Should the United States find itself in a major war with another great power such as Russia or China, much of the materiel that would be necessary to sustain combat operations far from American shores, the Military Sealift Command likely won’t be able to count on U.S. Navy warships to escort transport ships.
That’s because the Navy is roughly half the size it was at the peak of the Cold War and nowhere nearly as big as it was during World War II. And since most warships are likely to be busy with combat operations, there isn’t much chance they’ll be available to defend transports.
The Navy has estimated that transport ships will be needed to move about 90 percent of the Army and Marine Corps gear the military would need to sustain the war effort, but Mark Buzby, the retired rear admiral who heads up the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, said that Navy officials have “been candid” about the warship shortfall.
“The Navy has been candid enough with Military Sealift Command and me that they will probably not have enough ships to escort us. It’s: ‘You’re on your own; go fast, stay quiet,’” Buzby told Defense News earlier this year.
The lack of warships available for escort duty has also “instilled a sense of urgency around a major cultural shift inside the force of civilian mariners that would be needed to support a large war effort,” the news site reported.
Buzby and Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne at Military Sealift Command, the latter who would get operational control of the entire surge force in a wartime situation, have been educating civilian mariners about things that are considered basic knowledge to experience Navy personnel but are new to them.
Analysis: According to figures cited by Defense News, 11,678 mariners would be needed to man the 46 ships in the Ready Reserve Force and the 15 ships in the MSC surge force — as well as the roughly 60 U.S.-flagged commercial ships in the Maritime Security Program that would be available to the U.S. military in a crisis.
Currently, there are just barely enough to do the job — 11,768. But that means in a wartime situation, every one of them would have to show up, and frankly, that’s a pipe dream. Everything from illnesses to cold feet (mariners quitting rather than serve aboard a sitting duck transport) would quickly reduce the overall availability of qualified mariners.
“We are going into a contested environment, so we are going to have attrition to deal with, in both ships and the people who sail on them,” Buzby said. “Who knows, that might dissuade some people.
“The tradition of the Merchant Marine is we go to sea no matter what, damn the torpedoes. Most of us believe that our people will not be dissuaded. But until they walk up the gangway, you never know.”
Not only that, but tactically speaking, targeting American transport ships would become a high priority for Russian or Chinese submarines. Just losing a few of them would further put a crimp in our sealift logistical capability. In the North Atlantic, Russia has spent the past few years placing anti-access, area denial weapons and other capabilities there. And in Asia, Chinese subs and other A2/AD capabilities would be operating much closer to home than U.S. ships and assets.
None of this is to suggest that the U.S. and NATO, as well as American allies in Asia, don’t have capabilities to defeat enemy subs and systems that would be deployed to interdict American seagoing logistics assets. But as Buzby and others have said, there is no margin of error here, and we have no excess capacity at all to draw from, at least not quickly. What’s more, being on the offense would hand the advantage to our enemy.
If there is any good news here it is that neither Russia nor China can quickly replace weapons platforms destroyed in combat, particularly submarines and warships. That could give the U.S. and NATO some operational advantages as well as time to activate seagoing reserves and get them up to operational standards.