Asia Defense | Security

Can the US Save Its Sealift Fleet?

A 2019 after-action report suggested that only about 40 percent of the sealift fleet would be ready in a crisis. 

By Alec Blivas for
Can the US Save Its Sealift Fleet?

The Military Sealift Command (MSC) government owned tanker ship SS Petersburg (T-AOT-9101), sits in a 12-degree list as it successfully deploys a single-anchor leg mooring (SALM) buoy, the first of this type of exercise conducted in Southern California.

Credit: Sarah Burford

Many Americans concerned with national security might be surprised that the ability of the U.S. Army – the world’s premier land warfare force – to fight is dependent on the sea. In the event of a significant overseas conflict, around 90 percent of the Army’s equipment (as well as that of the Marine Corps) would be transported by strategic sealift. For years, U.S. officials have warned that the nation’s aging and increasingly decrepit sealift fleet is in urgent need of recapitalization and will soon be incapable of supporting large-scale overseas operations. The following is a quick summary of the issues surrounding strategic sealift and why it matters.

In order to conduct major overseas military operations, the United States military must be able to move large amounts of military equipment and supplies via ship. For this purpose, the United States maintains a fleet of ships known as the strategic sealift fleet. The fleet is maintained by two different organizations: the Maritime Security Command (MSC), the naval component of the U.S. Transportation Command, and the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD). It consists of four key components: afloat prepositioning, surge sealift, Ready Reserve Force (RFF), and the Maritime Security Program (MSP). The ships are either forward deployed or kept in reserve in an elevated state of readiness so they can be called upon in a crisis. The latter category of ships is known as the “surge sealift fleet” or “organic surge sealift” fleet.

The U.S. sealift fleet is rapidly becoming obsolete, and both the Army and Navy have warned Congress that U.S. sealift capacity is in danger of collapsing. On average, the surge sealift ships are 45 years old and are plagued by maintenance and readiness issues. In September 2019, the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) conducted a large-scale sealift exercise to test the surge sealift fleet’s ability to be immediately available for a large-scale military conflict. The exercise confirmed the longstanding warnings about the growing shortfall in sealift capacity. An after-action report on the exercise published by TRANSCOM found that the surge sealift fleet “is challenged to be immediately available for a large-scale inter-theatre force deployment without delays/impacts.” The report suggested that only about 40 percent of the sealift fleet would be ready in a crisis. 

An inadequate sealift capacity would significantly restrict the ability of the military to credibly project force abroad, undermining the United States’ conventional deterrent posture. In November 2018, the Army reportedly warned the House Armed Services Committee (HASC)  that “without proactive recapitalization of the Organic Surge Sealift Fleet, the Army will face unacceptable risk in force projection capability beginning in 2024.” The memo reportedly further asserted that “Shortfalls in sealift capacity undermine the effectiveness of U.S. conventional deterrence as even a fully-resourced and trained force has limited deterrent value if an adversary believes they can achieve their strategic objective in the window of opportunity before American land forces arrive.” On March 11, MARAD Administrator Mark H. Buzby echoed the Army’s concerns, testifying before Congress his concerns about the declining ability of the sealift fleet “to reliably project and sustain power globally in a contested environment.”

In March 2018, the Department of the Navy reportedly submitted to Congress a plan for modernizing the nation’s sealift force called “Sea Lift That the Nation Needs.” The plan proposes recapitalizing the surge sealift fleet “by extending the service life of some ships, buying used ships and modifying them to perform the sealift mission, and building new sealift ships.” Specifically, the plan called for the Navy to extend the service life of 36 ships currently in the RFF, to purchase 26 used ships on the commercial market in the 2020s, and to begin the purchase of a new class of domestically produced sealift ships. An October 2019 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that implementing the Navy’s plan would cost $38.9 billion (in 2019 dollars) over 30 years, including $13.6 billion to procure new and used sealift ships and $25.4 billion for operation and support costs. The CBO also estimated the cost of four alternative plans for recapitalizing the sealift fleet, the costs of which ranged from $34 billion to $40 billion over 30 years.

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Can the United States afford to recapitalize the sealift fleet? Right now, the answer appears to be no. 

The Department of Defense is struggling to implement the 2018 National Defense Strategy amid stagnating growth in the defense budget. The constrained budget environment has been particularly challenging for the Navy as the service seeks to simultaneously grow the size of its battle force fleet, finance expensive modernization programs such as the Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Columbia-class nuclear ballistic submarine, as well as address critical shortfalls in maintenance, training, and readiness. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2017, included a provision stipulating that “It shall be the policy of the United States to have available, as soon as possible, not fewer than 355 battle force ships.” The push to grow the battle force fleet to 355 has placed a significant budgetary strain on the Navy. Then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly estimated during a February HASC hearing that it would take an additional $12 billion to $13 billion per year over the next decade to reach the Trump administration’s goal of building a 355-ship fleet. 

Given the strains on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, it will be difficult for the sealift fleet, whose ships are not counted in the Navy’s battle force counting methodology, to secure over $30 billion in future financing while the Navy tries to fund expensive programs like the Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Columbia-class submarine. Many lawmakers agree, led by Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA), who recently remarked, “I don’t think the Navy is going to be able to afford the sealift capacity necessary to meet the new National Defense Strategy” during a recent hearing. 

Budgetary concerns have already impacted the modernization of the sealift fleet. Last year the White House halted the development of the CHAMP program, a key component of the Navy’s plan to modernize the fleet. CHAMP was intended to replace several types of auxiliary ships that are near the end of their service lives, including sealift ships. However, in December 2019 the White House Office of Management and Budget directed the Department of Defense to find a more-cost effective plan for recapitalizing the surge sealift fleet, citing the CHAMP program’s $1 billion projected price tag per ship as cost prohibitive. 

Thus, few concrete steps have been taken to modernize the sealift fleet. The 2018 and 2019 National Defense Authorization Acts authorized service life extensions for 18 ships in the RFF and the purchase of seven used, foreign-built ships for service in the RFF (the Navy requested funding to buy two more used ships in its FY 21 budget request). In April 2020, MARAD awarded a contract to a Philadelphia shipyard to build up to five national security multi-mission vessels (NSMVs) designed for training use by civilian mariners attending state maritime academies. Additionally, the 2020 NDAA passed by the House of Representatives authorized the Navy two procure two used vessels to convert into sealift ships. 

The budgetary pressures on the Navy’s shipbuilding account will increase over the course of the decade, making it unlikely that the strategic sealift issue will be resolved in the near future. Rising price-tags for the Navy’s priority acquisition programs, most notably the Columbia-class SSBN and Ford-class CVN, will increasingly limit the funding available to pursue other modernization programs, including the recapitalization of the sealift fleet. Barring an unlikely increase in the Navy’s shipbuilding budget authorized by Congress, the Department of the Navy will have to find a creative solution to avert the looming collapse in sealift capacity. 

One avenue the Navy is exploring for modernizing the fleet is requesting a specialized sealift appropriation from Congress that would allow the Navy to recapitalize the fleet using funds separate from its shipbuilding account. However, it remains to be seen if lawmakers will be receptive to the idea. It is also unclear when the executive and legislative branches will settle on a program to develop a new class of domestically produced sealift ships. The Navy, for its part, is reportedly making another attempt to sell the CHAMP program to White House. 

However, to fix the sealift issue, all the stakeholders involved – Congress, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, and MARAD – will have to craft a forward-thinking solution to recapitalize the fleet in an era of declining budgets.

Alec Blivas is pursuing a Masters in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. He formerly worked as a program coordinator in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and as a research assistant on the Security and Foreign Affairs team at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.