I don’t know what the hell this “logistics” is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.
– Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King to a Staff Officer, 1942
Carting around beans and bullets has never much interested me until recently. Of course, the Military Sealift Command has been on my mind due to the recent engagement of a suspicious vessel by the USNS Rappahannock. I’ve also been reading more about the Falklands War after my conversation with Scott Cheney-Peters on TheRiskyShift.com‘s “Debrief” and recently found an out-of-print book from the 1960s titled Conflict and Defense: A General Theory with a lot of smart things to say about military might. Finally, Undersecretary of the Navy The Honorable Bob Work has been weighing in on forward basing of ships over at Information Dissemination. Though they seem unconnected, all of this has led me to the following conclusions:
- You can’t claim to be a Navalist without having an interest in logistics. When we talk about future fleet composition, we’re not spending enough time talking about how we will support our combat ships and how many/what types of replenishment and pre-positioning ships we need.
- If you’re looking for a single measure of national power, the size of a country’s merchant marine is a good place to start, but:
- The globalization of the shipping industry both affects this last measure and may make large conventional wars less likely.
The Falklands War is a clear example of what Scott calls “The Tyranny of Distance.” The further a state has to go to get to the fight, the less combat power they will be able to apply in that fight. Part of the reason Argentina decided to invade the Falklands in the first place was that they believed that they were so far away from Britain, whose military power (and some would argue, national power) was on the decline. Few believed the British could sustain military operations so far from home – and with good reason. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) could only muster 22 ships with around 120,000 tons combined displacement to sustain a naval task force, a brigade of Royal Marines, an army brigade, and other ground, air, and special operations forces.
One of the reasons for Britain’s success was the rapid signing of the Requisition of Ships Order of 1982 and the launch of “Operation Corporate” – the rapid conversion of civilian ships to aid the RFA. Virtually overnight, Britain quintupled its replenishment and sealift tonnage. These ships were indispensable to the war effort, allowing the British to concentrate far more military strength in the Falklands theater than many outside observers anticipated. This is why I think a country’s merchant marine is a critical measure of national power – military forces rarely invest enough in logistics capabilities during peacetime. Once a crisis erupts, countries with robust merchant fleets can quickly convert them for wartime use. Great powers need to respond globally, and sometimes that will require surging logistics forces during a crisis.
The United States operates under the tyranny of distance every day. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become insensitive to our logistics forces – we rely on them so often. And we have such a professional and robust force in the Military Sealift Command that the merchant marine becomes an afterthought. But our merchant marine has shrunk drastically since the 1940s. It’s telling that the United States lost 733 merchant ships greater than 1,000 tons displacement in World War II – our current merchant marine stands at only 393 ships according to the CIA World Factbook. I’m not advocating for a return to a 6,000 ship merchant marine, but this historical perspective should spur us to ask the question: do we need more sealift capability in reserve? What kinds of policies might increase our merchant fleet? And comparatively, when we talk about China, we rarely note that it has the largest merchant marine of any great power at 2030 ships.
Going down the rabbit hole further, I find it interesting that our National Defense Reserve Fleet – the ships in “mothballs” – is shrinking significantly. According to a report published in May, the US Maritime Administration is planning to dispose of 34 of 142 ships, with the potential for more down the road. Most of the vessels being disposed of are some kind of bulk carrier or tanker.
Forward basing definitely mitigates some logistics challenges. According to Conflict and Defense by Kenneth Boulding, a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, forward bases can actually reverse the tyranny of distance – so powerful is their influence. Students of Mahan know this argument well. Forward basing is also the sensible posture to assume in times of austerity, allowing more operational use to be had from a smaller number of ships without completely burning out equipment or people. But we must consider the future of our logistics capability, particularly the reserves from which we might surge during a crisis.
Finally, a thought on globalization: with the rise of multinational shipping companies and the prevalence of flags of convenience, I think that conventional wars between great powers – particularly invasions across the seas – might be far less likely. In this sense, the decline of national merchant marines might offer some security advantages. Famed international relations theorist John Mearsheimer coined the term “the stopping power of water.” With countries less able to mobilize the logistics capability to transport large numbers of ground troops, great powers (like, perhaps, the United States and China) will be less able to invade one another.
What do you think: does the United States need more logistics forces? Should the United States seek to grow its merchant marine? How? What does China’s large merchant marine say about its national ambitions? This is a conversation worth having…
LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.