American Strategic Sealift in Peer-to-Peer Conflicts: A Historical Retrospective, Pt. 2

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

Read Part One here.

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

Peer-to-Peer Conflict #3 – The Cold War

In the third peer-to-peer competition in the Cold War, from 1949 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States possessed a large and capable military with a global presence, bases in multiple countries, and an ability to power project on a scale never before seen. The United States Navy did not initially face a peer, as noted by Samuel Huntington in his 1954 article in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” As he stated, “This new doctrine as it emerges from the writings of postwar naval writers and leaders basically involves what may be termed the theory of the transoceanic navy, that is, a navy oriented away from the oceans and towards the land masses on their far side.” 

To ensure that the United States was able to meet this need, and in alignment with efforts to create a tri-elemental military, the new Department of Defense created the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) in 1949 under the Navy. Bringing together the Army Transport Service with its large fleet of troopships and cargo vessels utilizing government employed merchant mariners; the Naval Transportation Service with its fleet of auxiliaries and amphibious craft with naval personnel on board; and a vast tanker fleet under the office of the Chief of Naval Operations operated by four commercial shipping firms; the new MSTS possessed a fleet larger than the pre-World War II American merchant marine. Initially protested by commercial shipping firms, MSTS proved its worth the following year when it supported the rapid shifting of U.S. forces from Japan to Korea, the amphibious invasion at Inchon, and the dual reinforcement of both Korea and Europe with the latter establishment of the North American Treaty Organization.

As the Navy and merchant marine faced the block obsolescence of their World War Two-built fleets, both had to face difficult choices. The first head of the new Maritime Administration (MARAD), Edward L. Cochrane, initiated the Mariner program to build 35 C-4 freighters across seven shipyards. These ships, owned by the government, would be leased to commercial firms for their operation, with options to purchase. The military retained the first opportunity to charter. They were used late in the Korean War to replace many of the Victory-ships broken out from the vast National Defense Reserve Fleet of laid-up ships left over from the Second World War. The Mariners proved so successful that five were taken by the military for conversion into auxiliaries and the other 30 were purchased by commercial firms and became a basis for nearly all future American freighters until the advent of containerships. To provide tankers for the fleet, MSTS in conjunction with MARAD conceived a build-and-charter program. By assigning operating contracts to companies for a set period, usually five years, companies were allowed to build ships in U.S. shipyards knowing they had assured business.

Throughout the first half of the Cold War, MSTS provided the necessary logistical support for the Department of Defense. The Vietnam War witnessed not only a name change for the organization, from MSTS to Military Sealift Command (MSC), but a new operating concept. Between 1965 and 1975, both the fleet of MSTS/MSC and the American merchant marine decreased by half in terms of ships and personnel.

Following the Vietnam War, the fleet of troopships and government-owned freighters were largely eliminated, with movement of personnel shifting to aircraft and contracts awarded to American shipping companies to handle cargo. MSC also rediscovered an old mission when the oiler Taluga was transferred to their control and the Navy crew replaced by merchant mariners. Civilian crews on Navy supply ships date back to the age of sail, and in the modern Navy to 1899, when the fuel ship USS Alexander received a merchant marine crew. That mode of crewing ended at the start of the First World War. But with the Navy facing personnel issues and the priority to crew warships over auxiliaries, the Navy resurrected this concept.

Over the span of decades, civilian crewing of auxiliaries grew with MSC operating not only shuttle ships – those that provide fuel and supplies from shore facilities – but to station ships providing underway replenishment to strike groups. The first MSC station ship went online in 1991. By the time of the Iraq War in 2003, half of the oilers, store and ammunition station ships supporting strike groups were operated by MSC. In 2010, the last Navy auxiliary transitioned over to civilian merchant marine crews. This change, along with a realignment of missions in the mid-1990s that transferred container operations to U.S. Transportation Command, oriented MSC to more of a Navy fleet support vice cargo mission.

The end of the Vietnam War coincided with a rising threat from the Soviet Navy. In 1979, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas B. Hayward wrote his views on this subject in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, The Future of U.S. Sea Power.” While the Soviets did not possess the ability to contest the U.S. Navy everywhere on the world’s oceans, according to Hayward:

“It does mean that we must control those areas which we need to use in peace and war, against whatever forces may challenge that control. These essential sea areas include the strategically critical waters around the Eurasian periphery, and the economically vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans on which the advanced industrial economies of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan so heavily depend.”

As the Navy embraced the concepts espoused by Admiral Hayward, the merchant marine continued its decline. While the Soviet merchant marine operated more as a naval auxiliary and not as a true commercial entity, the Merchant Marine Act of 1970 with the objective of building 300 American ships in 10 years fell short of its goal. Added to this, the Reagan Administration announced, as one of its goals, to deregulate industries and end government support. This equated to the end of construction and operational differential subsidies created under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 for vessels in international trade. These helped offset the higher costs associated with building and operating a ship under the American registry. Additionally, the call for a 600-ship Navy and the end of construction in naval shipyards meant the displacement of American merchant ships by naval contracts in private shipyards.

In the coastal trade, which had been a bulwark for the merchant marine and national sealift in the previous two peer-to-peer conflicts, the construction of the Interstate Highway System, along with a network of interstate pipelines, and the shifting of passenger travel into airliners and freeing up space on railways for freight meant a marked decline in cargo for ships in the protected cabotage trade. All of this, the decline of the MSC fleet, the end of differentials for ships in the international trade, and the massive reduction of cargo along the American coast resulted in the U.S. merchant marine declining from 16.9 percent of the world’s fleet in 1960 (2,926 ships) to 3.7% (857) in 1975, down to 2.6% (619) in 1991, and in 2019 sitting at only 0.4% (182).

The reduction in the merchant marine was offset by the creation of several programs to ensure that military operations could be executed again. New programs such as the Afloat Prepositioning Force, the Fast Sealift Ships, and the Ready Reserve Force provided the military with the means to rapidly deploy forces, while still relying on the commercial merchant marine for their supply and sustainment. This was tested at the end of the Cold War when the U.S. dispatched over a half a million personnel to Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91.  Due to the rapidity of the operation, about a quarter of the cargo went on ships chartered from the open market, which was better than that achieved in World War One or World War Two.

Oshkosh M-977 heavy expanded mobility tactical trucks are parked on the deck of a Military Sealift Command vehicle cargo ship for redeployment to the United States in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. (Photo via U.S. National Archive)

With the end of Operation Desert Storm and the end of the Cold War, the United States faced a new situation. The Navy underwent a massive downsizing and the American merchant marine accelerated its reduction while global maritime trade grew ever more expansive. In 1990, maritime trade stood at 4 billion tons, doubling the total from 1970 and eight times that of 1950. By 2000, it stood at 6 billion tons and in 2018 topped 11 billion tons. To meet the needs of the military, the Department of Defense at the end of the Persian Gulf War obtained twenty Large Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off vessels (LMSRs —15 newly built and five converted from existing ships; the latter a questionable decision). Additionally, MARAD bought 17 “ro/ros” from the commercial market to augment the Ready Reserve Force. To prevent the disappearance of the American international cargo fleet, the Maritime Security Program provided a yearly stipend to 47 ships, later increased to 60, to maintain a network of ships on the world’s ocean, but lacked a means to ensure the domestic shipbuilding of such vessels.

With the dawn of the new millennium and the perception that Francis Fukuyama’s notions in The End of History and The Last Man were taking hold, there seemed little need to worry about the future with the U.S. Navy remaining the dominant force on the world’s oceans and world commerce in the hands of multi-national corporations with their ships flying the flags of open registries, such as Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands, all headquartered and established in the United States.

Peer-to-Peer Conflict #4       

In 2019, I penned an article for the Chief of Naval Operations Naval History Essay Contest entitled, “Suppose There Was a War and the Merchant Marine Didn’t Come?” In it, I reviewed the capabilities of American sealift forces and the U.S. merchant marine to wage a war but did not play it out to its conclusion. So, what if there was a need of the United States to stage an operation similar to Operation Desert Shield/Storm of transporting a half million forces in approximately six months to an ally in the Far East opposed by a potential peer, such as China? Could the United States sealift and merchant marine perform this mission? 

In the area of Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, MSC has 15 Henry J. Kaiser-class oilers (soon to be exchanged for new John Lewis-class vessels), 12 Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo/ammunition ships, and two Supply-class fast combat stores ships. As the Supply is roughly equal to one Lewis and Clark and a Kaiser, this translates to roughly the equivalent of 14 resupply groups: all devoid of any self-defense protection.

During the Cold War, in operations in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, the United States had the luxury of utilizing secure supply bases, well forward in Japan, the Philippines, and in the Gulf States. A potential war with China in the Far East could involve missile strikes on forward supply infrastructure, and may necessitate an abandonment of such forward bases in Japan, Okinawa, or Guam, and relying on resupply from Hawaii or even as far as the continental United States.

Add to this the distances from past forward bases were in the hundreds of miles, whereas Hawaii and the continental United States are in the thousands of miles, and there is a potential for these to be unsecure sea lines of communications – threatened by submarines or ballistic missiles. This means that the 14 resupply groups, which are split between the Atlantic and Pacific, will be hard pressed to maintain the Navy’s frontline assets, particularly due to the tyranny of distance.

The Afloat Prepositioning Force of 14 ships supporting the Marine Corps, two for the Air Force, and eight for the Army are split between Maritime Prepositioning Squadron Two at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and Maritime Prepositioning Squadron Three in the Marianas. These ships provided the initial heavy equipment in both Operations Desert Shield and Iraqi Freedom. Squadron Three finds itself based within range of China’s medium-range ballistic missiles and generally exposed to potential naval threats being moored in open anchorages off the Marianas. Squadron Two could have to navigate through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea to be of use and therefore expose themselves to potential threats by Chinese bases within the Nine-Dash Line. They could divert and sail around Australia, but that would entail a longer sea voyage and delay their arrival. As with the ships in the naval fleet auxiliary force, these ships are also unarmed and vulnerable.

To deploy forces from the United States across the Pacific, there are the 41 ships in the Ready Reserve Force and 13 vessels maintained by the Military Sealift Command. These 54 vessels are intended to provide 10 million square feet of cargo capacity to a combatant commander, such as Indo-Pacific Command. At issue is the decreased readiness of this force. Just recently, there were 61 ships in the surge fleet, but MARAD and MSC are in the process of purging older and poorly performing vessels. MSC is expected to phase out more vessels, further shrinking this fleet.

In September 2019, General Stephen Lyons, the commander of United States Transportation Command – which overseas MSC for its sealift mission – and Mark Buzby, the Maritime Administrator, orchestrated a large-scale test of the surge sealift fleet. Known as Turbo Activation 19+, it activated 33 ships (27 MARAD and 6 MSC) between September 16 and 21. Each ship was brought from reduced operating status, to full, and then sent on a three to four-day sea trial. The goal for the surge sealift was to have an 85 percent availability. The after-action report highlighted the issue, “The low Cumulative Fleet Success Rate (40.7%) suggests the Organic Surge Fleet is challenged to be immediately available for a large-scale inter-theater force deployment without delays/impacts to force closure due to degraded readiness.”

Soldiers and Marines load equipment aboard the USNS Watkins in preparation for Resolute Sun 2019’s joint logistics over-the-shore scenario outside of Norfolk, Va. (Steven J. Mirrer/U.S. Army)

While one would think that a 40 percent vice 85 percent availability is damning, in truth, this test did not even adequately assess the true capabilities of the fleet. For example, there was no discussion on where the crews of the vessels came from, meaning would they be available for an oceanic voyage versus a short test sail. Many of these crews were between sailing contracts and could accommodate a few days at sea, but not several months. There was no determination if ship performance would degrade beyond the three to four days at sea. One ship, SS Regulus, was stuck in harbor due to insufficient air draft to exit the port as a result of flood waters in Beaumont. Many of the ships activated, two-thirds, were based on the East and Gulf coasts, necessitating a passage through the Panama Canal if they were to deploy to the Pacific. As we have seen recently in the Suez Canal with the case of MV Ever Given, access and use of the canal is in the hands of the host state, and whether China could exert political, economic, or military exertions against Panama (the single largest registry of ships in the world are under Panama) to prohibit transit of American sealift vessels could substantially slow any deployment.

Finally, there is the sustainment issue for forces once they arrive in theater. In Korea and Vietnam this was provided by Victory-ships broken out from the National Defense Reserve Fleet until replaced by Mariners in the Korean War and containerships of Sea-Land in the Vietnam War. During the Persian Gulf War, MSC contracted with seven commercial firms under the Special Middle East Shipping Agreement to ensure the transportation of containers to the regions, later incorporated into the MSP and Voluntary Intermodal Shipping Agreement (VISA).  

An examination of the current MSP contracts indicates an issue regarding a war in the Far East. In term of containerships, Maersk Lines Limited, Hapag-Lloyd, and APL provide specific services. Hapag is focused on the North Atlantic and Maersk performs similar services, plus to the Middle East. The only container line focused on the Far East is that of APL with six ships on the trans-Pacific route (although MV President Eisenhower is currently out of service due to a recent engine room fire) and three for local service between Japan, Korea, and Guam. US Ocean provides heavy-lift capacity world-wide. In terms of roll-on/roll-off ships, American Ro/Ro Carriers, Waterman Steamship, and Liberty Marine provide global service, with many of the ships recently involved in the Defender exercises in Europe.

Behind the ships of the Maritime Security Program come the vessels in the cabotage trade, those supplying Hawaii – Matson and Pasha – and Alaska – TOTE, along with tanker companies such as Crowley and OSG. In a peer-to-peer confrontation, as in the world wars, these ships could be shifted into sustainment operations and the off-duty crews used for the 54 surge sealift vessels. But perhaps the greatest underlying issue is whether the U.S. merchant marine would even support a contested sealift operation. John Konrad in a May 2019 editorial for gCaptain, entitled his piece, “Admiral, I am NOT Ready for War,” and highlighted some of the significant concerns expressed by merchant mariners on their readiness.


Today, China is in the position that the U.S. found itself on the eve of the Second World War, with a large maritime infrastructure supporting a growing Navy and commercial merchant fleet with a global presence. China’s COSCO Shipping is the single largest maritime company in the world. At the same moment, U.S. Navy programs are foundering and most of the protections once in place to ensure a large domestic merchant marine and industrial base have been dismantled. One must envision what the next peer-to-peer naval conflict could look like for the United States, with a U.S. Navy that is first in the world, but severely challenged, and a merchant marine that is 21st and declining, versus a nation like China whose navy and merchant marine ranks second in both categories and climbing.

The challenge for the United States in a fourth peer-to-peer conflict would be the same in the previous three: to ensure that there was a requisite force of merchant ships to support their maritime strategy (there is not). Next, it would have to ensure the safe transportation of cargo, via these ships across a contested sea, necessitating a system of convoying and escorts (which the Navy currently lacks). Finally, without sufficient ships, the nation has to fall back upon its domestic maritime infrastructure to build new cargo vessels (which is also not present). Lacking all this, the nation may face a situation akin to the first peer-to-peer conflict and have to charter from foreign firms (if they are willing to risk their vessels) or seize commercial shipping and replace their crews with personnel from a depleted American merchant marine or stretched U.S. Navy. Based on history, it appears that the United States is ill-prepared to sustain a large military force overseas, across a contested sea. 

Salvatore R. Mercogliano is a former merchant mariner, having sailed and worked ashore for the Military Sealift Command. He is an associate professor of history at Campbell University and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He has written on U.S. Merchant Marine history and policy, including his book, Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War, and won 2nd Place in the 2019 Chief of Naval Operations History Essay Contest with his submission, “Suppose There Was a War and the Merchant Marine Did Not Come?”

Featured Image: November 11, 1990 – A Military Sealift Command-chartered vehicle cargo ship prepares to offload equipment during Operation Desert Shield (Photo via U.S. National Archive)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.