support
the deployment of U.S. troops, recognizing the inadequate
availability of the ship types required from the U.S.-flag
The composition of the RRF includes 83 dry cargo ships,
11 tankers, and two troop transport ships. Eight of the dry
cargo ships have crane capability to off-load at unimproved or
damaged ports. The mix of ships within the RRF include the
breakbulk and roll on/roll off types that best accommodate
military unit equipment. The RRF is programmed to be
increased to 142 ships by 1994.(2:29)
The RRF ships are normally maintained at three sites--in
the James River near Newport News, Va., in the Neches River
near Beaumont, Tx., and in Suisan Bay near Oakland, Ca. The
RRF is administered and maintained by the Maritime
Administration of the Department of Transportation. Upon
activation, MSC assumes control of RRF ships.
NATIONAL DEFENSE RESERVE FLEET
The NDRF is comprised of ships purchased from the
commercial fleet that were destined to be sold for scrap.
These ships generally had become no longer commercially
profitable (non-containerized) yet they represented an
essential, disappearing asset for transporting military unit
equipment. The approximately 230 ships in this aging fleet,
including some World War II vintage vessels, would require one
to six months for activation.(16:47) The NDRF is administered
and maintained by the Maritime Administration and serves as a
source of ships eligible for upgrade to the RRF.
ADDITIONAL SEALIFT READINESS ASSETS
The remaining sealift readiness assets discussed above
include two hospital ships and two aviation logistics support
ships. Each hospital ship represents a 1,000-bed hospital
facility with 12 operating rooms. These converted commercial
tankers are kept in a reduced operating status and maintained
by a civilian crew and a military detachment of 40 personnel
who manage medical equipment and supplies. These ships are
designed to be fully activated with a staff of 1200 medical
personnel and 70 crew members within five days. The hospital
ships are located in Oakland, Ca., and Baltimore, Md. Each
would acquire 90% of their respective medical manning from the
U.S. Naval Hospitals at Oakland, Ca., and Bethesda, Md.(2:16)
The two aviation logistics support ships are designed to
provide the necessary equipment and support for the
maintenance of U.S. Marine corps fixed and rotary wing
aircraft. Berthed in Philadelphia, Pa., and Port Hueneme,
Ca., these ships are kept in a reduced operating status and
can be activated within five days.(2:15)
ADEQUACY OF STRATEGIC SEALIFT
This assortment of contingency sealift forces however,
falls short in meeting the estimated requirements to fulfill
the sealift surge capability in a major war. Strategic
mobility planners have ascertained that current sealift assets
would be capable of lifting only 80 percent of surge cargo in
amajor operation.(1:40) This estimate has even more dramatic
implications for subsequent sustainment operations requiring
sealift assets as well.
In transitioning to war, MSC first fully employs its
controlled fleet. To meet expected shortfalls in required
sealift, MSC follows an acquisition process that first looks
to U.S.-flag assets. As the national commitment level
increases, U.S.-flag ships become available to support
strategic lift objectives through a number of legal means
including charter, call-up under the Sealift Readiness Program
(SRP), or direct requisitioning.(16:50)
Charter is the normal, business approach to meet expanded
sealift requirements. Under this option however, MSC becomes
dependent upon market conditions that determine the
availability of excess shipping capacity available for
charter. Foreign ships are eligible for charter but only
after exhausting U.S.-flag ship availability.
The SRP requires cabinet-level decisions from both the
Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Transportation for
those ships identified in the program to report for government
control as a sealift asset. Direct requisitioning requires
presidential authority and would bring under government
control any U.S. flag ship needed as well as any foreign flag
shipping with a controlling U.S. interest. Al though both of
these options would guarantee access to shipping, due to
political considerations it is believed neither option would
be exercised except as a last resort.(16:52)
Clearly, DOD and MSC have addressed the problems within
the shipping industry that impact on our ability to meet the
strategic sealift mission. Although well conceived and
impressive on paper, the structure within the sealift
contingency system appears all too reliant on acquiring
sealift assets outside of government control and influence.
Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm moved theory into
practice allowing a close look our strategic sealift
STRATEGIC SEALIFT TESTED
Operation Desert Shield marked the first time that the
strategic sealift contingency planning and ship acquisitions
of the eighties were tested. As Iraqi tanks rolled into
Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Msc was operating its normal size
peacetime fleet of 137 ships.(13:42) By the end of the
Southwest Asia conflict, over 500 ships were utilized in
deploying troops that saw sealift move 9.5 million tons of
cargo--95 percent of all cargo transported.(17:14) All
aspects of our enhanced sealift capability were exercised in
what has become the fastest sealift in history and largest
since World War II.(11:1)
The success attributed to strategic sealift during the
Southwest Asia conflict stems primarily from those sealift
programs that simply performed as envisioned. Yet, the
investment placed into sealift enhancement during the eighties
was indeed validated:
--The Afloat Prepositioning Force was an unqualified
success. The first MPS began off-load in Saudi Arabia
only eight days after call-up. All nine activated MPS
ships had off-loaded by the first week of September.
Eight of the twelve APS ships were off-loaded by 6
--The eight FSS ships were loaded out and sailed within
fifteen days of activation. The first FSS arrived in
Saudi Arabia on 27 August, only 20 days from call-up
and 8700 miles later. Five of these ships were activated
in five days or less.(16:32)
--Both hospital ships were activated as were the two
aviation logistic ships. All four of these ships
arrived in the Persian Gulf when expected.
--Of the 17 RRF ships initially activated, only one could
not complete the transit.(16:32)
If viewed in the broadest of terms, strategic sealift
performance during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm was a
remarkable success. However, a closer look beneath what
provided for this success begins to expose limitations and
areas of concern in our strategic sealift capability.
Following sealift acquisition plans, MSC controlled fleet
assets were first fully employed then U.S.-flag assets were
chartered. Very quickly into the acquisition process to
support the Desert Shield buildup, foreign-flag charter became
necessary. The most difficult ship type to acquire was
quickly identified as the roll-on/roll-off ships. MSC ordered
the activation of all 17 of these type ships in the RRF, and
then became totally dependent upon foreign sources for the
remaining number required.(13:44) Despite the impressive
array of contingency force ships backed up by U.S. flag
charter and the RRF, MSC still required 28 percent foreign-
flag ships in the initial deployment to Southwest Asia.(13:46)
By the end of September 1990, MSC had chartered 37 foreign
ships from fifteen nations!(2:16)
Without question, the most disturbing realization
regarding sealift from the Southwest Asia experience was our
heavy dependence upon foreign sources. According to the
Deputy Commander of USTRANSCOM, the participation of foreign
ships was "essential" to strategic sealift in Southwest
Asia.(13:47) The international consensus against Saddam
Hussein saw other nations gladly involving their merchant
shipping. However, we cannot rely upon the shipping resources
from as many as 15 foreign countries to always support our
cause in war.
It should also be recognized that Operation Desert
Shield/Desert Storm was a test of our strategic sealift
capability under the most ideal of circumstances. Our entry
into theater was totally unopposed. The Saudi Arabian ports
are among the most modern and capable in the world.(16:5) The
United States was able to control commencement of hostilities
with the option of delaying action until completely ready. It
is doubtful that such an ideal scenario will ever present
STRATEGIC SEALIFT AND NATIONAL DEFENSE
The bottom line regarding our strategic sealift success
in Southwest Asia was that it required the cooperation of the
entire world, and the utilization of some of the best port
facilities in the world. Further, it involved an enemy who
allowed us a totally unopposed build-up and all the time we
needed to ready ourselves for war.
The lessons of history may not be lost upon our next
opponent who may realize the limitations of our sealift
capability, which has been referred to as the "achilles heel"
of power projection.(6:105) Unless we are willing to invest
substantially in rebuilding our maritime industry or in
expanding our contingency fleet, our strategic sealift
capability will remain questionable, and more and more become
the limiting factor in our power projection capability.
In recognizing this era of reduced defense budgets, a
"remedy of the nineties" cannot be expected to occur regarding
sealift enhancement expenditures. If we are willing to accept
the continuing decline of our maritime industry, understanding
its importance to strategic sealift, we must face the
potential limitations in our defense strategy. We must
recognize that in future contingencies requiring the
projection of power, our strategic sealift capability may not
be able to answer the call when needed.
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