Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Distributed Manufacturing for Distributed Lethality

By Collin Fox

Increasingly powerful strategic competitors and a flat defense budget call to mind this pithy quote, often misattributed to Winston Churchill: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we have to think.” The United States Navy’s historical annual shipbuilding budget can either maintain the fleet size at status quo or build a hollow force with more ships. Wargames suggest that either such fleet, as part of the joint force, would not prevail in a conflict with China. This troubling consensus has spurred the Navy to develop Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and to overhaul the fleet in order to implement the new operational concept.

Budget justifications portray Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSV) as both “attritable assets if used in a peer or near-peer conflict” and “key enablers of the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept.” American industry must build these and other key enablers even faster than the enemy can attrite them, but where? To overcome the limited capacity of American shipyards in pursuit of this requirement, Congress should develop a distributed shipbuilding industrial base through a variety of structured incentives.

Seeing First, Shooting First: the Quality of Quantity

Skeptics of the Navy’s shipbuilding plans may wonder how a small, attritable, unmanned, and presently unarmed vessel has become a “key enabler” in the Navy’s foremost warfighting concept. MUSVs will initially support “Battlespace Awareness through Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Electronic Warfare (EW).” Scouts have always been the eyes of the fleet, enabling the commander to see the battlespace better than the enemy, win the critical ISR fight, and then fire effectively first. In the age of hypersonic anti-ship weapons, taking that first accurate shot is more important than ever. DMO relies on having many sensor nodes that are widely distributed in order to see first and shoot first, but the enemy will attrite many of these scout-sensors as they navigate the maritime battlespace. The fleet will need an abundance of these scouts to begin with, and will need to acquire more at the rapid pace of attrition through a prolonged conflict.

This raises the industrial base problem, or as it were, the opportunity: How many vessels can be built, how quickly, and where?

Industrial Capacity, Lost and Gained

Eleven American shipyards cranked out 175 Fletcher-class destroyers during the Second World War – over 400,000 tons of just one class of combatants – even as the arsenal of democracy produced incredible quantities of auxiliaries, vehicles, aircraft, weapons, munitions, and many other warships. Most of those shipyards have long since closed; those that remain have little spare capacity. After COVID-19’s fiscal devastation plays out, the paltry seven ships authorized in FY21 may represent the underwhelming high water mark of the “terrible twenties.

China has the maritime industrial base to surge into dominant overproduction. The United States clearly does not, and even struggles to coordinate routine peacetime maintenance between sea services. This industrial asymmetry could spell disaster: The U.S. Navy could not repair battle damage, conduct maintenance, replace lost ships, and grow the fleet during a prolonged war with China. The industrial base just isn’t there, and shipyards take far longer to build than ships.

Ships under construction at the Heniu Shipping Limited Company shipyard in Yunyang county, Chongqing on Dec 5, 2017. (Photo by Rao Guojun/For China Daily)

The existing shipbuilding base must be strengthened to maintain the legacy force structure and continue to produce substantial warships, from aircraft carriers down to the corvette-sized large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV). The shipbuilding expansion for smaller vessels such as the medium unmanned surface vessel (MUSV) must not compete for the already limited industrial capacity. The Congressional Research Service concurs, noting that such unmanned vessels “can be built and maintained by facilities other than the shipyards that currently build the Navy’s major combatant ships.” But if not existing shipyards, then where? This seeming challenge offers a unique opportunity to both grow the shipbuilding defense industrial base and broaden the sea power political base through distributed manufacturing.

The factors that have traditionally concentrated production within a shipyard have shifted over the past few decades: Computer aided design (CAD) allows engineering teams to span continents and work around the clock on the same project. Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines create parts that fit together as precisely as they appeared on the monitor, even if the parts came from facilities thousands of miles apart. Supply chain engineering then brings these disparate parts into a faster and potentially more robust assembly process.

However, the feasibility and economy of transporting large and heavy objects has changed little. Size matters: just because a given component or subassembly can be produced down the road or across the country does not mean that it should be. Until recently, the vessels that mattered in naval warfare – or even their major subassemblies – were just too big and heavy for overland transport. Vessels that could be transported overland lacked the range and payload to count for much in combat. The convergent effects of miniaturization, automation, and fuel efficiency have changed that calculus, as exemplified by the Sea Hunter’s increasingly capable autonomy and 10,000 nautical mile range. The Sea Hunter and future MUSV classes will indeed contribute to the fleet in meaningful ways, yet at 45 to 190 feet long, they can also be transported (in whole or in part) from places that only Noah would recognize as a shipyard. 

The Navy should develop and incentivize a more robust and distributed shipbuilding industrial base by expanding far beyond traditional shipyards and deliberately incorporating non-traditional suppliers. Not only would such an expansion increase competition and manufacturing capacity, but it would also allow ship production to quickly accelerate in crisis or war. Thanks to digital manufacturing, such a shift in production could happen overnight, unlike the laborious retooling and retraining process that civilian factories undertook to produce war materiel in the previous century.

Many different American manufacturing facilities with advanced industrial tools, such as large CNC routers, CNC welding machines, and 3D printers, could produce the bulk of each attritable vessel. Such facilities could even produce complete knockdown kits for metal-hulled MUSVs, or partial kits for the innards of composite-hulled vessels. The hulls of the latter, like Sea Hunter and Sea Hunter II, could be produced by any maritime, automotive, or aerospace company with the space to store a large mold and the competence to pop out the composite hull forms on demand. Facilities with appropriate workforce and machinery would assemble these widely sourced components into major subassemblies for larger MUSVs, ready for final assembly in the shipyard. These facilities would likewise assemble vessels on the smaller end of the MUSV range, up to about 70 feet and 40 tons, for direct transport to a launch site and subsequent deployment.

All of this would require a large number of small- and medium-sized manufacturers to participate in a responsive and agile defense logistics supply chain. Few would use such words to describe the defense logistics supply chain today; improving it will take foresight, investment, naval initiative, and congressional action.

A Vincent-Trammel Act for the 21st Century

Industry has long lamented how hard it is to work with the Department of Defense. Many small companies vote with their feet after a few failed attempts, forgoing the DoD’s labyrinthine processes, extensive contracting requirements, and uncertain – if sometimes substantial – cash flows. A dwindling number of prime contractors act as a lucrative boundary layer between the byzantine defense acquisition requirements and the subcontractors, who find their niche exotic technology far easier to understand than defense contracting. Building a broader shipbuilding industrial base will require creative incentives and even fiduciary seduction to break through this status quo.

Inspired by the Department of Transportation’s very modest Small Shipyard Grants program, the proposed Distributed Manufacturing for Seapower Grants program would offer partial grants, competitively bid, to small companies for the purchase of advanced manufacturing machinery. However, this industrial equipment subsidy would also come with a contractual catch to integrate the manufacturer into the defense supply chain, or even – if required – compel production on the subsidized equipment. Some portion of the equipment subsidy would be recouped through an initially reduced contractual profit margin, reflecting the government’s capital financing investment, after which a higher profit margin would apply.

As with any contract, the incentives would be critical for success. This scheme would incentivize small manufacturers to join the defense industrial base with an initial contract and the means to perform it, while also establishing the relationship and familiarity to the larger process that can produce many items beyond the parts and pieces of modest vessels such as the MUSV.

The challenges of defense logistics are less about producing a part and more about the rest of the supply chain. Punching out a widget is just the beginning.

Creating Responsive Supply Chains

The Navy can help start improving the industrial base now by drafting modest vessel designs that incorporate manufacturing speed and ease of production as key performance parameters, and then contract a few of each model as a means to mature the design. The program office would also establish supply chain management targets and constraints for production optimization, such as required vessel deployment location, shipping costs, required installation date, manufacturing base health, item cost, and net time to build.

After receiving congressional budget appropriation for producing a given vessel, the program office would send requisitions for specified parts, subassembly production, and final vessel assembly to an automated clearinghouse, where these jobs would be offered to the capable manufacturers. Those manufacturers would bid on each job. If no one bids for a given job, the program office could compel manufacturing but pay a higher profit margin for the option. The winning bid may not be the lowest nominal bid because it should be the lowest total cost to government, to include considerations of production speed and shipping costs. All of these considerations would be continually integrated into the optimization model through machine learning.

Inspired by the Military Sealift Command’s turbo activation drills, the program office would hold component production drills and then stockpile the resultant knock-down kits near shipyards within vessel self-deployment range of likely trouble spots. The systems and internal components of a composite-hulled vessel – the engines, steering gear, sensors, electronics, etc. – would be assembled into compact kits, ready for the hulls to come out of molds and join them at the assembly site. Turbo activation for final vessel assembly from these pre-assembled kits would demonstrate the ability to churn out vessels at an incredible pace, and also help further refine the production process. In wartime, this process would be exercised in earnest to meet the furious pace of naval attrition.

With a demonstrated competence in rapidly producing, assembling, and deploying these vessels, the Navy could forego the anticipatory construction of a large fleet of wasting assets, which eat up operations and maintenance funds as they slowly degrade pierside.

Policy Engineering and Distributed Political Operations

Shipbuilding has an understandable association with maritime states, which can limit its political appeal for certain landlocked constituencies. Although the proposed expansion in the defense shipbuilding industrial base has a strategic logic founded in resiliency, competition, and flexibility, the investments and skilled jobs accompanying this expansion far beyond the usual maritime districts would also broaden the congressional shipbuilding caucus. Witness how the F-35 program spread economic benefits throughout 45 of the 50 states, gathering predictably broad congressional support. The LCS program did one better, in defiance of all programmatic logic, by never even down-selecting to a single seaframe. The LCS program’s budgetary-political logic, on the other hand, was airtight: All else being equal, an industrial base that is widely distributed will receive better budgetary consideration, particularly if it has concentrations in certain key districts.

With a growing bipartisan consensus that the nation needs a larger Navy to meet growing global security challenges, the time to act is now.

Lieutenant Commander Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a foreign area officer who recently served as the Navy and Air Force Section Chief at the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. Embassy, Panama. He earned a master of systems analysis degree from the Naval Postgraduate School and a master of naval and maritime science degree from the Chilean Naval War College. He has also published with the U.S. Naval Institute and War on the Rocks.

Featured Image: September 16, 1989 – The guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) enters the Kennebec River after being launched down the ways at the Bath Iron Works shipyard. (U.S. National Archives, photo by PH2 James Saylor)

More Hulls Now: What Treaty Cruisers Can Show the Navy About Innovating Ship Design

By Ryan Hilger

“‘I am forced,’ said Mr. Balfour, ‘to the conclusion that now, for the first time in modern history, we are face to face with a naval situation so new and so dangerous that it is difficult for us to realize all its import.”1 Germany had launched its fourth dreadnought in four years and Britain was nervous. The Royal Navy had ruled the waves since Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. But the international situation in the early 20th century was anything but certain as Britain and Germany embarked on an arms race, and with the United States and Japan close behind. After World War I, most of the major naval powers realized these enormous ships would only get larger, keeping all of them locked in an arms race when the world was supposed to be permanently at peace.

Today, the United States finds itself again in a multipolar world, with the Chinese and Russian navies looking more threatening by the day. Yet the Navy continues to wrestle with defining target ship counts and fleet sizes, and is struggling to find enough funding to substantially grow the fleet while adequately maintaining it. An op-ed in Breaking Defense called it the “spectacular collapse of Navy force planning.”2

In response to mounting tensions after WWI, the five major powers negotiated the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, limiting capital ship development to stabilize the arms race. The treaty, followed by the 1930 London Naval Treaty, created a new class of ship—treaty cruisers—and launched a long period of innovative naval development. The Navy responded with tremendous shipbuilding activity, producing 18 cruisers across five classes in 20 years. Treaty cruisers would go on to play a pivotal role in the outcome of World War II in the Pacific and were present at every major fleet action. The story of the treaty cruisers offers lessons for today’s Navy to creatively solve problems around hard constraints and innovate at the fleet level while building up for great power competition.

Early Cruisers

In 1915, the Navy learned through its annual fleet exercises that it needed a ship somewhere in stature between a destroyer and a battleship. Before this, the major maritime powers focused primarily on building ever-larger battleships and small destroyers to fight between them. At the time, cruisers served primarily as long-range scouts for the battle fleet—an important role. But the Navy only had a few of these ships. In an annual letter to Congress in 1915, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Frank Fletcher, noted that on two fleet maneuvers, conducted while en route to Guantanamo Bay, the lack of cruisers for scouting allowed inferior forces to evade the battle fleet. Several days later, that same battle fleet found itself being tracked by destroyers for lack of cruisers to provide advance warning and keep the destroyers at bay.3 Admiral Fletcher noted:

[T]he lack of heavily armored fast vessels and light cruisers was especially felt for seven days from the start of the problem until it ended. The Blue commander in chief has no reliable information of the position or movements of the enemy while the enemy due to superior cruiser force was well informed of our movements and dispositions at all times.4

Admiral Fletcher noted that destroyers filled an admirable role here, but that their performance and seakeeping, especially during the winter months, made them unsuitable for long-range scouting and attack.5 Destroyers had vital roles to fill, but scouting was not one of them. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels noted in his letter with Admiral Fletcher’s report that “fast armored ships and fast light cruisers” were his third-highest priority, only behind the shortage of officers and Sailors.6 Out of this would rise the 10-ship Omaha class. It was a start.

The Battleship Holiday

In 1922, as the USS Omaha (CL 4) was being fitted out prior to commissioning, the United States negotiated the Washington Naval Treaty with Britain, Italy, Japan, and France. It contained a number of provisions designed to lessen the tensions between great powers by ensuring approximate tactical parity existed between them and that no fleet could become overly dominant.

The U.S. Navy light cruiser USS Omaha (CL-4) passing through the Panama Canal, circa 1925-1926. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

The treaty limited the total tonnage and armament of capital ships, generally seen as battleships and battlecruisers, limited aircraft carriers, and set tonnage and armament limits on a non-existent class of combatants: 10,000 tons and 8-inch guns.7 Importantly for the United States, Article XIX forbade improvements to shore fortifications in the Pacific, meaning that bases in the Philippines and Wake Island could not be strengthened further. This played a major role in shaping the strategic purpose of the new class and the decision to retire the oldest, most-costly, coal-burning ships in the fleet to free up tonnage for these new ships.8 The five powers immediately set to work developing this new class.

This new, unknown class presented a number of constraints for the Navy, in particular the General Board, to wrestle with. Combined with the 10,000 ton and 8-inch caliber gun limits, the prohibition on improving fortified shore bases in the Pacific and the limits on capital ship tonnage created additional degrees of complexity. The ships had to fill a strategic role, and wargaming War Plan Orange against Japan revealed that the fleet needed to be much larger than previously thought. The treaty’s 5-to-3 American advantage in capital ship tonnage over the Japanese was driven by the Navy’s desire to have at least a 7-to-6 advantage on reaching the Western Pacific, assuming the fleet lost 10 percent of the battle force for every thousand miles steamed.9

Ship readiness became of paramount concern. Planners quickly realized that they needed readiness levels in peacetime of greater than 90 percent to achieve the required wartime superiority against Japan.10 That threshold, especially when factoring in modernization, maintenance, and overhaul periods, became a pipe dream. Therefore the General Board worked aggressively to maximize combat power in the treaty cruisers, where individual ships would have a lesser individual impact on readiness figures. Simply put, they needed many more ships coming off the building ways than previously thought.

Constraints Foster Innovation

Given the complex constraints, the debate within the Navy and the General Board was understandably heated. The differences between “the General Board, and various bureaus representing the engineering, ordnance, and ship design communities” led to a protracted design process, and by the time the Pensacola was finally laid down in 1926, “work had already begun on an alternative design with a radically different hull configuration and armament layout,” which would become the Northampton class.11 Budgetary pressure from Congress in 1924 and 1925 complicated matters further as Congress refused to appropriate funds for the recommended eight new Pensacola-class cruisers.

Common wisdom considers the freedom from constraints to produce more creative solutions, but constraints actually produce better outcomes. Creativity is enhanced by embracing constraints.12 The Navy knew that it needed a new class of warships rapidly—the competing powers were all doing the same. The General Board felt international pressure to produce an affordable, minimum viable design to the maximum limits allowed by treaty as quickly as possible. Only an iterative approach would work to optimize these constraints, and the Board knew that it could not wait for new technologies to mature before producing the new class. The Pensacola-class cruisers were therefore designed for fast, independent steaming and long-range gunnery performance, reflecting the Board’s desires. Achieving this required the Board to sacrifice much of the armor and cram as much weaponry as they could into the design, earning the class the nickname ‘tinclads.’

The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Pensacola (CA-24) underway at sea in September 1935. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

Today’s Navy faces a similar predicament. In an eerie parallel, the Navy has about the same number of surface combatants as it did in the mid-1920s when the Pensacolas were being built. It faces an even more complicated strategic environment and the curse of geography. Similar concerns over unrealistic force generation models, such as those that drove the 5-to-3 advantage, are echoed by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s recent comments to Congress. When asked why he rejected the Navy’s proposed shipbuilding plan, Secretary Esper said because in part “it kept the old deployment and readiness model, which is broken: It hasn’t worked for years, so why should we assume it will work in the future?”13 Current congressional budget challenges, especially with the coronavirus pandemic and the lagging Large Surface Combatant (LSC) timeline, are reminiscent of the challenges faced by the General Board and the ship design community in 1925.

The interwar Navy found a constrained solution through the iterative design and production of classes of ships. In fact, the recent award of 10 ships for the next generation frigate, FFG(X), could be considered the first iteration on a previous design.14 With longer construction times than in the 1920s, the Navy should consider iterating on the industry-proven frigate design to continue the production of successive flights when the first ten ships complete to keep the production lines hot.

Innovating Ship by Ship 

From 1922 to 1941, the Navy commissioned 18 treaty cruisers. While that seems like a good production run when compared to today’s Arleigh Burke destroyers, those 18 ships were from five different ship classes. By 1926, the General Board had approved the design for the Pensacola class and the first ships began construction. The Pensacola cruisers featured four 8-inch gun turrets—two turrets with three guns, and two turrets with two guns—extensive, but thin armor belts, two seaplanes, and a host of smaller armaments. In terms of dimensions and handling, she was comparable to the Ticonderoga class cruisers in service today: nearly 600 feet long, almost 60 feet wide, and top heavy with mediocre seakeeping.15

At the time cruiser production took approximately three years per ship. The Navy would normally have waited for the Pensacola to deliver and be put through sea trials and a myriad of experiments before making revisions or designing a new class. But other major powers were laying down cruisers just as quickly, forcing “successive classes…to be designed and ordered before their predecessors had been completed (or even launched), so modifications had to be made on a theoretical basis without the benefit of trials and operational service.”16 Thankfully the Navy only ordered the Pensacola and the Salt Lake City. The class did not keep well at sea. Their dimensions and top-heavy design made them prone to large rolls and the low freeboard meant that water shipped over the sides easily.17

The Navy quickly modified the base design to eliminate the unusual turret configuration and correct the stability issues before the Pensacola even launched from the New York Navy Yard. The six-ship Northampton class delivered with three triple turrets and vastly improved seakeeping. The class also delivered 1,000 tons below the treaty threshold, an unexpected bonus, allowing the Navy to proactively add armor and other enhancements after commissioning. Taking advantage of the improved seakeeping that Northampton displayed, the Navy ordered the two Pensacola cruisers be retrofitted in the 1930s to match. Retrofitting the classes of treaty cruisers with designs from newer classes would be a hallmark of the Navy’s cruiser fleet through World War II.

USS Northhampton (CA-26) underway, August 23 1935. (Photo via Navsource)

CNO Admiral John Richardson learned these lessons and incorporated them into the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. Admiral Richardson thought that “the large combatant and others could be designed and fielded rapidly through an approach that focused on a good hull design and significant power margins now, and worried less about systems that would be upgraded throughout the life of the ship.”18 But today, the Large Surface Combatant program continues to slip further right as the Navy seems focused on getting mostly everything right in a single step. Admiral Eugene Black, recently the Director of the Surface Warfare Directorate OPNAV N96, stated that the Large Surface Combatant was pushed to the right as part of a broader, lower risk approach while waiting for other technologies, like directed energy and advanced combat systems, to mature.19

The Navy has the opportunity to evolve its surface combatants more rapidly, and it must do so. While the Flight III Arleigh Burke has some improvements over previous flights and will continue building to pace the threat from China, the Zumwalt-class destroyer represents the best opportunity for the Navy.20 Despite their success, the Burkes have reached maximum structural capacity for innovation—there is simply no margin left.21 But there is hope. Recent at-sea testing of the Zumwalt, with its tumblehome hull, shows excellent stability in high seas.22 The class has many advantages and drawbacks, similar to what the Navy experienced with the early Pensacola and Northampton cruisers. In many ways, the improved seakeeping characteristics, integrated electric propulsion system, and large surplus of design margin gives the Navy an excellent platform on which to innovate. Indeed, the drawbacks for the Zumwalt class, such as the procurement costs and the armaments, are excellent constraints to build a better ship. The Navy has done this exercise before in transforming the improvements from the Seawolf class submarine into the more affordable and more capable Virginia class.23

CHESAPEAKE BAY, Md. (Oct. 17, 2016) USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) passes under the Gov. William Preston Lane Memorial Bridge, also known as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, as the ship travels to its new home port of San Diego, California. (U.S. Navy photo by Liz Wolter/Released)

A Twist

As the General Board iterated on the Northampton class, seeking to improve seakeeping and armaments, the world situation took another turn. In April 1930, the five naval powers met in London and signed the London Naval Treaty. The treaty created two distinct classes of treaty cruisers, with no limitations on ships with armaments under 6.1 inches and more restrictive limitations on the heavier treaty cruisers with 8-inch guns.24 The Navy gained an 18 to 12 advantage in heavy cruisers over Japan.

The Portland class, originally planned for eight ships, had already started construction on the first two ships of the class when the London Naval Treaty was signed. The General Board allowed Portland and Indianapolis to complete and again suspended the rest of the class. The twist reflected the slow deterioration of the international environment and the attempt to prevent a future war by enforcing a further degree of parity among the competing powers. The Navy, with great foresight, took the opportunity to shift the remaining Portland hulls to the fresh New Orleans class design.

Rapid Innovation

The New Orleans class proved pivotal. The Pensacola and Northampton cruisers attracted widespread criticism for their lack of armor, but these designs reflected Captain Frank Schofield’s 1923 General Board decision that the cruisers “forsake nearly all attempt at passive defense of these vessels—armor—in order to have weight available for the full development of steaming radius and gun power.”25 Before the London Naval Treaty, the General Board envisioned the future New Orleans class to show only modest changes from the Northampton class, but the treaty changed all of that.

The General Board acted boldly, ordering seven ships with three different designs to try out experimental technologies and configurations. The New Orleans class featured a complete redesign of the propulsion spaces, to spread the boilers and engine rooms out to improve performance, and the introduction of “immune zones,” which hardened vital areas, such as magazines, to better protect them without armoring the entire ship.26 The reduction in weight from redistributing armor allowed the designers to improve protection in key areas. As a class, these ships featured a better layout and continued the use of dedicated command spaces for flagship activities, which the Board first inserted in the truncated Portland class.

The U.S. Navy New Orleans-class heavy cruiser USS Astoria (CA-34) operating in Hawaiian waters during battle practice, 8 July 1942. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

Overall, the highly successful New Orleans class laid the foundations for the light and heavy cruiser classes, the Cleveland and Baltimore classes, that the United States would produce in large numbers after the passage of the Naval Expansion Act of 1938 (more commonly known as the Two Ocean Navy Act) which authorized the U.S. Navy that won World War II. The mature design and features of the New Orleans, which were included with one eye toward looming conflict and the other on the lessons from the prior classes, allowed the Navy to rapidly upgrade these ships as new weapons and radar-directed fire control systems came online, with devastating combat effectiveness.27

Prompt and Sustained Combat at Sea

 The evolutionary improvements in cruisers in the interwar period helped the Navy hold the line against the Japanese early in World War II. All classes of treaty cruisers, from the unstable, ‘tinclad’ Pensacola to the New Orleans classes, the last of the official treaty cruisers, fought in every major fleet engagement of the war, and their names are some of the most hallowed in naval history: Vincennes, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco.

Had the Navy waited, whether to perfect its requirements, for radar systems to mature, for the treaties to expire or to be renewed, it would have been deprived of ships that proved badly needed when war broke out. The General Board shows today’s Navy the path forward as it looks toward an era of renewed great power competition and constant congressional pressure to increase the battle force count. Several specific lessons include:

  • Older ships cost more to sustain. Aggressively aim to retire them in favor of new ships.
  • Embrace constraints to accelerate innovation while still delivering the needed ships.
  • Long production runs produce stable build times and lower procurement costs, but iterating through smaller production runs across multiple classes allows the Navy to deploy newer capabilities sooner.
  • Take modestly successful designs and continue to improve on them with each successive ship to the limits of naval architecture.

The Navy has already laid the groundwork to leverage our history with the new frigate class and the Zumwalt class. The Navy should not wait for new technologies to fully mature, but continue the evolutionary improvements to each successive flight of ships, inserting the technologies, like directed energy, when they are combat ready. As Vice Admiral Joseph Taussig remarked: “good men with poor ships are better than poor men with good ships.” We cannot predict when war might emerge, but should it start, we know that we will need more ships than we have today. Start building them now.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan Hilger is a Navy Engineering Duty Officer stationed in Washington D.C. He has served onboard USS Maine (SSBN 741), as Chief Engineer of USS Springfield (SSN 761), and ashore at the CNO Strategic Studies Group XXXIII and OPNAV N97. He holds a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not represent the official views or policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy.


1. “Germany’s Navy Scares Britain.” New York Tribune. 17 March 1909. Page 1, Image 1, Column 3.

2. Mark Cancian and Adam Saxton. “The Spectacular & Public Collapse of Navy Force Planning.” Breaking Defense, 26 January 2020.

3. “The Atlantic Fleet in 1915: Letter from the Secretary of the Navy.” United States Congress. 64th, 1st Session, Senate Document No. 251, 1916, pp. 14-15.

4. Ibid, p. 15.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, p. 26.

7. “Limitation of Naval Armament (Five-Power Treaty or Washington Treaty).” 43 Stat. 1655. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: 1922, Vol. 1, Treaty Series 671, pp. 351-371,

8. John Keuhn. “The Influence Of Naval Arms Limitation On U.S. Naval Innovation During The Interwar Period, 1921 – 1937.” Ph.D diss., Kansas State University, 2007,

9. Trent Hone. Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018, pp. 124-125.

10. Edward Miller. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991, p. 144.

11. John Jordan. Warships after Washington: The Development of the Five Major Fleets, 1922-1930. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011, p. 110.

12. Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg. “Why Constraints are Good for Innovation.” Harvard Business Review, 22 November 2019,

13. Paul Mcleary. “SecDef Esper Seeks Detente With HASC; New Navy Plan This Summer.” Breaking Defense, February 28, 2020.

14. Megan Eckstein. “Fincantieri Wins $795M Contract for Navy Frigate Program.” United States Naval Institute News, 30 April 2020.

15. James Stavridis. “Handling a Ticonderoga.” Professional Notes. United States Naval Institute Proceedings. January 1987.

16.Jordan, p. 113.

17. Ibid, p. 122.

18. Megan Eckstein. “Future Large Surface Combatant Pushed to Late 2020s, Navy Takes ‘Measured’ Development Approach.” United States Naval Institute News, 14 January 2020.

19. Ibid.

20. Megan Eckstein. “Navy’s Next Major Ship Program Sees Challenges Balancing Requirements and Cost.” United States Naval Institute News, 17 March 2020.

21. Joseph Trevithick. “The Navy May Use One Hull Design To Replace Its Cruisers And Some Destroyers.” The Drive. July 13, 2018.

22. David Larter. “Here’s how the destroyer Zumwalt’s stealthy design handles stormy seas.” Defense News, 23 January 2020.

23. John Schank, Cesse Ip, Frank LaCroix, Robert Murphy, et. al. Learning from Experience: Lessons from the U.S. Navy’s Ohio, Seawolf, and Virginia Submarine Programs. RAND National Defense Research Institute. 2011.

24. “Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament (London NavalTreaty).” 46 Stat. 2858. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: 1930, Vol. 3, Treaty Series 870, pp. 1055-1075,

25. Hone, pp. 144-145.

26. Jordan, p. 149.

27. Hone, p. 145.

Featured Image: The U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS New Orleans (CA-32) steams through a tight turn in Elliot Bay, Washington (USA), on 30 July 1943, following battle damage repairs and overhaul at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

Shell Games at Sea: A Resilient Force Structure Component for Modern Maritime Competition

By Chris Bassler and Steve Benson

On October 6 2020, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper debuted Battle Force 2045. As foundational elements of U.S. naval force design, Secretary Esper emphasized the importance of very long-range precision fires in volume, while also ensuring naval forces continue to operate at the forward edge of American interests. The U.S. Navy has an opportunity to immediately use existing ship types that are currently fielded in large numbers as manned auxiliary-strike platforms, while leveraging ongoing investments and technology maturation in the commercial shipping world for future unmanned naval platforms. The Navy can become a fast-follower, leveraging these investments and technology developments to rapidly field a future autonomous auxiliary-strike platform as a key part of a future unmanned naval force structure.

Over the past several years, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been focused on developing and implementing a concept for Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). DMO, along with the associated Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concepts, all seek to address the increasing threat posed by the proliferation of sophisticated weaponry and combat systems among great powers and potential proxies. Additionally, the 2018 National Defense Strategy highlights the distinct and important roles of the contact, blunt, surge, and homeland defense layers of the Joint Force.

The subsequent implications for U.S. naval forces, joint forces, and combined forces are broad, but to date, have remained nascent in their implementation. The simple message is that ceding the littoral regions of the world to an adversary is unacceptable to the United States and likeminded allies and partners. The Littoral Combat Ship was an initial, albeit flawed, effort to address a long-debated return to littoral operations – the dominant feature of naval operations throughout history. A hybrid commercial-military approach to force projection in contested environments deserves closer examination, and is an approach that is immediately available. It offers an evolutionary and rapid path to the future.

Fundamental Principles in a 21st Century Maritime Competition: Numerous, Distributed, Persistent, and Nondescript

A critical aspect of the DMO concept that has rightly received attention is the need to resupply and rearm combatants in order to conduct protracted operations. Doing so in an environment where fixed targets, such as ports as well as large force concentrations are becoming increasingly vulnerable poses an ever-growing challenge. An alternative approach is needed, whereby unit-level maritime surface munitions batteries would be mobile and available for use when needed, rather than located in afloat resupply stockpiles. This approach, and the use of regionally-oriented vessels, would be linked to demands of littorals operations that are already prime considerations in the design and construction of commercial vessels in global trade today. In contrast, custom military-first solutions for this purpose run the risk of being unaffordable.

Although the Marine Corps and the Army are developing mobile land-based missile batteries and will be a crucial part of the missile strike capacity in the U.S. Marine Corps’ new Littoral Maneuver Regiments (LMRs), such forces will nonetheless face challenges. These include gaining and maintaining basing access from host nations, sufficient protection and maneuver to minimize attrition from preemptive strikes, and providing sufficient stockpiles for reloading land-based missile batteries.

As a result, sea-based solutions must also be considered, especially to support stand-in forces in the contact layer. However, limits will persist for surface platform rearming at sea. Approaches that employ weapons in quantity from tactical fighters or unmanned aerial vehicles face similar challenges, while being more hobbled by limits of endurance and payload. Although the deployment of the Virginia Payload Module will provide additional covert strike capacity from SSNs, this alone will not be sufficient to address the need.

U.S. Navy experiments with test-bed platforms, like DARPA’s Sea Hunter and the Strategic Capabilities Office’s (SCO) Overlord, continue to inform some of the US Navy’s thinking for the large and medium unmanned surface vessels (LUSV and MUSV). Although these efforts have yielded valuable lessons, significant additional modifications and enhancements are still required in order to become operationally deployable assets. The roadmap of potential solutions, specifically for unmanned surface capabilities and platforms, is still coming into focus, and emphasis remains on MUSV and LUSV as the key surface platforms for acquisition programs of record. Some have advocated for concepts and experimentation using missile barges or converted commercial vessels, such as container ships.

It is time for the U.S. Navy to step forward in support of the USMC’s renewed creative thinking surrounding land-based, stand-in forces and develop a “Littoral Maneuver Flotilla” for the complementary naval component to the LMR. While supporting, and supported by, land-based forces, these floating missile magazines could be used to coordinate more complex multi-axis attacks, drastically complicating adversary planning and capabilities for effective defense.

A Missing Piece for a Littoral Maneuver Flotilla: The Auxiliary-Strike Surface Platform

In order to apply the fundamental principles of numerous, distributed, persistent, and nondescript, a specific set of missions that can be appropriately and advantageously grouped together must be considered. These naval missions include logistical resupply, including both ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore; a floating munitions battery for strike, anti-surface warfare (ASuW), and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions; convoy escort; and mobile minelaying. A 2020 CRS report noted:

“The Navy wants LUSVs to be low-cost, high-endurance, reconfigurable ships based on commercial ship designs, with ample capacity for carrying various modular payloads — particularly anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and strike payloads, meaning principally anti-ship and land-attack missiles.”

Some nations (such as Russia, China, and Israel), have developed containerized deck-mounted weapons and others are contemplating them. However, their small numbers, need for supporting equipment, and conspicuous posture lessen their potential operational significance. Instead, a floating vertical launch system (VLS) battery could be employed to launch missiles for strike missions (anti-ship or land-attack), torpedoes, or mobile mines against surface or undersea targets. However, a floating VLS battery would still need to be controlled by a mothership or some other local controller (e.g. a surface combatant, aircraft, or spacecraft). In many cases, artificial intelligence is still not sufficiently mature and sufficient trust in autonomous systems has not been developed. Moreover, in addition to sophisticated net-enabled weapons, a floating VLS battery would require offboard targeting and fire control.

It is worth considering alternatives to the commercially adapted, but more militarized designs of the LUSV and MUSV, which will be neither cheap, nor non-descript. In the late 2000s, NAVSEA conducted a study that looked at using Military Sealift Command dry cargo ships as first salvo strike platforms, leaving surface combatants for follow-on engagements. However, this concept was not pursued, and the Navy instead focused on different technical approaches to enable rearming at sea. With the recent track record of naval ship design, a “clean sheet” new T-AKE class would likely result in a complex, high-cost, and conspicuous design.

Instead, handysize break bulk carriers sail in large numbers today and are IMO-compliant double-hull designs. Use of such existing ships would allow the Navy and Marine Corps to gain immediate experience with the concept and further develop and refine approaches, while only requiring small crews of operators. At the same time, during the last five years, efforts have been underway to develop and experiment with autonomous commercial shipping, including major ongoing efforts in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, among others. As these autonomous ships mature and begin to sail in significant numbers in their respective regions, the Navy can then smartly shift over to employing these vessels for the auxiliary-strike role. In the framework of the NDS, these vessels would be a persistent contact force, but with blunt force abilities and capacity.

The bulk carrier Sabrina I, photographed from atop the Astoria-Megler Bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Gray Man” at Sea: A Nondescript, Effective Platform for the Shell Game

An approach that initially leverages manned, break bulk vessels, and then progresses to unmanned autonomous shipping vessels will allow immediate fielding of increased numbers of surface strike assets, while at the same time developing, de-risking, and experimenting with key technologies as they mature. Indeed, it would follow the wisdom of Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer’s famous motto of “build a little, test a little, learn a lot” while rapidly expanding the number of distributed surface strike assets today and into the future. Deception would be enhanced by the clever use of ubiquitous common commercial hulls in this shell game.

Using commercial vessel ship classes that could accommodate weapons modules and launch cells (e.g. either Mk41 or Mk57 VLS) with minimal modifications would, at reasonable cost, substantially increase the numbers of launchers available that could be employed in the earlier stages of a conflict and support stand-in forces in the contact layer. The Mk57 VLS developed and employed on the DDG-1000 includes options for additional munitions and extra hardening for payload protection. The standardization of both Mk41 and Mk57 VLS permit numerous and varied weapons loadout options, and the VLS modules can be distributed in configurations within the ship to minimize risk of damage, while also confusing adversary targeting through both inter-ship and intra-ship deception. Instead of cumbersome and time-consuming weapons reloads in individual cells, replacing fully loaded modules with a quick swap-out in available ports or at safe-anchorages could be used for logistical sustainment.

Notional estimates would suggest these vessels could carry payloads ranging from 16 to 100 or more VLS cells, sufficient to have diverse payloads and enable effective strikes, while not allowing the vessels to become large and lucrative targets, whose potential loss would be unacceptable. The objective is to have numerous, dispersed, persistent and nondescript mini arsenal ships, not a small number of massive capital ship assets.

At sea aboard USS San Jacinto (CG 56) Mar. 3, 2003 – A topside view of the forward MK-41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) aboard the guided missile cruiser. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass)

The break bulk vessels would enable minimally manned operations today. And as technologies mature, increased experience can be gained with optionally manned operations. By leveraging ongoing and evolving autonomous commercial shipping designs, a future auxiliary-strike platform should have zero manning. Commercial autonomous ships are being specifically designed to achieve long-duration voyages, where no human intervention is needed for maintenance. Leveraging these commercial efforts would mitigate the challenges associated with attempting to apply traditional Navy design approaches and tools to vessels outside of the intended design conditions, while addressing risks that key stakeholders have identified. For commercial airlines, A-level check maintenance (the lightest) intervals can be up to 1000 flight hours between maintenance, equivalent to about 40+ days of continuous sailing. For other military vehicle applications, platforms like the X-37B robotic spaceplane, which recently achieved a record-setting 780 days in orbit, spacecraft design, or DARPA’s NOMARS (No Maintenance Required Ship) project can provide important lessons and insights for application to longer durations. The movement of commercial shipping toward autonomous surface vessels will help to accelerate this longer-interval without maintenance for many maritime systems and subsystems. As these approaches mature, the Navy should begin by establishing a goal of operating continuously for up to one month at sea without human intervention required, and then smartly work up to six-month intervals or longer.

For autonomous surface vessels, successful navigation in the highly trafficked and cluttered sea lanes is an operational imperative and is being pursued with urgency in the commercial world. One of the main successes from DARPA’s Sea Hunter program, in cooperation with the Navy, was the development and incorporation of COLREG compliant algorithms into the vessel’s operations. The vessel has been able to navigate unmanned round-trip journeys from California to Hawaii. In September 2020, a new commercial design began an unmanned navigation across the North Atlantic (a re-creation of the Mayflower journey, going from Plymouth, UK to Plymouth, Massachusetts). Data collected from recurring transits can be used to develop additional proxies and enhancements for autopilots. Several automotive companies use massive amounts of aggregated actual driver data to develop autopilot surrogates, and similar approaches could be applied.

Sea Hunter, a class of unmanned surface vessel developed in partnership between the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (U.S. Navy photo)

Especially in peacetime, the commercial shipping approach of having remote control for a flotilla can be employed. Already today, we see how “remote tower” airport control technology has physically removed the need for air controllers to be located at each airfield. There is no reason that multiple flotillas could not be controlled from a single Maritime Operations Center (MOC), whether from a fixed location during peacetime, or from a nearby mothership or offboard platform during conflict. Especially for a crisis or conflict, understanding how these vessels would be employed when global or theater-wide regional network connectivity is not available, unreliable, or compromised is essential. Technologies to enable “network optional” command and control are already used today, such as optical recognition using “QR” codes, high capacity line-of-sight laser communications and data – to and from other maritime, airborne, or low earth orbit satellites, to enable “return to rendezvous point” commands, as well as unique deception techniques. Additionally, standardized launchers like the Mk41 or Mk57 VLS, coupled with rapidly advancing technologies for small satellites, will enable concepts for these vessels to self-launch and deploy their own unmanned aerial systems or tactical satellite constellations to provide temporary overwatch or secure communications relays.

A concept illustration of an autonomous Rolls-Royce vessel (Rolls-Royce image)

The application of common vertical launch cell modules in nondescript and numerous commercial vessels provides an effective means to deliver this capability immediately, while also planning a path to leverage broader commercial technology advances in autonomous shipping. VLS cells maximize payload options through a standardized interface. Additional cargo space should be used for opportunistic resupply, port loading and offloading, to help reinforce consistent, nondescript behaviors. As a result, the platform could be considered as a mini-T-AKE (without underway replenishment), although indistinguishable from the numerous break bulk vessels, and in the near-future, from numerous autonomous shipping vessels. The same hull forms can be used for trade and military logistics in peacetime, organically growing a maritime Ready Reserve Force (RRF) (e.g. the British version of Ships Taken Up From Trade, or STUFT), for the U.S. and key allies and partners.

Expanding this approach beyond assets intended primarily for use in crisis or conflict will allow the ships to become more numerous and inexpensive, while also helping them be nondescript, as they exhibit common behaviors to numerous ships worldwide. With these vessels, the Navy should use common shipping trade routes as opportunities to hide in plain sight. Using routes, such as following the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines archipelago, or from Australia-Singapore-Vietnam, will provide ample opportunities for experience and experimentation, while also re-supplying U.S. bases, accessing key ports, and transiting with common traffic.

No specific paint schemes would be required, but due to the weapons payload, the ships would be flagged under U.S., ally, or partner, as required. This still presents a sufficient challenge to an adversary to confidently obtain positive combat identification, a considerably difficult part of the kill chain. These vessels would comply with legal requirements in peacetime, low intensity conflict, and up to war, while enhancing uncertainty as to their actual payloads and capabilities. Leveraging autonomous surface vessel designs, repurposed from seaborne trade for military purposes, and vice versa, can enhance continuous deterrence through the associated uncertainty of a “shell game” at sea, with autonomous surface auxiliary-strike ships as the cornerstone.

Additional Advantages: A Global Flotilla for Both Peacetime and Conflict

A key element of a successful strategy for great power competition involves leveraging the strengths of key allies and partners. Having common allied platforms in large numbers for both logistics and mobile weapons would provide distributed, persistent, and nondescript forces. These would enhance combined surface force and amphibious and ground maneuver operations in the littorals. Break bulk vessels can easily be built in many shipyards, due to their simple design, and can have shallow enough draft to operate in inland waterways. This offers the possibility for a modern but more operationally useful and plentiful “Liberty Ship” blended with characteristics of Q-ships. These vessels are useful in peacetime for sea-based commerce, as well as providing critical supporting forces in wartime, whether for attack, rearm, and resupply, while also hiding in plain sight, both physically and in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Development of autonomous commercial ships is technically feasible, and key allies and partners are leading the way with commercial investments. Leveraging the momentum and investments that key nations and major shipping companies are already undertaking, a consortium could be established between the U.S. Navy and several key allies to procure, adapt, field, and operate this class of platform. This would leverage common systems and approaches from commercial efforts, while enabling navies to focus on unique military systems development and maturation in parallel. For future autonomous surface platforms, by cooperating with select regional maritime partners, several primary (commercial shipping-based) variants could be procured and fielded, with customized attention to key regions (e.g. the Indo-Pacific, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Arctic).

The cornerstone military capability of these ships revolves around the integration of Mk 41 or Mk 57 VLS cells. Allowing key nations to develop subsystems (hardware and software), especially autonomy enhancements to satisfy minimum mission requirements, and experiment would help to share the burden. The U.S. could take the lead on integration, to ensure maximum interoperability, as well as assess priority opportunities for enhanced capabilities. The recently established NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems (MUS) Initiative provides one such path where a virtuous cycle of missions, technologies, experimentation, and refinement can be realized.


The first Gulf War in 1991 provided valuable insight into the huge difficulties of “SCUD hunting” in the desert. The U.S. and key allies and partners can apply this approach to the maritime dimension of 21st century great power competition, for an advantageous cost-imposition strategy using cheap and mobile hiders to employ effective salvos at sea. This would shift the balance for cost-imposition in a way that is favorable in peacetime, while supporting continued economic development and positioning, and if needed, during crisis or conflict. In a hider-finder competition, the sheer volume of maritime traffic and persistence offer a key opportunity to advantage a hider, if it can remain nondescript. Application of common Vertical Launch System (VLS) modules into existing commercial vessels can provide numerous, distributed, persistent, and nondescript capability today, while also pursuing an accelerated path to leverage ongoing and significant commercial developments for autonomous shipping. The Navy should further pursue this concept in wargames and alternative future fleet architecture designs, with continuous feedback from at-sea experimentation. The U.S., with key partners and allies, should explore the use of these types of vessels, and effectively implement shell games at sea.

Chris Bassler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Steve Benson is President of Littoral Solutions Inc. and CDR, USN (ret’d).

Featured Image: A concept illustration of an autonomous Rolls-Royce vessel (Rolls-Royce image)

Why Military Sealift Command Needs Merchant Mariners at the Helm

By Dr. Salvatore R. Mercogliano

COVID and the Straining Merchant Marine

On July 29, 2020, the heads of three maritime unions – Marshall Ainley of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, Don Marcus from the International Organization of Masters, Mate & Pilots, and Michael Sacco, the long-time President of Seafarers International Union – jointly penned a letter to Rear Admiral Michael A. Wettlaufer, the Commander of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. In their one-page letter, they were blunt and to the point: “We are writing to you today to communicate our ongoing and increasingly grave concerns regarding the mental health and well-being of MSC’s CIVMARS [civilian mariners].”

The letter sent to the commander of Military Sealift Command by the three union heads (Click to expand)

They highlighted three specific issue. First, the March 21, 2020 “Gangway Up” order that restricted merchant mariners to their ships due to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the act was prudent and ensured the readiness of the vessels to respond to missions, it was done with no warning and more importantly, did not apply to naval personnel assigned to the vessels or contractors. Therefore, the quarantine intended to be in place on board ship was broken daily, while crewmembers who reported on board for work that morning found themselves trapped and threatened with termination if they left the vessel, while others moved freely on and off the ship. This became apparent with a breakout on board USNS Leroy Grumman undergoing a yard availability in Boston.

The second issue involved the recent tragedy on board USNS Amelia Earhart. On July 22, third officer Jonathon J. Morris of San Mateo, CA fatally shot himself on board. The letter from the three union heads noted, “the ongoing and selective ‘Gangways Up’ restriction may have, in some part, contributed to the unnecessary and senseless act.”’ While there is no evidence to indicate this, my personal communications with crewmembers on board Amelia Earhart indicate that the event has not triggered any change in the operation of the vessel. While counselors were sent to the ship, its operations continue with no safety stand down, and not even a chaplain accompanied the vessel as it sailed to perform services for the fleet with some of the mariners not setting foot on ground for almost a half a year, except to remove the body of their shipmate. Mariners remained restricted to the ship in port, while active duty Navy personnel left the vessel.

The final issue is the delay in reliefs for crews, up to 90 days late in some cases. Many mariners have not been home since the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States or were permitted ashore in that time period. MSC’s leave policy for its mariners is well outside the norms of common maritime industry practice because mariners hired directly by MSC must conform to government employment rules, even though they operate in an environment completely different than the normal federal employee. Mariners earn a set number of hours of leave every two weeks.  The only addition is 14 days of annual shore leave. For new employees to MSC, this means 10 months onboard ship (tours are usually limited to four months, but delays are typical) and only two on land in a year.

While shore-side government workers enjoy flex work schedules, weekends at home, get holidays off, enjoy the occasional snow day, and can schedule vacations well in advance, MSC mariners are toiling at least eight hours a day, seven days a week for a minimum of four months at a time when wages are comparable to those ashore. They miss weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, events with children, and now they face prolonged wait for relief. Unlike Navy sailors, MSC mariners do not rotate to shore billets or have many of the opportunities for education and training afforded to naval personnel. Even worse, those waiting to get out to ships have used all their leave and are now ashore, considered absent without leave, and not being paid as they await a call to report back to work for a potential assignment out to the fleet.

This is the situation facing 5,383 MSC mariners who crew 20 percent of the 301 ships in the U.S. Navy.  Let that number sink in for a moment: one out of every five ships in the battle force of the U.S. Navy is crewed by merchant mariners and not U.S. Navy sailors. All 29 of the auxiliary supply ships, the dozen fast transport ships, and the fleet tugs and salvage ships are all operated and commanded by merchant mariners. Some ships, such as the submarine tenders, command ships, and expeditionary support bases, while commanded by a naval officer, have merchant mariners who operate the deck, engine, and steward departments on board. This does not include the fleet of contract operated vessels in the afloat prepositioning force, sonar surveillance, ocean survey or sealift vessels with another 1,400 contract merchant mariners.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (Sept. 17, 2015) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82), right, receives fuel from the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Amelia Earhart (T-AKE 6) during an underway replenishment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Corey T. Jones/Released)

Yet these recent issues facing the Merchant Marine are not simply the product of COVID or other recent events. They are simply yet another expression of the longstanding problems of status the Merchant Marine has faced within the U.S. Navy.

Inequality in the Merchant Marine

Throughout the U.S. Navy, specialized communities are commanded by one of their own – submariners command submarines, aviators command squadrons and carriers, SEALs command special operations, and so forth. Yet, when it comes to merchant mariners, they fall under the command of serving U.S. naval officers with little to no experience with merchant mariners.

Recently, MSC had two commanders – Mark Buzby and T. K. Shannon who graduated from merchant marine academies and were at least familiar with the U.S. merchant marine. The last two MSC commanders – Dee Mewbourne and Michael Wettlaufer – are both aviators. In the past, non-surface warfare commanders have done exceedingly well, particularly two submariners – Glynn Donaho and Lawson Ramage. They oversaw MSC’s forerunner – Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) – during the Vietnam era, when the service handled mainly passengers, cargo, and fuel and they were experts in disrupting those services due to their experience with sinking the Japanese merchant marine in the Second World War.

Today, MSC is integrated into the fleet structure and many of its previous sealift missions are shared with the Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command and the United States Transportation Command. With the end of naval manning of auxiliaries in 2010, all of them are operated by MSC mariners, with some hybrid crews. No longer do MSC tankers and supply ships shuttle up to U.S. Navy auxiliaries attached to battle groups, but mariner-crewed oilers and combat supply ships are both shuttle and station ships for the U.S. Navy. Yet these ships lack two critical assets from their grey hull counterparts.

First, they have no means of defense at all. MSC ships, except for small arms, are completely unarmed. Ships that are intended to provide the fuel, ammunition, and vital supplies to keep an entire carrier strike group or Marine amphibious assault task force at sea lack even point-defense weapons. In the world wars, the U.S. Navy assigned armed guard detachments to merchant vessels to defend the ships. While Kaiser-class oilers have the mounts for close-in weapons systems (CIWS), they lack the weapons. If an enemy nation wanted to eliminate the threat of the U.S. Navy, why would it go head-to-head with a Nimitz-class carrier when all it could to do is wait, shadow, and sink unarmed supply ships and then wait for the task force to run out of gas?

Additionally, those mariners who now find themselves not dead or killed in the initial attack, but afloat in a life raft, face another challenge – what is their status? Not whether they are dead or alive, but are they considered veterans? They face on a common day the same challenges and threats as that of U.S. Navy sailors, but they are not considered veterans. Even those mariners that experienced the Second World War had to wait over 40 years, until 1988, to get their service acknowledged as veteran through a lawsuit.

Some argue that merchant mariners are contractors and therefore do not deserve this. But how many contractors command assets in the Unified Command Structure of the military? No contractor commands a squadron in the Air Force, or a battalion in the Army or Marines, yet one-fifth of the Navy’s ships have a merchant mariner in command. The Navy gets all the benefits of a sailor without giving the mariner those same benefits. That is a deal, but for the Navy.

PHILIIPPINE SEA (May 8, 2020) – Civilian mariners assigned to the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE 7) attach supplies to Carl Brashear’s AS-332 Super Puma helicopter during a replenishment-at-sea with the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). (U.S. Navy photo by Ordinary Seaman DJ Hinahon)

Some say the easiest solution is to replace mariners on the 60-plus ships with U.S. Navy sailors, but it has been tried before. This unique arrangement came into being at the founding of the Navy. The first ships brought into the Navy were merchant ships along the dock in Philadelphia. The two founding fathers of the Navy – John Paul Jones and John Barry – learned their trade as master mariners. In the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, private men of war (privateers) vastly outnumbered public men of war. In the Civil War, mariners kept the Union army supplied along the coasts and rivers. At the end of the Spanish-American War, with a global empire, the Navy needed to prioritize its personnel and decided to hire a civilian crew to man USS Alexander, a collier. By 1917, almost all the Navy fuel ships were civilian manned by elements of the Naval Auxiliary Service. With the outbreak of war, and concerns of foreign elements in some of the crews, and a massive increase in the size of the Navy personnel, the crews of the NAS were militarized, and later the commercial passenger ships in the Transport Force. The Navy resisted civilian crewing, and in 1942 President Roosevelt placed the building, crewing, and operating of the commercial merchant marine in the hands of one person – Emory S. Land.

After the successes of the Second World War, the use of civilian-crewed merchant ships was cemented with the creation of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). It was expanded in 1972 when the first underway replenishment oiler, Taluga, was transferred to civilian control. While some in the Navy may advocate for removing the civilian crews from the MSC ships today, the Navy already lacks the necessary personnel for its current assets, let alone an additional 60 ships, or the expertise in handling such assets.

Creating Paths to Command

This comes to the final point – how to address the issues raised by the heads of the unions based on the current situation facing the Military Sealift Command. The solution comes from the history of MSC’s forerunner, MSTS, and its counterpart across the seas, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) of Great Britain. Within MSC’s command structure are five Senior Executives – Legal Counsel, Director of Total Force Management, Director of Ship Management, Director of Maritime Operations, and Executive Director. They are all stellar and outstanding qualified people, and MSC is fortunate to have them. I know many of them and have worked with some of them in the past. They have impressive biographies and two of them graduated from merchant marine academies.

Yet nowhere in the chain of command for MSC is a Master or Chief Engineer from the fleet. They serve as Port Captains and Engineers and advise area commands, but there is no career path from the deckplate to the headquarters. That is a fundamental flaw in the organization and leads to the disconnect currently besetting the fleet.

In comparison, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is commanded by Commodore Duncan Lamb. He has been in the RFA for 38 years and commanded many vessels in the fleet. His announced successor, Capt. David Eagles, has served with the RFA for more than 30 years. Unlike MSC, the RFA integrates their personnel into the command structure of the Royal Navy and therefore they have the opportunity for billets ashore and work within the shore base Navy.

What works for the Royal Navy may not work for the U.S. Navy, such as how Prince Edward* is the Commodore-in-Chief of the RFA, and they are much more regimented than MSC. However, they do have Royal Navy detachments on board for self-defense. The Royal Navy has a better understanding of how RFA ships work as demonstrated by their integration into the fleet during the Falklands Conflict of 1982.

A model where MSC mariners, starting at the junior level – 2nd Mate or Engineer – have the option for a career path that would involve assignment ashore to MSC area commands and fleets may better inform naval personnel of the particular needs of merchant mariners. Additionally, the appointment of senior master or chief engineer as vice commander at both the area command and headquarters level could ease the transition of new commanders who have little to no experience with MSC and provide a conduit and perspective from the fleet to the headquarters.

PHILIPPINE SEA (June 12, 2020) – The Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS Alan Shepard (T-AKE 3), right, and the forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) steam together during a replenishment-at-sea as an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter assigned to the “Flying Carabao” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 25 Det. 3 flies overhead. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Gabe Pogliano)

It is very doubtful that the Navy would allow any of its commands to be structured in a similar way. A small group of naval officers – 323 active Navy sailors – oversees MSC from its headquarters in Norfolk, to the five area commands and in dozens of offices around the world. This disconnect, with officers and civilians who have never served or commanded vessels with merchant marine crews or any of the types operated by MSC, explains why the issues raised by the union heads pervade the fleet. It appears that the role of merchant mariners in the role of national defense is reaching an inflection point.


Merchant mariners crew the fleet auxiliaries providing fuel, ammunition, and supplies to the U.S. Navy at sea. They operate the afloat prepositioning ships that would deploy the initial elements of Marine and Army brigades, along with materiel to a potential battlefield. They crew the 61 ships maintained by the Maritime Administration in the Ready Reserve Force and MSC’s sealift force, and they crew the 60 commercial ships of the Maritime Security Program. They are foundational to the nation’s ability to maintain, deploy, and sustain its armed forces abroad, and they cannot be easily replaced by naval personnel.

Yet despite this vital role, they lack representation within the command structure of the U.S. Navy. They are taken for granted by the Department of Defense and the public in general. They are overlooked in most strategic studies of American military policy and posture. And yet it is not clear whether in a future war the nation will be able to count on the U.S. merchant marine as it has in past conflicts.

This issue is not one caused by Admiral Wettlaufer, or any of the previous MSC commanders. It is a problem that has manifested itself as the command evolved from a primarily transport force of cargo, troops, and fuel, to one that is firmly integrated into the fleet structure in terms of ships. But the same cannot be said of its personnel.

MSC has undergone periodic transformations, alterations, and inflection points, and COVID-19 may be one of those moments. A group of former commanders, retired masters and chief engineers, and experts in the field should be formed to examine how to restructure MSC and present recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary and past civilian shipping entities can serve as models for how Military Sealift Command can proceed into its 72nd year of existence, and ease the issues facing the fleet and mariners today.

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?”

*Editor’s Note: Prince Andrew was originally listed as being the Commodore-in-Chief of the RFA when it is Prince Edward.

Featured Image: SEA OF JAPAN (Nov. 16, 2016) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) conducts an underway-replenishment with the Military Sealift Command (MSC) Dry Cargo and Ammunition Ship USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham/Released)