United States

U.S. Navy’s aging sealift ships could lose us the next Eurasian war

By Jonathan Davis

While the U.S. Air Force can certainly move a limited amount of troops and equipment vast distances when they are needed in a hurry, the Pentagon has to rely on the Navy’s sealift capability in order to move enough personnel, weapons, and war material to distant combat zones to fight wars.

And, according to recent assessments, that’s going to be a problem if/when large amounts of troops and tanks and beans and bullets are needed quickly in some Eurasian theater of war.

The Navy, working with the Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration, has a fleet of 65 roll-on/roll-off (RO/ROs) ships that permit large pieces of equipment like tanks and mobile artillery to be loaded without having to be disassembled first.

The problem is, many of these ships are old — so old, in fact, that the Navy and the Transportation Department is having a time trying to find enough mariners qualified to operate their steam engines.

Notes Loren Thompson at Forbes:

A recent exercise by the U.S. Transportation Command found that only two in five of the sealift vessels in the government’s fleet were ready to go to sea and accomplish the full range of tasks required within five days of notification.

So, a fleet of 65 ships suddenly becomes around 26 vessels — hardly enough to field an army of tens of thousands or more.

And that’s assuming all of those vessels can even reach the war zone: What happens when enemy subs start taking them out?

That said, as Thompson, notes, it’s not as if the Pentagon hasn’t done its homework and hasn’t been proactive:

The Navy’s Military Sealift Command has mitigated the danger by prepositioning 15 RO/ROs fully loaded with equipment and supplies near likely war zones. It also benefits from a maritime security program under which commercial operators would make suitable ships available for military sealift during an emergency.


In an intense fight against a near-peer adversary, though, the materiel on prepositioned ships might be used up fairly rapidly, meaning follow-on equipment and supplies must start moving forward during the first weeks of war. That task will fall initially to the government’s organic sealift, later supplemented by commercial vessels (all sealift vessels are operated by private mariners, even when the ships are owned by the government).

The organic fleet of U.S.-based “surge” ships is pivotal to this plan, because they will be available sooner than ships from the nation’s modest commercial fleet. Military planners figure they need about 15 million square feet of usable space on RO/ROs to sustain a major sealift effort in wartime, and two-thirds of that resides in the surge fleet. The other third is on prepositioned ships abroad.

The key term is “usable.” Having a ship and having a ship that’s seaworthy and ready to depart are two different things. The Navy has long maintained a reserve fleet of transports and surface combatants, but a lot of Navy dollars go to new ship construction and maintaining the existing surface and undersea fleets.

Then comes the issue of finding enough trained personnel to man the vessels.

It all takes time, resources, and training — time being the most precious commodity, and which would not be plentiful in a full-blown conventional war:

The Navy’s shipbuilding budget is over-subscribed due to the need for a new generation of ballistic missile submarines, and defense budgets are not expected to increase materially in the years ahead. The sealift community will have to compete for funds against more powerful naval interests, and meanwhile the Marine Corps has signaled uncertainty as to what its lift requirements will be going forward.

And, our peer competitors — let’s just call them that — are aware of this deficiency, as Thompson notes:

America’s enemies are well aware of the age-related deficiencies in the current sealift fleet. An article from the Russian news outlet Sputnik earlier this month described the “degraded readiness” of the fleet. To make matters worse, the Russians have recently stepped up submarine exercises in the Atlantic, suggesting that not all of the sealift ships would make it to their intended destinations in an East-West conflict.

President Trump’s insistence that our allies do more to help prepare for their own defense might make substantially more sense now: The U.S. may be late getting to the fight, and not with all of the assets we’ll need.

“Washington thus is not sending the right message to Moscow and Beijing if its goal is to deter aggression by demonstrating the means to respond quickly and forcefully,” Thompson writes.

“Lack of sealift could prevent the world’s most capable ground force from getting to the fight in time to make a difference—or being able to sustain an effective defense over time without resorting to use of nuclear weapons. To put it bluntly, America could lose a Eurasian war for lack of timely sealift.”

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