Strategic Sealift: A Problem With A Solution
SUBJECT AREA - Strategic Issues
Title: Strategic Sealift: A Problem with a Solution
Author: Major K.D. Bolitho, United States Marine Corps
Conference Group #7, Marine Corps Command and Staff College
Thesis: In accordance with the new National Military
Strategy, U.S. strategic sealift must be reevaluated in
terms of its rapid response capabilities, sustainability and
Background: As a maritime nation, the U.S. must be able to
deploy and sustain substantial forces in areas of the world
where we do not have forward-positioned forces or equipment.
However, it was made apparent during Operation Desert Shield
and Desert Storm, that the U.S. military and Merchant Marine
fleets were not capable of responding quickly to the massive
sealift requirements necessary to fight a war overseas. The
inability of U.S. sealift to respond quickly to crisis
without reliance on foreign-flag shipping is a problem which
must be solved. Our experience during Operation Desert
Shield and Desert Storm pointed out three strategic sealift
areas which if enhanced will provide the rapid response
capability needed and will significantly reduce U.S.
dependence on foreign-flag shipping: Afloat Prepositioning
Ships, Fast Sealift Ships, and the U.S.-flag fleet and
Recommendation: The U.S. must reconsider its strategic
sealift operations. The Afloat Prepositioned Ships program
and the Fast Sealift Ships program must be expanded to
insure rapid deployment and sustainability in the theater of
operations. The U.S.-flag merchant fleet and Merchant
Marines must be revitalized in order to provide adequate
follow-on sealift capability during a crisis without
reverting to a dependence on foreign-flag ships.
STRATEGIC SEALIFT: A PROBLEM WITH A SOLUTION
Thesis: In accordance with the new National Military
Strategy, the U.S. strategic sealift must be reevaluated in
terms of its rapid response capabilites, sustainability and
I. Reexamining the U.S.'s military capabilities
A. Refocusing on major contingency operations
B. Deploy and sustain substantial forces
C. Lack of available strategic sealift
D. Dependence on foreign-flag shipping
II. Afloat Prepositioning Ships
A. Best forward deployed rapid reinforcement capability
B. Configured in complete force modules
C. Primarily unique to the U.S.M.C
D. Capability should be expanded to other services
III. Fast Sealift Ships
A. Second echelon of follow-on support
B. CONUS deployed reinforcements
C. Maintained in ready state for rapid deployment
D. Expensive to maintain
l. Expand the FSS fleet
2. Government built ships and chartered to merchant fleet
IV. Ready Reserve Fleet
A. Capability that is past its prime
B. Expensive to maintain and reactivate
C. Critical manpower shortages
D. No longer econically useful
E. Better use of resources elsewhere
V. U.S.-flag and Merchant Marine fleet
A. Critical lack of U.S.-flag ships
B. Critical lack of U.S. Merchant Marines
C. Resulting dependence on foreign-flag shipping
D. Start a government subsidized ship-building program
l. Charter ships to U.S.-flag merchants
2. Return on Investment to government
E. Provide depth in U.S. follow-on strategic sealift echelons
STRATEGIC SEALIFT: A PROBLEM WITH A SOLUTION
On 2 August 1990, President Bush directed that a new
national military strategy be undertaken. His main focus
was on major contingency operations vice the threat of a
European-centered global war against the USSR. One of the
main considerations that had to be addressed was the rapid
deployment of U.S. forces capable of prosecuting a wide
range of contingency operations anywhere within the world.
The new strategy that has been developed places more
emphasis on power projection than on the U.S. Cold War
strategy which was based on deterrence through forward
defense of Western Europe and Korea, rapid reinforcement
forces and military alliances. Small, flexible, rapidly
transportable general purpose forces provide the cornerstone
of the new strategy.
This new military strategy is based on deterrence,
forward presence and enhanced power projection to offset the
reduced forward positioning of U.S. Forces. The capability
to rapidly reconstitute forces in the event of a reemerging
Soviet threat is also essential to the strategy. General
Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
emphasized this point in a statement made to the House Armed
Services Committee on February 7, 1991: "Deterrence is
only credible if we possess a robust means of power
projection and the mobility to deploy and sustain our
The U.S. is a maritime nation and when it goes to war
it goes overseas with 95% of all its military cargo
delivered by ships. (1:41) Therefore, the U.S. must be able
to deploy and sustain substantial forces in areas of the
world where we do not have forward positioned forces or
equipment. Maintaining a strong U.S. sealift capability is
severely handicapped by the ever-constricting federal budget
cuts; the age, condition and maintenance costs of our Ready
Reserve Forces ships; our shrinking Merchant Marine force;
and the cost of building new ships equipped to handle both
military and civilian transportation. These handicaps have
resulted in a shocking lack of available U.S. strategic
sealift, effecting a dependence on foreign-flag shipping to
move U.S. equipment during times of crisis. Operation
Desert Shield and Desert Storm (hereafter referred to as
ODS) made clear the shortfalls of the U.S. military and
Merchant Marine fleets when they were incapable of
responding quickly to the massive sealift requirement
necessary to fight a major conflict overseas.
The new national strategy requires the U.S. military to
move personnel and materiel to distant areas at a rate and
in numbers sufficient to rapidly field an efficient force.
These new demands require a strong U.S. sealift capability,
supported by a solid shipyard industrial base. It also
calls for a ready pool of qualified and licensed merchant
seamen to man these ships in a minimal warning situation.
None of these capabilities exist today. (1:42) The
following pages set forth those areas which need to be
addressed in order to meet these challenges.
In terms of rapid response, the Afloat Prepositioning
Ships (APS), consisting of 13 Maritime Prepositioning Ships
(MPS) carrying U.S. Marine Corps equipment and 12 other
ships carrying Army and Air Force equipment and supplies, is
the U.S.'s best forward deployed rapid reinforcement
capability. (18:30) These ships were designed to support
the Nation's forward defense strategy and enable Rapid
Reinforcement Forces (RRF) to be inserted within days of the
initial assault forces. The MPS provide mobile, long-term
storage of military equipment and supplies at sea near areas
of potential trouble. In ODS, the U.S. Transportation
Command (USTRANSCOM) was faced with a staggering sealift
effort. The first ships deployed were the 13 MPS.
One point currently under consideration by the
USTRANSCOM is an idea brought out by ODS. "If rapid
deployment prevented Saddam Hussein from moving troops into
Saudi Arabia, then mobility itself must be seen as a
deterrent to military aggression." (7:19) A point which
once again suggests the importance of enhancing our MPS
Unlike the Marine Corps' MPS, the l2 other APS do not
contain all the combat equipment and supplies necessary to
rapidly reinforce assault forces. Consequently, during ODS,
the first Army and Air Force RRF's were intially dependent
on rationed strategic airlift for support and sustainment.
But not the Marine Corps' MPS. The MPS are configured in
complete force modules and each MPS squadron of 4 ships
carries a balanced mix of unit equipment and supplies to
support an entire Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) of over
16,000 Marines and sustain them for 30 days.
In ODS, the 2 MPS squadrons that were employed along
with their combat-ready Marines provided the main deterrent
between the Iraqi troops and Saudi Arabia for the first 30
days of the war. In fact, only 8 days after being ordered
to action on 7 August, the first of the MPS was disembarking
essential equipment to marry up with the U.S. Marines in
Saudi Arabia. (3:22)
MPS is clearly the most responsive arm of U.S.
strategic sealift. However, currently, the MPS is mostly
unique to the Marine Corps, This is a problem with a
solution. MPS should be expanded to meet the needs of the
other services, more specifically, the Army RRF's. The Army
has turned to rapid deployment with the deactivation of
foreign-based combat units and currently has a proposal
which requires the Navy to buy 20 new high-speed cargo
ships. These ships would allow the Army to store equipment
for a forward deployed, 120-tank brigade. The fleet, which
would be located at a base somewhere between Guam and Diego
Garcia, will be able to respond and reach a crisis within 15
days. However, with all the cut-backs in the defense
budgets, this initiative is in jeopardy and may not be high
on the Navy's list. (21:23)
Military analyst Jeffrey Record praised the Marine
Corps when he proclaimed, "Desert Shield/Desert Storm has
already affirmed the MPS program as one of the most
prescient and imaginative U.S. conventional force
improvements since World War II." (18:75) In the 1992
Annual Report to the President and the Congress, the
Secretary of Defense stated, "Readiness and mobility must be
among the highest priorities, especially for forces
designated to respond to short warning crisis." (4:9) The
Marine Corps has recognized these priorities of readiness
and mobility. All Marine Air Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs)
are required to be rapidly deployable by various means.
These means include amphibious ships, strategic sealift,
strategic airlift, or MPS. (9:9) Defense analyst David
Silverstein has stated, "The Marine Corps is the best
equipped and organized to deal with the sort of Third World
crises America is likely to face." (17:26)
Marine Corps planners agree that as the Navy's fleet of
amphibious assault ships shrinks due to budget constraints
and age, the Corps' 13 MPS will increase in importance. The
Marine Corps would like to buy additional MPS to enable more
equipment to be prespositioned at sea. However, any
additional MPS must compete with other high priority funding
requirements such as a replacement for the CH-46 helicopter
and development of an advanced amphibious assault vehicle.
To date, MPS has proven to be the most effective
solution to filling the gap between the initial assault
forces and the follow-on contingency of Fast Sealift Ships
The FSS are Navy ships acquired from the U.S. merchant
fleet for use in contingencies where fast sealift of heavy
equipment is required. The FSS constitute the second
echelon of follow-on support and must on-load all its cargo
prior to sailing, unlike the MPS which are preloaded with
equipment and staged for quick response. The FSS are held
in a 96-hour reduced operating status with a nucleus of 18
crewmen. One FSS carries as much cargo as 230 huge C-5
transport planes. An activated ship requires a crew of 42
Merchant Marines who are employed by private companies under
contract to the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and who are
recalled during national need.
The FSS have been configured as roll-on/roll-off ships
(RO/RO), and therein lies one their problems. In ODS we had
modern, deep-water ports to off-load RO/RO ships; however,
we might not be so lucky in future crises. Clearly, in
today's third-world crisis environment, adequate ports will
not be available in the majority of cases.
During ODS, all 8 of the Navy's FSS (SL-7s) were
activated to move the Army's heavy equipment. The first FSS
was sailing within 48 hours and the next 2 within 72 hours.
In fact, the first FSS ship began unloading in Saudi Arabia
on 27 August, only 20 days after President Bush's initial
troop deployment order. The FSS made a total of 32 lifts,
transporting more than 500 million pounds of dry cargo.
(8:14) Although one of the FSS's suffered a major
engineering casualty, the FSS's performed extremely well in
ODS. "They averaged more cargo per voyage than any two U.S.
or foreign-flag chartered vessels combined, having delivered
14 percent of all unit equipment by the end of the ground
war." (8:16) Despite this impressive sealift effort, FSS,
in concert with other strategic lift, took over 5 months to
transport enough supplies to sustain U.S. forces prior to
their initiating offensive actions.
The major problem with the FSS lies not in its
performance, but with the shortage of FSS. During ODS, the
ship of choice for fast sealift was the RO/RO vessel.
However, the U.S. was able to charter only 7 RO/ROs from the
U.S.-flag fleet and 27 others had to be chartered from
foreign-flag carriers. (5:67) Clearly, the solution to the
shortage of FSS's is for Congress to curtail its massive
expenditures on the aging Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF) and put
the money into buying more FSS for the future.
As Dr. Richard T. Ackley stated, on 24 January 1992 DOD
provided the mobility requirements study to Congress. A
portion of its unclassified summary called for the
construction or major conversion of 20 large, medium-speed
RO/RO ships. Eleven of these ships would be used for fast
sealift, similar to the mission of the FSS in ODS. The
other 9 would be assigned as prepositioned ships, similar to
the MPS's mission in ODS. (1:45)
The mobility requirements study is encouraging to those
who believe that one of the keys to deterrence is a sealift
capability that can get equipment into the theater of
operations quickly, which FSS clearly demonstrated during
ODS. Therefore, just as the mobility requirements suggest,
the FSS program should be expanded to increase the
flexibility, balance and responsiveness of our present and
future sealift systems.
In terms of sustainability, the U.S.'s Achilles heel
is the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) consisting of
cargo ships and tankers which are supposedly maintained for
breakout in 1 to 6 months in time of national need. The
NDRF is made up of 2 groups of ships: 96 Ready Reserve
Fleet (RRF) ships which are regularly maintained for
breakout in less than 30 days and 116 older ships not
regularly maintained. (1:42) However, as demonstrated
during ODS, the RRF proved to be too old and out-of-date to
be rapidly reactivated. The average age of a ship in our
RRF fleet is 27 years and in addition to the obvious
problems associated with an aging fleet, the RRF is
comprised of out-of-date steam propulsion plants that
require seamen trained in an outdated skill to operate them.
(8:72) In ODS, 45 of the 96 RRF ships were reactivated and
42 were turned over to Military Sealift Command (MSC) for
operational control. However, many of them were not ready
for sea in the allotted time due to their poor propulsion
and auxiliary machinery condition. Of the 45 reactivated,
only l4 reached their loading port on schedule. (1:43)
As well as being out-of-date, the 116 older NDRF ships
are not cost effective to maintain or reactivate. For
example, each year a ship is in an inactive status it
amasses costs of over $12,000 just to dehumidify it. In
1985, a reactivation test of 2 of the older ships in the
NDRF concluded that it would require about $2 million to
make each ship seaworthy. The average cost to reactivate
and run our RRF during ODS was $2.5 million per ship,
according to Maritime Administrator Warren G. Leback. (1:43)
As pointed out earlier, not only do our NDRF including
the RRF ships have aging problems, but so do our U.S.
merchant seamen who are trained in running the aged RRF
ships. At this time, the average age of U.S. Merchant
Marines is 50 years old. (8:72) According to the Maritime
Administration, in 5 to 10 years there will be insufficient
trained seamen to man the RRF in an emergency. This was
graphically illustrated during ODS when one Merchant Marine
engineer who was 83 years old was voluntarily recalled to
active duty to provide the necessary expertise to operate an
aged RRF propulsion plant.
In the Department of the Navy's Fiscal Years 1992-1993
Report to the Congress regarding sealift during ODS, it was
stated that " performance of our Ready Reserve Force was the
greatest deficiency." As a result of the NDRF's age, costs
and poor performance during ODS, the Maritime Administration
has decided to sell all 116 of the older ships for scrap by
the year 2000. (1:44) However, the DOD, in its mobility
requirements study last January, reaffirmed its reliance on
the RRF by increasing the RRF from 96 ships to 142. The
additional ships are to be acquired used or through a build-
and-charter program. (1:47)
The final area which must be addressed is the continued
decline of our U.S.-flag fleet and Merchant Marines to man
the fleet. Since World War II, the U.S.-flag merchant fleet
has declined from about 3,000 ships to 367 today. (1:44) In
an article in Sea Power, August 1991, entitled "Navy
League's 1991-1992 Resolutions," some maritime experts
estimated that the U.S.-flag cargo fleet will decrease by an
additional 85 percent by the year 2005 and ships capable of
carrying the larger military cargo will decrease by about 70
percent. The combined loss may represent more than 200
ships. (24:21) Moreover, as the U.S.-flag merchant fleet
has declined so have the numbers of U.S. Merchant Marines.
At the end of World War II, there were thousands of U.S.-
flag Merchant Marine ships. The Maritime Administration
(MARAD) has predicted that the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet
will continue to decline from the 168 militarily useful dry
cargo ships available today to 35 by the year 2000. As the
largest trading nation in the world, the U.S. carries less
than 4 percent of that trade in U.S. ships compared to over
50 percent back in the 1950's. (7:19) The result of these
declines is a critical lack of U.S.-flag merchant shipping
and trained Merchant Marines ready for action in time of
The decline in U.S.-flag merchant shipping is mainly a
result of the commercial business concern which mandates
that merchant ships must be profitable. American businesses
have found it less expensive to buy foreign-built ships,
hire foreign crews and register the ships under foreign
flags than to use American products and crews. (1:47)
One solution to this problem of revitalizing the U.S.-
flag fleet and Merchant Marine is to start a government
subsidized shipbuilding program, known as a build-and-
charter program. By building and sailing more U.S.
civilian-owned merchant ships, the infusion of capital into
the industry would strengthen the U.S. shipyard industrial
base, create jobs for merchant mariners and shipbuilders,
and, most importantly, provide depth in our follow-on
strategic sealift echelons. (1:45)
Capt. Robert W. Kesteloot, U.S. Navy (Ret.), suggested
that a common-design ship for both military and commercial
use should be developed. He proposed that 4 different
models of a single ship could be designed, which would
encompass the basic commercial convertible container
carrier, the combination break-bulk and containership, a
Heavy-Lift model and a Heavy RO/RO design. By utilizing the
same basic ship design, building costs could be saved and
training costs of the crew could be cut. (15:38)
According to Capt. Kesteloot, by chartering the
commercial ships built with government financing, the U.S.
Treasury would be able to recoup its investment and even
make money. (15:39) But more importantly, the U.S. would
have a trained Merchant Marine and U.S.-flag fleet ready to
call on, drastically reducing our dependence on foreign-flag
ships to transport our equipment during times of war.
One problem that the Military Sealift Command (MSC) ran
into during ODS was the lengthy amounts of time necessary
for loading and discharging ammunition in breakbulk ships.
The breakbulk ships were used predominantly to carry tens of
thousands of tons of ammunition to the Persian Gulf.
Loading and unloading ammunition on the breakbulk ships
takes considerable more time than loading and unloading
cargo on RO/RO's and container ships. The MSC is looking
into speeding up the process for ammunition sustainment.
The greatest proof yet of U.S. sealift capabilities and
lack thereof came from the lessons learned from ODS.
Although ODS has been hailed as a significant logistical
success it was not a true test of our sealift capabilities.
The U.S. had an allied country next door to the theater of
operations where we could amass troops and equipment. The
U.S. had modern, large, deep-water ports available, which
were ideal for RO/RO ships such as those in our FSS. One of
the systems that was not tested during ODS was the unloading
of cargo "in the stream," and its transport to and over an
undeveloped beach. The military has planned for and
conducted exercises for such a contingency, but most of the
industry, i.e., commercial ships and Merchant Marines, have
not been involved or tested. (5:68) It has been suggested
that the military should bring more of the industry into the
planning stages in order to improve productivity when
needed. A closer working environment during peacetime
between the military and the commercial industry has been
suggested as a source of future improvement in a crisis
During our next war or conflict, the U.S. may not have
enough Allies willing to help with our sealift shortfalls.
Our dependence on foreign-flag shipping during ODS proved
that the U.S. must find a solution to the problem of our
dwindling U.S.-flag merchant fleet. Lessons learned from
ODS underscored the critical role our strategic sealift
assets play in projecting our forces rapidly and in
sufficient quantity to provide a credible, conventional
deterrent to aggression. ODS did point out our need for
continued support and enhancement of MPS shipping, since the
MPS ships were the first to arrive and match up the Marines
in theater with their equipment.
The commander of the USTRANSCOM, Air Force General
Hansford T. Johnson, in testimony before Congress (in a
statement submitted to the House Armed Service Subcommittee
on Seapower and Strategic and Critical Materials, April 16,
1991), voiced his concerns regarding the disproportionate
reliance on foreign-flag shipping during ODS, saying:
Our ability to lift more than 10 million tons of
material by sea in seven months of operations to
the Persian Gulf region has.. depended heavily on
the contributions of organic, allied and friendly
shippers. In the future, however, we would find
ourselves in a contingency that may require us to
accomplish a deployment by relying principally on
a mix of U.S. sealift resources. One of our
greatest concerns, then, is the state of the U.S.
maritime industry. (5:67)
Maintaining a global sea-based forward presence by
means of our MPS gives the U.S. the ability to respond
wherever and whenever American interests are threatened
worldwide. The U.S. must reexamine its current sealift
capabilities based on present and future global needs. The
limited capabilities of U.S. sealift to respond quickly to
crisis and its significant reliance on foreign-flag shipping
became the major problems identified during ODS. Resolution
of these deficiencies will require enhancing the MPS,
shoring up the failing U.S.-flag merchant fleet, increasing
the FSS fleet and curtailing the expenditure of money into
obsolete, aging RRF ships.
The solution to U.S. crisis response in the future
still lies in the use of the seas. Therefore, the U.S. must
reconsider its strategic sealift operations and when it does
it will certainly see the importance of expanding our FSS
and MPS programs, and revitalizing our U.S.-flag merchant
1. Ackley, Richard T. "Sealift and National Security." Naval Institute
Proceedings, July 92:41-47.
2. American Overseas Marine-Corporation (AMSEA). "MPS Passes the Test."
3. Brown, LtCol. David B., USMC (Ret.). "Call in the Marines." , Summer 91:21-26.
4. Cheney, Dick. Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense to the
President and the Congress. Washington, D.C. :U.S. Government Printing
5. Collar, Leo L. "Desert Storm and Its Effect on U.S. Maritime Policy."
Defense Transportation Journal, June 91:67-68.
6. Donovan, Vice Adm., Francis R., USN Commander, Military Sealift
Command. "Test of Sealift Planning for MSC." Defense Transportation Journal,
7. Dungan, Travis P. "Desert Shield/Desert Storm: USTRANSCOM's First
Great Challenge." Defense Transportation Journal, June 91:14-19.
8. Fuchs, William F., Military Sealift Command. "Sealift Ships Play
Major Role in Desert Storm." Defense Transportation Journal April 91:10-14.
9. Garrett, Lawrence H. "The Way Ahead." Supplement to the Marine Corps
Gazette, April 91: 1-13.
10. Gibson, Andrew E. "Merchant Marine's Future Appears To be Gloomier
Than Ever." Sea Power, January 91:68-74.
11 Hessman, James D. and Thomas, Vincent C. "Interview With Secretary
of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner." "New Requirements for a Changing
Environment." Sea power, May 90:7-13.
12. Holzer, Robert. "Marines Want More Prepositioned Ships." Navy
Times, 21 September 92:37.
13. Johnson, Gen. Hansford T., Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Transportation
Command. "The Defense Transportation System." Defense Transportation Journal,
October 91:21-31, 52-58.
14. Kelley, Gen. Paul X., USMC. "One Telephone Call Gets It All:
Maritime Prepositioning for Crisis Response Enhancement." Sea Power,
15. Kesteloot, Capt. Robert W., USN (Ret.). "Fast Sealift Ship Program:
All Ahead Slow." "Congress, DOD, Operators in Three-Way Impasse." Sea
Power, May 90:17- 20.
16. Kesteloot, Capt. Robert W., USN (Ret.). "Sealift After The Storm."
"A Plan to Revitalize the U.S.-Flag Fleet." Sea Power, June 91:37-41.
17. Longo, James. "Defense Analyst Touts Marines as Future Force."
Navy Times, 3 February 92:26.
18. Owens, Col. Mackubin T., USMCR. "The Marine Corps and the New National
Military Strategy.", Amphibious Warfare Review, Summer 91:64-69.
19. Pugh, LtCol. Paul F., USMC and Linn, Maj. Thomas C., USMC.
"Rediscovering the Force-in-Readiness." Armed Forces Journal International,
20. Record, Jeffrey. "The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in the Post-Cold
War Era." Strategic Review, Winter 91:67-79.
21. Roman, Col. R.N., USMC. "The Story Behind the Story." Amphibious
Warfare Review, Summer 91:29-32.
22. Schwab, Capt. Ernest Louis, USN (Ret.). "Desert Storm Epilogue."
Amphibious Warfare Review, Summer 91:72-73.
23. Staff Correspondent. "Army Plans to Bolster Rapid Deployment." Army
Times- 28 September 92:23.
24. Staff Correspondent. "Navy League's 1991-92 Resolutions." Sea Power,
25. Till, Geoffrey. "A Post-Cold War Maritime Strategy For NATO." Naval
Forces, International Forum For Maritime Power, No. III 92:8-15.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list