Category Archives: Strategic Sealift Week

Strategic Sealift Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

For the past two weeks, CIMSEC featured writing sent in response to our call for articles on strategic sealift, issued in partnership with U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM). The response we received was outstanding and illuminating.

American military power remains heavily dependent on sealift to surge and sustain significant operations. Yet sealift is under significant strain. From aging vessels to manning shortfalls, the overall readiness and capacity of the sealift fleet is far from ideal. Authors put forth innovative concepts to mitigate shortfalls and improve sealift capability. But whether there is enough funding and flexibility to implement some of these solutions remains an open question. What is more clear is that sealift will be indispensable in any great power conflict, and will be a prime target of interest for any adversary seeking to slash U.S. strategic- and operational-level maneuver.

Below are the authors and their articles that featured during the topic week. We thank them for their excellent contributions.

The Fourth Arm of Defense: America’s Merchant Mariners,” by James Caponiti

“Throughout American history, the one constant has been that a strong commercial maritime capability enhances national security. This is as true today as ever. The Maritime Security Program remains the most important of the federal programs that assist U.S.-flag ships in foreign trade, and it should be supported, fully funded, and modified as necessary to keep pace with economic conditions affecting U.S.-flag shipping.”

Across the Expanse: The Sealift Dilemma in a War Against China,” by Major John Bowser, U.S. Army

“While the MSC and MARAD aim to ensure the U.S. military is prepared to win expeditionary warfare, they feature critical vulnerabilities with respect to competition with China. The DoD’s critical sealift vulnerabilities against China include fuel distribution capacity, operational security, and vulnerability to partnerships to establish seaports of debarkation and fleet logistics centers. By focusing on these areas DoD will become more able to prosecute expeditionary conflict against China should the need arise.”

Obsolescence, Chokepoints, and the Maritime Militia: Facing Primary Threats to U.S. Sealift,” by Nicholas Ayrton and Brandon Walls

“Challenges USTRANSCOM could face in this regard are threefold—the aging and inadequate nature of the American sealift force, the vulnerability of said forces to strategic chokepoints in the event of conflict, and the versatility and strength of the Chinese People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM).”

Recapitalizing Strategic Sealift Should Be DoD’s Number One Modernization Priority,” by Dr. Daniel Goure

“It is difficult to overstate the dependence of the U.S. military on strategic sealift to both reach the fight and sustain itself during a crisis or conflict. Personnel and some critical equipment and supplies can be moved by aircraft. But for any major deployment overseas, much less a high-end conflict, the U.S. military is and will remain dependent on sealift.”

American Strategic Sealift in Peer-to-Peer Conflicts: A Historical Retrospective, Pt. 1,” by Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

“…should the United States become engaged in another peer-to-peer conflict, they may lack the requisite sealift, merchant marine, and maritime industrial base to support the Department of Defense. Current plans include a sealift recapitalization scheme that provided funds for two used ships last year, and five more this year, but none have yet to be purchased. The current situation is unsustainable. An examination of the past can provide some alternatives and solutions to the current dilemma the United States finds itself in.”

For a Greener, More Lethal Force, Look to Strategic Sealift Recapitalization,” by Joshua Tallis and Ronald Filadelfo

“A greener merchant fleet, enabled by technology developed during the recapitalization of the aging sealift fleet (the vessels that bring US troops and materiel to foreign shores) would address an important source of climate change and increase the sustainment reach of the logistics fleet (the auxiliary vessels that keep warships on station). Such a maritime green revolution might even improve lethality.”

Solutions to Revitalizing America’s Strategic Sealift,” by Todd M. Hiller, P.E.

“With a bi-polar hegemonic world, the U.S. needs to take an immediate and serious deep dive into guaranteeing commercial cargoes for U.S.-flag carriers. This is not a new idea, but one worth revisiting. This proposal, if enforced by treaty or legislation, would have negligible impact on shippers while significantly improving the capacity and number of both the U.S.-flag fleet and U.S.-mariners.”

American Strategic Sealift in Peer-to-Peer Conflicts: A Historical Retrospective, Pt. 2,” by Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

“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…based on history, it appears that the United States is ill-prepared to sustain a large military force overseas, across a contested sea. “

One Fleet, One Fight: Four “Fs” to Give About Sealift,” by Benjamin Clark and Gregory Lewis

“MSC’s ships are too big and too tired – and those are the ships that work, but they must fight with the fleet they have, not the fleet they want. It is time for Congress and the Defense Department to build a sealift force capable of handling the multiplicity of challenges presented in competition, crisis, and conflict by giving MSC warfighters, a fleet, fuel, flexibility, and friends.”

Sealift Forces for the Future Operating Environment: An Airlifter’s Perspective,” by Phillip Amrine

“…no one can deny that the environment in which U.S. forces operate is fluid and unpredictable; counting on the threats to remain at their current level would be both foolish and irresponsible. As the long arm of American military power, USTRANSCOM must have the capability to deliver forces anywhere in the world at lightning speed. Maintaining this capability means deliberately monitoring competitors’ capabilities and countering them when they threaten the ability to deploy military force.”

Strategic Sealift is Broken: Which Direction Are We Headed?” by David Sloane

“It is very clear that the current model is not working. The continued use of the current model will only lead to a fleet that is less ready with fewer mariners who are capable of operating and maintaining this critical defense capability. A change in direction must be made soon and the clock is ticking.”

Beyond MSC and Amphibs: Unconventional Sealift,” by Benjamin DiDonato

“…warships can provide sealift support for EABO forces. This would naturally have to fit in with other tasking for these ships, so it generally won’t provide predictable resupply, especially when using high-demand assets, but it would still provide additional sealift capacity at essentially no cost.”

Strategic Sealift’s Merchant Mariner Problem,” by Geoffrey Brown

“Rear Adm. Buzby stated publicly that the Merchant Marine is at least 1,800 officers short of what would be necessary in wartime. Furthering the problem is the lack of places on a dwindling number of ships, leaving 1,100 merchant marine academy graduates worrying about their future job prospects. Given that the average age of a merchant mariner is 47, it is clear that this manpower problem will only get worse if left alone.” 

Don’t Overlook the Medical Fleet in Distributed Maritime Operations,” by Misty Wilkins

“The medical fleet is often overlooked in discussions about Distributed Maritime Operations (DMOs). The goal of DMO is to keep warships in the fight and use all available means necessary to prevail in a modern conflict against a near-peer adversary. But what happens when all available means are simply not enough and fleet assets suffer losses? How will the U.S. Navy get personnel out of the water, into the appropriate medical care, and back in the fight when faced with an impermissible environment and large numbers of potential casualties?”

The Future of Sea Basing for U.S. Army Transportation,” by Mike Canup, Tim Fitzgerald, and Tim Owens

“Shrinking the gap between early entry forces and the buildup of more robust forces will require the Army to develop innovative approaches to surface and vertical sea basing connectors. Doing so will allow US forces to seize, maintain, and exploit the initiative.”

The Glutted Mariner Shortfall,” by LCDR Adena Grundy

“From the perspective of the individual U.S. mariner seeking a reliable career path, there is no real shortfall. Within the economically-driven mariner job market, there is actually a glut of mariners in the current workforce, especially in the officer ranks. Without recognizing this current condition, attempts to increase pool size could initiate a vicious circle of issues that will actually drive people from the Merchant Marine, thereby exacerbating the problem.”

Clandestine Cargo: Hiding Sealift in Plain Sight,” by Christian Morris and Heather Bacon-Shone

Secretly loading containerized military equipment among the millions of TEUs processed annually at key U.S. ports such as Los Angeles/Long Beach, New York/New Jersey, Houston/Galveston, and Savannah could help military sealift hide in plain sight.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: USS KITTY HAWK, Pacific Ocean, (June 26, 2008) The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) receives fuel from USNS Guadalupe (T-AO 200) while steaming through the central Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photograph by Mass Communication Seaman Anthony R. Martinez)

Clandestine Cargo: Hiding Sealift in Plain Sight

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By Christian Morris and Heather Bacon-Shone


Insulated by oceans to the east and west, and friendly neighbors to the north and south, America will always have to concern itself with sealift when fighting. It is well-acknowledged that while for some eight decades the U.S. has been able to move military materiel largely without contest from one theater to another. But this will likely not be the case in some future fight. This concern has dredged up, in memory and in practice, tactics employed decades ago to defend against contested oceans.1 To pace threats and ensure sealift survivability, America could relatively safely “smuggle” a certain amount of clandestinely loaded military materiel across contested oceans and through contested chokepoints, until reaching friendly offload destinations in theater.

Devising A New Approach to Sealift 

In a 21st-century world of over-the-horizon ballistic missiles, cloud-penetrating synthetic aperture radar, and global satellite imagery, where remarkable resolution and coverage are available even from open sources, we can no longer rely upon 20th-century tactics to “hide” sealift, whether solo or convoyed, in transit. While certain elements of emissions control (EMCON) and operational discipline can complicate adversary firing solutions and enhance escorts’ ability to shield high-value assets from attack,2 we must assume the adversary will be attentively watching every step of loadout, transit, and offload and in near-real time.

America’s hope is that its large network of allies and coalition partners worldwide, a small handful of Afloat Prepositioning ships, and a scattering of vestigial bases largely left over from previous generations’ conflicts, will provide sufficient maritime resupply and security in case of conflicts across contested waters. Though such friendly ports may wait with welcome roads, railways, and runways at the end of an arduous maritime journey, sealift ships still have to get there safely. For those early stages of overseas conflict, before America has gained control over her sea lines of communication (SLOCs), she still lacks a 21st-century secure sealift solution.

If the Chinese Communist approach to contested oceans is state ownership and control of resources, it seems the capitalist, democratic approach would be to embrace the natural camouflage of a heterogeneous, profit-driven, highly international containerized shipping industry. For example, a vessel’s owners may be Greek, the company Danish, the insurers British, the officers Eastern European, the unlicensed mariners Filipino, the embarked security American, the cargo from a half- dozen countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, and bound for customers throughout the Americas. And that is just one ship among thousands. For locating military sealift cargo that was clandestinely loaded, it would be fiendishly difficult to find one particular ship in the company of hundreds of lookalikes.

While sealift is often thought of in the context of sustainment, it is often also the precursor to initial intentional action. While existing national sealift assets – the Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF), Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships, and Maritime Security Program stipend ships – all play a valuable role once combat is engaged and SLOCs secured, the U.S. still lacks a good way to move assets into theater securely and discreetly at the start of hostilities or before opening a new front in the conflict. Secretly loading containerized military equipment among the millions of TEUs processed annually at key U.S. ports such as Los Angeles/Long Beach, New York/New Jersey, Houston/Galveston, and Savannah could help military sealift hide in plain sight.

The aging RRF ships, which struggle to maintain readiness despite heroic efforts from crews, could still be employed as decoys. These ships could make a big show of loading dummy vehicles, empty fuel bladders, and aircraft aboard them and sending them out in convoys, communicating in codes that are known to be compromised. Meanwhile, the actual critical materiel can move invisibly aboard MSP ships (provided their “cover” of commercial shipping remains unbroken) and in contracted spaces on other containerized vessels flagged under friendly nations.

To shepherd the cargo’s movement into theater, a plainclothes Navy Tactical Advisor (TACAD) could be hired, on articles, as an unassuming member of the ship’s company – since all TACADs, commissioned as Strategic Sealift Officers in the Navy Reserves, carry unlimited-tonnage deck or engine licenses. (TACADs, who currently conduct secure Navy communications and train for convoy operations aboard civilian vessels carrying military cargo, are well-suited for such duties.) Alternatively, with sufficient time to prepare, TACADs could be embedded unobtrusively as employees throughout international shipping fleets, similar to their natural civilian-job distribution in U.S. commercial shipping; and TRANSCOM could prioritize ships with TACADs in the crew for surreptitious military cargo movement.

To avoid concerns about their combatant status under the Geneva Conventions and Law of Armed Conflict, such “undercover” TACADs could be required to travel with a uniform and ID card to show in case of enemy capture – a tactic similar to that used by the Merchant Marine during the Vietnam War.

Additionally, TACADs could be required to surrender their civilian salaries to the government while on simultaneous orders, avoiding conflicts of interest while keeping the arrangement opaque to the ship’s crew. Finally, the U.S. government would need to be prepared to reimburse vessel owners for any loss or damage during transit; since the charter party contract, to maintain proper “cover,” likely would not specify the carriage of military cargo or employment of personnel under military orders.

It would be both unnecessary and unwise for such undercover TACADs to communicate updates on their secret cargo regularly, even by secure means. With the location and identity of those vessels easy to track via satellite imagery and cloud-piercing synthetic aperture radar, and with the elementary algebra of cryptanalysis resting on using knowns (vessel name and location) to guess unknowns (the method of encrypting that information), those codes, and all they protect, would be unnecessarily exposed. Nor should these vessels attempt to mask their location or identity; in a commercial shipping world where deck officers largely “drive by AIS,” being a dark target draws unnecessary navigational danger and sound Bridge Resource Management principles require deck officers to maintain a proper lookout by all available means, commercial shipping’s dependence on AIS as a near-sole means of collision avoidance creates significant risk of collision for even the most attentive mate aboard a non-transmitting vessel in a busy shipping channel. Modern deck officers often assume non-AIS radar blips are tiny pleasure craft or fishing vessels; unused to looking out the window to visually confirm, and assuming they are passing something small, they can create dangerously close CPAs – particularly hazardous in congested shipping lanes. Indeed, the lack of Navy ships’ AIS signals contributed to the 2017 collisions, spurring the Navy’s policy change to allow AIS transmission in crowded shipping lanes.

A congested AIS/ECDIS screen in the Singapore Strait. (Author graphic)

At the same time, coastal nations tracking marine traffic assume non-AIS targets are either warships or bad actors engaged in illegal activity – either way, drawing outsized attention, and potentially even aggressive engagement. “Going dark” might as well be wearing a giant “Look Here!” signboard in today’s operational intelligence world. It would be better to keep the civilian crew unaware of their clandestine military cargo, so the ship, operating normally, unwittingly, and safely blends into ordinary commercial traffic.


These clandestine solutions offer more flexibility for sealift and could help mitigate capacity shortfalls. They could also stretch adversary intelligence capabilities and dilute assets allocated toward finding and targeting sealift.

If, as Sun Tzu said, “All war is deception,” we should seek more ways for our 21st-century sealift to hide in plain sight.

Lt. j.g. Christian Morris, a graduate of Great Lakes Maritime Academy, sails commercially on the Great Lakes. He is a warfare-qualified Navy Reserve Strategic Sealift Officer who has twice served as a TACAD aboard commercial ships, in addition to assignments aboard Ready Reserve Fleet and Military Sealift Command ships. He holds an unlimited-horsepower 2nd Engineer’s license for steam and diesel.

Ens. Heather Bacon-Shone is a prior-service Coast Guard officer who sails as a civilian mariner with Military Sealift Command. A warfare-qualified Navy Reserve Strategic Sealift Officer, she has deployed twice as a TACAD and assisted the SSO Force with strategic planning and public affairs. A former member of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), she holds an unlimited-tonnage Chief Mate’s license and is a Coast Guard Permanent Cutterman.

The opinions in this article are made in the authors’ personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the authors’ civilian employers.


1. “The positive necessity for radio silence on the part of vessels engaged in naval operations during war cannot be emphasized too strongly.” J.M. Lewis, A digest of naval communications, US Naval Institute, 1928. In addition to emissions control, Lewis also champions the use of tactical signals passed through visual communications, including semaphore and flashing light. The use of emissions control to evade radio direction-finding dates to WWI; so does zig-zagging to avoid torpedoes. See Remarks on submarine tactics against convoys, Office of Naval Intelligence, 1917. Within a year, the Navy questioned the value of the zig-zag: Analysis of the Advantage of Speed and Changes of Course in Avoiding Attack By Submarine, Office of Naval Intelligence, 1918.

2. That is, if escort combatants are even available. See

Featured Image: The Port of Singapore. (Photo via Reuters)

The Glutted Mariner Shortfall 

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By LCDR Adena Grundy

Based on data from the recent Maritime Workforce Working Group Report, there is an estimated 2,000 U.S. mariner shortfall for sustaining sealift in support of a major national mobilization lasting more than 6 months. This number could be even higher due to double counting mariners that are actively sailing and also serving as strategic sealift officers. 

In a scenario that requires activating 61 organic sealift vessels for surge operations that continue into subsequent sustainment missions, there would be a mariner pool shortfall. There are not enough senior officers with the experience and qualifications to keep up the fight. 

But there is another side of the coin, a conflicting truth. From the perspective of the individual U.S. mariner seeking a reliable career path, there is no real shortfall. Within the economically-driven mariner job market, there is actually a glut of mariners in the current workforce, especially in the officer ranks. Without recognizing this current condition, attempts to increase pool size could initiate a vicious circle of issues that will actually drive people from the Merchant Marine, thereby exacerbating the problem. 

The trend towards increasing barriers to mariner retention has not changed in 20 years. These include; declining wages and benefits, reduced quality of shipboard life and time in port, increased administrative workloads and regulatory paperwork, the 2009 collapse of the American Maritime Officer (AMO) union pension plan, and a lack of progressive career opportunities. With diminishing incentives, sea-going careers are seen as a dead-end. 

As a result, either no one wants to go to sea, or those who want to, cannot…. 

The solution lies in the number of U.S.-flagged ships in trade, and the cargo required to keep those ships in trade. 

Jobs and Wages 

From a peacetime supply and demand perspective, there is ample reason for shipping companies to “close the books” now, postponing new hires until the job market improves. From the maritime labor union perspective, expanding recruitment means greater revenue from dues, and increasing U.S. government (USG) satisfaction. The USG is the primary customer of the Merchant Marine, and a larger pool of mariners is a good way to make this customer happy. 

Unions typically give applicant members (new hires) better jobs to get them “on the hook”, and to get the associated dues rolling in. To appreciate the union perspective, consider the effects of the financial crisis of 2008. One of the largest officer unions, the AMO union provides an illustrative case study. 

In 2008 the AMO pension plan became underfunded due to investment devaluation associated with the national financial crisis. In response, the government directed that the AMO pension plan be “frozen” in its underfunded state, with a newly defined contribution plan initiated for its members to use henceforth. To reduce liabilities, officers with 20 years or more of service, the original retirement eligibility requirement, were given a lump sum pay out from the old plan. The old plan was frozen for all other members with less than 20 qualifying years. This is not an uncommon practice in many industries, however, in this case, buy-out qualifying members who took the lump sum were allowed to also continue in their old jobs as a “buy-in.” Typically these jobs were in the higher paying management level positions. 

As a result, mid-level employees (10-19 years of service) ended up with a defined contribution plan that looked no different than plans for those who started work in 2009. The frozen pension fund sits at zero percent interest to this day. AMO members who had less than 20 years are now looking at less than $1000 monthly pension payments after 20 years of service. This block of mid-senior level officers are excluded from the higher paying jobs. 

This creates a situation in which middle aged and more experienced mariners are effectively pushed out, leaving the mariner pool imbalanced, with a majority of the members being either very senior or very junior.

The Military to Mariner program, recently empowered by executive order from President Trump, is intended to make it easier for military personnel to become merchant mariners. New U.S. Navy policy now directs that training and certification for Surface Warfare Officers is inline with International Maritime Organization standards. This training includes proficiency log books, enhanced radar classes, and bridge resource management that essentially meet IMO standards while preserving the Navy’s autonomy. This will accelerate this Military to Mariner transition, and create more supply without demand. Increasing the size of the labor pool without increasing the number of available jobs will only drive down wages. 

U.S. mariner wages have been relatively stagnant for well over a decade, with increases below cost of living adjustments. Simultaneously, compensation for shore-side positions have risen to either match or surpass the entry level officer positions (third mate or third engineer). 

A merchant mariner’s career path can best be described as a game of chutes and ladders…. 

Within the maritime industry, the laws of supply and demand are supreme. Mariners are paid at a contracted rate without regard for the individual’s years of service. Credentialed officers sometimes elect to sail below their rated credentials, and recent maritime graduates often take unlicensed billets, such as ABs (able seamen) and QMEDs (qualified members of the engineering department). In this environment, the U.S. mariner job market is dynamic and cyclical. 

Shipping industry contracts and ships come and go in a turbulent nature. Inevitably, at some point in a mariner’s career, they will experience an unplanned lay-off, but there are few safety nets in place. When seeking new employment after a layoff, company loyalty will suddenly mean little. The mariner can be caught between opposing actions taken by the unions and operating companies. To the mariner, this can feel like a shell game, with the price of admission being high dues and initiation fees. A lack of progressive wage growth and upward promotion opportunity is a major disincentive to the brightest and most qualified who might choose a sea-going career. 

Other Barriers to Retention 

By far, most mariner jobs are obtained through labor union representation. Many critics assume an anti-union bias, blaming “greedy” unions for driving up U.S. mariner labor costs in the competitive global market. The reality is that U.S. maritime unions have been forced to compete for a limited number of contracts, resulting in a “race to the bottom” at the expense of the mariner. 

Within the competitive global market, U.S. mariner contracts have slowly been stripped of benefits. This includes cost of living adjustments, travel pay, compensation for additional regulatory-required training, overtime benefits, seniority rights for job selection, and reduced base wages and days for calculating vacation benefits. In addition, the unions have lost influence over companies for quality of life standards, such as the quality of food, internet and satellite phone access, and other morale and welfare benefits. 

No longer glamorous, a life at sea has devolved into a form of self-imposed incarceration…

Due to increased workload and crew reductions, there are no longer opportunities to go ashore during port visits. At-sea rotation periods have increased, despite several studies indicating that continuously working at sea past the 90-day mark means declined performance. Operating companies push for extended rotations to save on mariner travel and repatriation costs. These are conditions that lead to mariner fatigue and burn-out, driving departure from the industry. 

Looking at the MSC deployment model of four months on and one month off, it is no mystery that upon achieving a senior USCG license level recognized as management worthy, many MSC civilian mariners transition to shore-side employment. Labor unions no longer support rotary shipping, and have moved to a model employing permanent employees requested by the operating companies. Ship officer billets are now filled by only an A and B team rotation. When issues arise, instead of adding a third person, the demand is placed upon the mariner to either stay longer, or come back early. While A-B permanent rotations are desirable to some, bringing back rotary shipping and short-fill jobs would serve both mariners needing work and those who need a respite. The greater mariner pool would remain more proficient and ready to serve in a crisis shipping scenario. 

For many young women who want a family and a sea-going career, the Navy, not the Merchant Marine, has become the family-friendly option.

A career at sea offers little balance between career and personal life. The youngest mariners often work within a five-year plan. As incentive to upgrade, current licensing procedures favor junior officer advancement to the mid-level. After the first year of sea time is documented, third mates automatically receive an upgrade to a second mate license. Currently, Chief Mates require only six months sea time to obtain an Unlimited Master license. This may address a mariner pool shortfall, but will it be a pool of proficient mariners? 

Reducing license advancement requirements promotes a “check the box” mentality…

Issues with Proficiency 

Acknowledging the reduced size of the U.S. Flag merchant marine, the Marine Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force (RRF) program provides an alternate avenue for employment. These mariners spend extended periods of time in reduced operating status (ROS), and many have not been to sea in years. Engineers who have “upgraded at the dock” from third engineer to chief engineer may be very knowledgeable of the ship, but their readiness for long sea periods is not verified. While most RRF ROS crewmembers would like to rotate through sea-going relief jobs — MARAD promotes this idea — RRF ship managers and unions do not necessarily support rotations because of the administrative and contract performance work associated. 

A topical discussion on mariner proficiency might consider the lessons learned from the 2017 collisions involving the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S McCain. Prior to these collisions, in May of 2014, Admiral Thomas Copeman stated “If we continue to invest in the latest and greatest equipment and the most capable weapon systems without making an equivalent investment in our workforce, we will move further away from being a ready force.” The Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents noted that: 

  1. In each of the four mishaps [the Review included the two destroyer collisions and two grounding incidents] there were decisions at headquarters that stemmed from a culturally ingrained “can do” attitude, and an unrecognized accumulation of risk that resulted in ships not ready to safely operate at sea. 
  2. Evidence of skill proficiency… [was] missed, and over time, even normalized to the point that more time could be spent on operational missions… which ultimately reinforced the rightness of trusting past decisions. This rationalized the continued deviation from the sound training and maintenance practices that set the conditions for safe operations. 
  3. Primary causes of the collision were leaderships’ loss of situational awareness in a high traffic area and failure to follow safe navigational practices, coupled with watch-standers who were not proficient with steering control operations or engineering casualty response procedures… The collision occurred because an inexperienced Bridge team failed to… take proper actions to avoid collision. 
  4. In the last 25 years alone, the amount of maritime traffic on the sea has increased by 400 percent, demanding even more attention to adherence to the Rules and the customs of good seamanship and safe navigation. 
  5. The failure of qualified, trained and certified personnel and watch teams to execute their duties safely and professionally, while unacceptable, is not uncommon…  As examples: 36 percent of individuals turned to port in extremis; 35 percent were unable to properly tune their navigation radar; 30 percent did not make proper use of electronic chart system safety features; and, overall, there was an overreliance on electronic chart systems as a single source of navigation information, as well as a broader neglect of visual and radar equipment. 
  6. The policies and practices … place greater value on qualification rather than experience and proficiency. 

Is the operational plan for surge sealift headed down the same collision course as the Navy Surface Fleet experienced in 2017?


The United States will continue to have a mariner shortage for surge sealift without increasing the number of career-viable sailing jobs, combined with adequate compensation and training allowances, and quality of life at sea equivalent to competing shore-side employment opportunities. The current model of increasing the labor pool will only push out mid-level mariners. Incentives are needed for mariner retention. It is not just about quantity, but also quality. Solutions include expanding MSP programs, strengthening Jones Act trade, and tapping into emerging markets, such as petroleum and liquid natural gas exports. Strengthening sealift is not just about ships, it is about people! 

LCDR Grundy  graduated from SUNY Maritime College in Bronx, NY in 1994 and was commissioned into the Strategic Sealift Ready Reserve Group (SSOF) as a Direct Commission Officer in 2011. She is licensed by the USCG as an Unlimited Master and has served on a variety of merchant vessels including: container, RO/RO, crane/ heavy lift vessels, oceanographic survey and surveillance, cable lay, freight bulkers and chemical tankers. She worked with the American Maritime Officers Union (AMO) from 1994 to 1997 and worked in environmental and occupational health. She continues to sail with AMO in a rotary capacity.

As a Naval Officer, she is part of the Strategic Sealift Officer Force. Her tours include Military Sealift Command, Pacific, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, NCAGS Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping, TRANSCOM and has conducted several afloat BRM workshops for COMNAVSURFPAC. She currently serves as a Senior Mentor within the SSO Mentorship Organization.

Featured image: Two MH-60S Sea Hawks, assigned to the “Eightballers” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 8, airlift supplies from the Henry J. Kaiser-class fleet replenishment oiler USNS Guadalupe (T-AO 200), right, to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), left, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59) during a replenishment-at-sea, March 15, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brandie Nuzzi)

The Future of Sea Basing for U.S. Army Transportation

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By Mike Canup, Tim Fitzgerald, and Tim Owens

Future conflicts will become more complex as the United States deals with near-peer competitors. The new U.S. Army Operating Concept, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, states that the Army will need to gain and maintain the initiative while maintaining global agility. Sea basing is the rapid deployment, assembly, command, projection, reconstitution, and re-employment of joint combat power from the sea.1 Operational sea basing provides the Joint Force Commander with flexible options to project and sustain combat power ashore. 

The Army faces challenges with sea basing due to its focus on land warfare. However, the Army has a long history of maritime operations, a critical element of projecting combat power around the globe. Strategic power projection relies heavily on Army Prepositioned Stocks (APS), Army equipment and material situated around the world on land and sea, that provide the ability to deploy combat power on numerous continents. 

Limitations to the APS model exist. Equipment is loaded to maximize space and lower cost versus loaded in a combat configuration. Vessels require adequate and secure seaports to be able to download equipment and receive and stage material for further movement in theater. The current configuration of the APS is not suitable to accommodate sea basing operations.2 Shrinking the gap between early entry forces and the buildup of more robust forces will require the Army to develop innovative approaches to surface and vertical sea basing connectors. Doing so will allow US forces to seize, maintain, and exploit the initiative. 

Sea Basing in Action

During the 1982 Falklands War, the British relied on sea basing to effectively sustain their combat operations. Operating 8,000 miles from the United Kingdom, the British had to figure out how to support a task force that included warships, aircraft, and Royal Marines. In order to sustain combat operations at sea, the British activated approximately fifty merchant ships for military service.

These vessels included container and roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) ships and fuel tankers, which made up one third of the activated vessels. The British also developed an Intermediate Staging Base (ISB) on Ascension Island, approximately halfway between the Falklands and Great Britain. Over the course of the 60-day conflict, the British moved 5,800 personnel and over 6,600 tons of supplies through the ISB, highlighting the amount of logistics support necessary for a relatively small conflict.3

Sea basing proved to be absolutely critical for the British to sustain Operation Corporate, the codename for the UK’s Falklands campaign. Without sufficient merchant supply ships and a ideally-located strategic ISB, the British would have struggled to support their joint operations. 

Similarly, in the future the United States may find itself protecting vital territories or interests far from the continental mainland. Depending on the location, the US may not have the luxury of having access to forward seaports, airfields, and land bases to build combat power. In that case, sea basing would be a crucial requirement for projecting combat power into a theater of operations and sustaining it for an undetermined amount of time. 

Virtues of Sea Basing

Sea basing allows the Combatant Commander to use the sea as additional maneuver space and place vulnerable lines of communication outside of enemy action or influence. Visualizing the sea basing concept in terms of time, space, and resources highlights its true potential along five lines of operation: Close, Assemble, Employ, Sustain, and Reconstitute (CAESR).4

Close: The Army must rapidly and decisively close in on an area of operations to maintain a competitive advantage across the spectrum of possible operations. Whether responding to hostilities or a humanitarian assistance mission, the Army should maintain a posture that allows resources to arrive quickly in the right place at the right time. Embracing sea basing will allow Army transportation assets to close decisively in theater. 

Assemble: Assembly means the ability to put forces together in a way to achieve a common mission. Before the force itself can be assembled properly, the elements of the sea base need to know where and how to fit together in a logical way. Doing so will enable the smooth flow of resources and personnel from the assembly area into and out of the operational area. Army transportation assets should be built or modified with this concept in mind. The development of the Maneuver Support Vessel (MSV) family of Army watercraft must be able to connect with US Navy expeditionary support vessels and prepositioned stock afloat assets. 

Employ: Once the Army arrives in a theater of operations it must be able to command and control land forces in support of the Combatant Commander’s objectives. Throughout history, the U.S. Army has deployed forces in conditions ranging from uncontested landings to under direct enemy fire. During the buildup of forces in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield, U.S. forces arrived in a secure partner nation port with modern facilities to offload equipment. While this scenario may be possible again in the future, the Joint Force has to plan for the employment of forces in an austere environment under hostile fire. 

The Army is no stranger to employing forces from the sea, as evidenced on the beaches of Normandy and Inchon. These amphibious landing operations under intense enemy activity highlight the importance of integrated and rehearsed land and sea operations. Ensuring that the United States military has the capability to conduct such operations in the future, especially in the INDOPACOM theater, is essential. Critical maritime enablers, combined with the ability to operate and replenish a sea base, will enable the effective employment of land forces. 

Sustain: One of the most important aspects of military operations is the ability to sustain the force. Global sustainment of forces is the main reason that the United States can fight wars away from the homeland. As Great Britain realized in 1982, conflict may not always occur under ideal circumstances or in proximity to established supply bases. The Army needs to be able to resupply and refit forces in any operational environment efficiently and effectively. This ability largely relies on airlift and sealift capabilities to distribute supplies from the strategic enterprise down to the operational and tactical level. Joint sea base platforms will require the ability to operate at sea while sustaining forces further inland. 

Reconstitute: At the conclusion of operations or for survivability, the sea base may have to disperse and refit for future operations. Joint Forces must have afloat enablers and watercraft postured for the rapid assembly and disassembly of a sea base to ensure critical assets remain protected and available for subsequent operations. 

The Army’s Role in Sea Basing

The Army developed and established units to conduct amphibious combat and sustainment operations in a variety of theaters. This allows the Army to utilize sea basing with the equipment currently in its stock. The Army’s primary watercraft are the Landing Support Vessel (LSV), the Landing Craft Utility 2000 (LCU), and the Landing Craft Mechanized 8 (LCM). These vessels ferry equipment and supplies from the Roll On/Roll off Discharge Facility (RRDF) to either an established pier or the Trident Pier, a multi-pronged floating dock with the ability to offload cargo from ships of various sizes and discharge onto the shore. 

The Army also owns the modular causeway system—a floating set of piers that can be configured for loading and unloading Army watercraft. The RRDF and the Trident Pier are designed to offload equipment and supplies from Military Sealift Command and Army watercraft vessels. The RRDF is used as a floating pier in open water for offloading equipment from RO/RO ships to smaller watercraft such as the LSV, LCU and LCMs. These systems and capabilities are integral pieces of the sea basing concept, enabling the Army to remain relevant in joint operations in a littoral environment. to perform the employment and sustaining lines of operations of sea basing. 

The downside to the current Army equipment is the inability of Army vessels to interface directly with Military Sealift Command (MSC) vessels, therefore requiring access to the RRDF to offload equipment. To fix this issue the Army is currently developing the MSV family of watercraft, which will allow the loading and offloading of equipment directly from MSC vessels without the need for additional equipment. These ships will eventually replace the current Army fleet and will enable quicker movement from a sea base in the beginning of an operation. 

Another issue is that current amphibious landing equipment is largely under the control of the Army Reserves. Reserve Component forces do not respond and mobilize as quickly as Active Component forces can. This may put a joint operation at a disadvantage in the beginning as Reserve forces mobilize, train, deploy, and arrive in theater. This is precious time lost in a humanitarian response or direct action mission set. Some mitigation measures can allow the Reserve Component to get into position faster. 

Prepositioned stocks of Army watercraft and floating causeways are located in Kuwait and Japan. Causeway material in these locations is stored on land and takes time to organize and employ. Positioning a floating causeway company’s worth of systems onto APS afloat vessels would improve the speed of deployment. In conjunction with moving causeway systems onto strategic sealift craft, Reserve operators can regularly train to employ this equipment across the world. This will ultimately improve response time and make a sea base viable with equipment already afloat.

Sea basing enables the U.S. Army to execute and sustain joint combat operations in unestablished theaters around the globe quickly. Platforms that can operate across multiple domains need to be a focus for the Joint Force in developing capabilities to ensure sea basing can be executed. Developing and refining doctrine and conducting training starting with the current force structure will make sea basing an executable capability in the long term. The Army must look at the APS stocks and reconfigure them to contain more JLOTS equipment to expedite the ability to execute this concept. In the near future, the Army is going to have to move across the sea, configured in a scalable task force, and possibly without much notice. Exploring, funding, and fielding assets capable of sea basing will ensure that the Army can go where it’s needed, when it’s needed, ready to fight.

Major Michael Canup currently serves in the Operations Section of the U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) Headquarters located at Fort Bragg, NC. He previously served as the Division Transportation Officer (DTO) of the 25th Infantry Division in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

Major Timothy Fitzgerald is currently stationed at Fort Drum, NY, as the 277th Brigade Support Battalion Executive Officer. He was previously the Brigade Logistics Officer for the 210th Field Artillery Brigade in the Republic of Korea.

Major Timothy Owens is currently a U.S. Army Interagency Fellow at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). He previously served as the Division Transportation Officer (DTO) of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, NY.


[1] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sea Basing Joint Integrating Concept (JIC), Version 1.0. Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, 01 August 2005.

[2]  Colonel Michael G. Morro, “Sea Basing: Logistical Implications for the US Army”, Air Force Journal of Logistics, Volume 23 Number 2, 2009, page 14.

[3] Office of Program Appraisal. Department of the Navy. Lessons of the Falklands. Summary Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Navy, February 1983.

[4]  United States Marine Corps. The Maritime Expeditionary Warfare Report 2017. Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, July 2017.

Featured Image: U.S. Army Soldiers from the 10th Transportation Battalion (Terminal) assigned to Joint Base Langley-Eustis prepare to load a Humvee onto a landing craft mechanized (LCM) during a Logistics Over-the-Shore (LOTS) training at Joint Expeditionary Base-Little Creek. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Anthony Nin Leclerec)