Category Archives: Strategic Sealift Week

Don’t Overlook the Medical Fleet in Distributed Maritime Operations

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

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? Austal was awarded a contract to construct two Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPFs) vessels to be used as “ambulance ships” in such scenarios. Due to the limitations of the EPF designs, however, converted Offshore Supply Vessels (OSVs) are also required to create the well-rounded medical fleet needed for modern day maritime conflict.

EPF Limitations

EPFs are based off a commercial design used for ferries in various parts of the world. They are designed to be fast and transport a moderate amount of cargo. The EPF design also incorporates a military flight deck, potentially capable of operating with all fleet rotary-wing aircraft, to include MV-22s. However, this can only be done if the sea state is favorable; higher sea states drastically impact EPF seakeeping ability and can significantly hinder flight operations. EPFs also have light, shallow draft hulls, which allow them to reach high speeds and access more ports. This choice of construction materials, however, has led to issues with hull longevity and structural defects. The catamaran hull design adds to their high speed and shallow draft advantages, but it also detracts from their seakeeping ability. Their lack of underwater hull volume means that for their size and footprint, their internal volume is limited, giving them comparatively less room for mission equipment. Overall, the EPF design lends itself to high speed “sprint” operations, but little else.

OSV Hull Designs

OSVs, on the other hand, are designed to transport cargo to and from oil rigs and other offshore installations. Their ability to move large payloads makes them valuable assets for a vast array of other purposes as well. Like EPFs, OSVs have shallow draft hulls to access more ports. Unlike EPFs, however, some OSVs are equipped with bilge keels to improve seakeeping ability, increasing operational limits and the types of missions that can be conducted in adverse weather conditions. The only area in which EPFs design outperform OSVs is speed; most OSVs are limited to around 13 knots. However, some designs are optimized for greater speeds with a different thruster configuration. The OSVs modifiability and adaptability makes it the ideal platform to work in combination with EPFs to improve the capability of the medical fleet.

U.S. Triage System

Mass casualties can be overwhelming for hospitals when trying to provide individual patients their required level of care. The Emergency Severity Index (ESI) of the patient determines which triage group they belong to. The U.S. military currently uses a 5-level triage system: ESI 1 is severely unstable and needs to be seen immediately; ESI 2 is potentially unstable and needs to be seen in 10 minutes; ESI 3 is stable and should be seen promptly within 30 minutes; ESI 4 is stable and may be seen non urgently; and ESI 5 is stable and may be seen non-urgently, and therefore does not need any immediate testing or procedures. These levels can be split into three groups: ESI 1 and 2 are red, ESI 3 is yellow, ESI 4 and 5 are green.

Mass Rescue Operations

The U.S. Coast Guard utilizes a Mass Rescue Operations (MRO) model when a casualty happens at sea. They use all available means necessary to get to the scene of the casualty even if Coast Guard assets are not available or in range. Coast Guard personnel alert nearby commercial vessels via maritime communication circuits, including VHF and satellite circuits, and notify shore-side facilities to execute their role in the response. In the MRO concept, there is a designated triage area land-side where first responders will be staged to wait for casualties. Importantly, the MRO concept is for peacetime casualties at sea. Wartime casualty response presents significantly greater challenges.

Wartime Triage Operations

In wartime, The U.S. Navy is not guaranteed to have the luxury of working with nearby commercial vessels or shore-side facilities when a casualty happens at sea, especially not in a conflict area. Personnel recovery, primary triage, and medical care will have to be conducted by afloat assets such as EPFs. With greater speed, EPFs have the ability to rapidly arrive on station and commence initial rescue operations. However, with an augmented crew of rescue personnel and medical care providers, the EPF platform will quickly run out of room for rescued personnel, and any serious injuries will likely exceed the medical treatment capability that can be realistically operated aboard an EPF. This is where modified OSV-style platforms can be leveraged to provide additional capability. Once rescue and triage are accomplished, the personnel can be transferred from the EPF to one of several OSV-style platforms operating in the theater.

Many rescued personnel may be uninjured or in good condition, requiring little in the way of medical care. All personnel assessed as a level “green” patient will then be transported to the “green” OSV. This OSV will be an adapted “floatel,” which is a mobile accommodation vessel commonly used to house large numbers of personnel on offshore projects. These ships usually have a gangway incorporated into the Dynamic Positioning (DP) system that helps them to maintain position relative to another vessel or installation and allows for safe personnel transfers. They also have a large accommodation area on their deck that can be modified to accept aviation assets commonly used throughout the fleet to conduct personnel transfers and search-and-rescue operations. This is where the green casualties will stay. There will be psychologists and therapists onboard to respond and clear rescued personnel to either be returned stateside or transferred to other positions in theater, via aviation assets or in a friendly port.

All personnel assessed as “yellow” or “red” will go to the “yellow/red” OSV once an EPF has run out of space in its 100 Intensive Care Unit (ICU). This vessel will be equipped with extensive trauma-oriented medical facilities geared towards stabilization of injured personnel. Patients requiring medical treatment can be stabilized here before transfer, either to the “green” OSV after successful treatment, or to shore-side facilities or afloat medical assets operating outside of the conflict area. The back deck and accommodation area can be modified to house machines for conducting MRIs, CAT scans, and X-Rays, as well as other facilities and additional physicians required to quickly stabilize injured personnel.

While the EPFs will have two operating rooms onboard, it is likely there will be an overflow of red patients during a mass casualty. These red patients can be stabilized aboard the OSV and prepared to be transported by aviation assets to the Mercy-class hospital ships, which must operate outside of the “danger area” in which the majority of combat losses would be expected to occur, or to shore-side medical treatment facilities. Such transfers would likely require the use of MV-22 aircraft due to the distances involved, so the vessel would have to be modified with an appropriately rated flight deck. The yellow/red OSV will also be equipped with additional operating rooms, blood banks, patient movement equipment, and other facilities needed to address serious trauma cases.

The “Golden Hour” is a concept that shows how the amount of time it takes for an injured person to get treatment directly effects the life or death outcome. Once patients are triaged, getting them stabilized and to the medical care needed in a timely manner increases their chances of living.

OSV Skeleton Fleet

There is no shortage of OSVs available for the medical fleet. Due to the oil downturn in 2014, multiple companies have laid up, sold, or reflagged their ships. This “stacked” fleet of laid-up OSVs are ready to be used and ripe for repurposing to meet Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force needs. These vessels could be converted at relatively little cost and would likely be available much sooner than the time needed to construct and test the EPF ambulance ship concept. In the meantime, if needed, these OSVs could operate without EPFs, with the caveat of increased response time. These OSVs could also be used to store medical supplies, provide additional accommodations for medical personnel, and meet other auxiliary needs for medical and rescue missions.

From a manpower perspective, U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC) has a long history of operating Navy hospital ships and other auxiliary vessels, and merchant mariners who work for MSC are often proficient in operating with naval forces in contested environments. There are also a large numbers of mariners familiar with OSV operations that are available to hire due to drastic crew cuts in the Gulf of Mexico during the oil downturn. Placing the repurposed OSVs under the control of MSC, while initiating an aggressive targeted hiring plan, would easily provide the requisite number of merchant mariners to man a significant number of OSV style platforms, which are designed to be operated by smaller-than-normal crew as it is.


While the Austal EPF ambulance ship concept has its merits, it also has significant limitations that cannot be fixed within the constraints of the vessel’s base design. However, by leveraging the strengths of built-for-speed EPFs in combination with converted OSVs, the medical fleet will be capable of rescue operations and wartime casualty response in a modern day maritime conflict. For the minimal investment necessary to repurpose these available, surplus commercial products, a vast increase in capability needed for Distributed Maritime Operations can be obtained.

Misty Wilkins has worked on OSVs for three years and is currently sailing as a 2nd Mate. A 2018 graduate of the Texas Maritime Academy, she is also a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the U.S. Strategic Sealift Officer program, where she serves most of her active duty time as a Tactical Advisor (TACAD). She has written multiple papers on the employment of OSVs in support of naval forces and plans to write more.

Featured Image: Austal EPF Medical Concept. (Austal photo)

Strategic Sealift’s Merchant Mariner Problem

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By Geoffrey Brown

The first time I heard about Strategic Sealift was during my orientation as a civilian employee at U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), three months after I started the job, thanks to COVID-19. The orientation highlighted sealift as the unique differentiator between the U.S. military and its rivals, the reason for our global position, and a signal of our commitment to our allies abroad. Sadly, neglect over the last decades has seen this pillar of U.S. military strength begin to crack. At present, the dominant topic of conversation surrounding sealift is recapitalization of the fleet. According to Army General Stephen R. Lyons, “Our sealift fleet is able to generate only 65 percent of our required capacity, and is rapidly approaching the end of [its] useful life.”1 Furthermore, this issue is part of a larger downward trend, as noted by former U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) official Rear Admiral (Rear Adm.) Buzby in 2020: “Last year, there were 81 ships in the commercial fleet. Today there are 87, but that’s still down from the 106 ships available in 2010.”Compounding the problem, China is adding the equivalent of an entire U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP) fleet every year.3

Recapitalization is clearly an urgent issue, vital to readiness and future national security in a multipolar future. However, this long-term neglect of sealift goes further than the ships in the fleet; the readiness of the Merchant Marine is also in question. Rear Adm. Buzby stated publicly that the Merchant Marine is at least 1,800 officers short of what would be necessary in wartime.4 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.5 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. Undoubtedly, having enough sailors to man sealift ships is an issue just as critical as the recapitalization of sealift ships, and any effort that ignores merchant mariners will likely fail in the end.

Merchant Mariners are Essential Personnel

The underlying problem with manpower and readiness in the Merchant Marine is that neither U.S. Congress nor the Department of Defense (DoD) recognize merchant mariners as essential personnel. The mariners who operate the merchant fleet sustain both the American population at home and our troops abroad. They are essential to the American economy and warfighting enterprise. Currently, there is major congressional acknowledgement of the need to recapitalize the sealift fleet to be able to transport enough troops and materiel to sustain combat operations overseas. But while Congress has allocated money to buy used ships and build new ones, it has made no effort to acknowledge and bolster the labor force required to man and operate these ships.

The three main issues merchant mariners face because of this lack of recognition are: 1) unequal work status when compared to Navy or federal civilian employees; 2) non-existent training for wartime scenarios; and 3) burdensome bureaucratic procedures to obtain all required licenses, documents, passports, and training. The various departments involved in these procedures (State, Transportation, Defense, and Homeland Security) have different renewal timelines, medical requirements, training courses, etc. The overwhelming complexity of these procedures can result in mariners losing out on job opportunities and income, which in turn can lead to dissatisfaction among the ranks. If the dissatisfaction is enough, mariners leave the Merchant Marine to seek employment in another industry—or worse, to sail foreign flag.

This dissatisfaction is causing dangerous reductions in manpower and readiness, not only for the Merchant Marine, but also the Navy as a whole. Merchant mariners crew the auxiliaries of the Navy, supporting the military at sea and on land with fuel, ammunition, and supplies. They crew 61 ships in MARAD‘s Ready Reserve Force and MSC‘s Sealift Force, and a further 60 commercial ships in the MSP. To further emphasize their contribution, MSC’s 5,383 mariners crew 20 percent of the 301 ships in the U.S. Navy. Sealift operations require approximately 30 commercial and/or military ships daily to move DoD freight around the world. With expectations that nearly 90 percent of military equipment would be deployed via sealift in a major conflict, the importance of merchant mariners would be even higher in wartime.6 Merchant mariners are the foundation of our nation’s ability to deploy and sustain our military abroad, and their expertise is irreplaceable. 

Diverse Group, Diverse Problems

At the most basic level, merchant mariners can be divided into licensed or unlicensed mariners. This divide is akin to enlisted or officer in the military. Licensed mariners typically come from the maritime academies or worked their way up as unlicensed mariners—known as hawsepipers—serving significant time at sea and passing certain training courses. Beyond these ranks, mariners are classified based on their work to support the DoD enterprise, as Civil Service Mariners (CIVMARs), Contract Mariners (CONMARs), or Strategic Sealift Officers (SSOs). CIVMARs make up 80 percent of MSCs workforce, and their main role is to support the Navy. CONMARs are hired by private companies and contracted by the U.S. government to man government-owned or contracted ships. SSOs are licensed mariners who join the Navy with the purpose of having a cadre of reserve merchant officers ready for mobilization in the event of war. Generally, the idea is for SSOs to serve as advisors to civilian crews and ensure proper coordination between merchant vessels and the Navy during wartime operations. It is worth noting that SSOs can also be CONMARs and CIVMARs. All three groups of mariners have their own roles to play, which presents unique challenges to manpower and readiness planning.  

Each of the three mariner groups have their own structural hurdles that bear on on their recruitment and retention. For example, a CIVMAR‘s deployment schedule is not set. Instead, they are given a minimum four-month requirement to sail with an almost guaranteed extension for their billet. Every billet is manned to 1.3 personnel instead of the industry standard of 2.0 personnel. The result is constant deployments with little to no opportunity to take leave, delays in relief for crews (in some cases up to 90 days), and possibly losing overtime pay for taking ten or more consecutive days of leave at any time during deployment (see COMSCINST 12451.1 of 3 Mar 2020, section 4a). Meanwhile, normal federal civilian employees enjoy flex work schedules, weekends at home, have holidays off, and can schedule days off in advance, while Navy sailors typically do not face back-to-back deployments. Pay, leave, and work conditions for CONMARs are set by the private sector. While this generally means their schedules are better than CIVMARs, they are reliant on state of the U.S. maritime industry, which currently suffers from criticism of the Jones Act and unions, as well as the loss of subsides for shipyards.

As reservists, the SSO community struggles more with readiness than manpower. For example, SSOs often work as CONMARs or CIVMARs for their regular job. If war breaks out and a CONMAR SSO is filling a critical position on a commercial ship, keeping the supply of essential cargo coming into the United States during wartime, pulling them will leave that ship worse off. In the case of war, many of the mariners with the necessary skills, sailing experience, and licenses needed to man sealift ships are already doing necessary work and are unavailable. It is possible to send mariners slotted in relief positions to crew sealift ships, but this would only be viable short-term, as it would take away the opportunity for mariners to rotate ashore. Unions, MSC, and the SSO community itself are responsible for their own numbers, and the overlap between positions is not considered. The U.S. Coast Guard database is the best place to find the true numbers of available mariners, but the bureaucratic Gordian Knot of who is responsible for them and in what context remains a significant challenge.

Burdensome Bureaucracy

The most important actors involved in the readiness of the Merchant Marine are MARAD and the U.S. Coast Guard. MARAD is in charge of all maritime academies, their curriculums, and advocating for mariners (though they have faced criticism in this role6). The Coast Guard is responsible for licensing, certifications, and safety. Since the Coast Guard moved from the Department of Transportation to Homeland Security, it has grown to incorporate additional security aspects, such as background checks. But the Coast Guard still treats mariners as transportation workers, requiring them to have Department of Transportation (DoT) drug tests, medical screenings, and identification cards called a TWIC, all in addition to DoD requirements. This made sense when the Coast Guard was part of DoT, but it is not anymore; mariners work for either the DoD or private industry, not DoT (i.e. MARAD). Unless things change, mariners will continue to be subjected to redundant requirements.

Finally, even when enough mariners are available to man sealift ships, training remains a challenge. Merchant mariners would greatly benefit from training in damage control, secure communications, serpentine routes, avoiding mines (Q-routes), and joining a convoy before they arrive on sealift ships. However, any chance for them to take these important courses disappeared when DoT shut down the Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS) that offered them. This means that, outside of the military training SSOs receive from the Navy, merchant mariners are missing vital skills that would help them survive and be effective in wartime. Undoubtedly, this means that the readiness of merchant mariners for war is questionable. While some might argue they are noncombatants and do not need it, WW2 proves otherwise. The Merchant Marine suffered a higher death rate than any of the other service branches in WW2.5

This gets to the heart of what the Merchant Marine has faced since its inception and continues to face today. Merchant mariners are not valued or treated the same way as members of the U.S. Navy, even when they face the same challenges and threats during war. The mariners of WW2 waited 40 years until in 1988 before they were recognized as veterans through a lawsuit.1 However, this did not change anything for the mariners that came after them.  So what do we have to offer them in return when we ask them to go to war? If they are injured or die in military operations, what is in place to support them and their families? With the exception of SSOs, who receive support and benefits as U.S. Navy Reservists, the answer is unclear. 

Readiness Numbers and New Efforts

The most recent data available on merchant mariner readiness is disturbing (see graphic below). Mariner readiness was rated as amber in 2016 and 2017, which means the Merchant Marine is suitable for initial activation, but not for sustained operations. However, viewing mariner readiness in terms of percentage, a 15 percent increase in manpower would have been needed in 2016 to achieve wartime readiness, while a mere 1.4 percent drop would have meant the United States was no longer capable of an initial sealift activation. 2017 was even worse. Despite adding 488 mariners for 10 new ships that year, the Merchant Marine was only 0.8 percent from falling into the red. It is important to note that both ship numbers and the number of mariners considered in this math are constantly in flux. Still, the thin margin between amber and red is concerning. The Merchant Marine is a voluntary service, and there is no existing legal authority or mechanism to conscript people into service as mariners.8 Therefore, real doubt exists about how many would be willing to sail in wartime. A margin of 0.8 percent is unacceptable. 

A graphic from a 2016 MARAD presentation. Reproduced with permission. (Click to Expand)

The good news is that MARAD is painfully aware of the situation. According to MARAD’s USTRANSCOM Liaison, John Reardon, the direction for MARAD from the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act is to develop a strategy for mariner training and retention.9 This effort is in its early stages and being spearheaded by DoT’s Volpe Center in consultation with USTRANSCOM, MSC and a host of other stakeholders. Furthermore, MARAD’s Office of Maritime Labor and Training will be updating mariner figures twice a year, every year going forward. These are two two steps in the right direction, but more still needs to be done to rectify sealift‘s merchant mariner problem, starting with a clear understanding of who is responsible for carrying out reforms.


Merchant mariners are essential personnel to America’s economy and warfighting enterprise. While one could argue they are contractors, or mere transportation workers, and therefore do not deserve a more significant status, this argument ignores that merchant mariners operate up to 20 percent of Navy vessels. Furthermore, no contractor or transportation worker has paid the price that merchant mariners have paid in past wars and may pay again in future wars, or has a legal precedent that recognizes a time when they were veterans. Mariners feel they deserve more, they do deserve more, and the fact we cannot recognize them is a factor in how unattractive becoming a mariner has become as a career. Fixing some or all of these issues, removing some of these hurdles, will take a whole government approach. However, if we cannot fully crew the ships we have available, how can we crew the ships we need in war?

A special thanks to Nicholas J. Adema (U.S. Coast Guard Licensed Master, Unlimited, Upon Oceans and Lieutenant Commander, Strategic Sealift Officer, U.S. Navy Reserve), Joshua Morgan Hunt (Chief, Governance Branch, USTRANSCOM J4-PG), and John Reardon (U.S. DoT MARAD Liaison to USTRANSOM) for taking the time answer my questions and pointing me in the right direction for further research. This article would not exist without them.

Geoffrey Brown is an analyst in USTRANSCOM’s J1 Manpower and Personnel Directorate. Previously, he won USSTRATCOM’s 2019 General Larry D. Welch Deterrence Writing Award for his article on India’s Goldilocks Dilemma, later published in the Summer 2020 edition of the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs.



[9] Author’s personal correspondence with MARAD’s Liaison to USTRANSCOM, John Reardon.

Featured Image: An academic awards ceremony at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA photo via Facebook)

Beyond MSC and Amphibs: Unconventional Sealift

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By Benjamin DiDonato

As the Department of the Navy implements the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) and the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concepts, sealift and logistics plans must also adapt to support them. This process is already well underway with the development of the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and a range of drone efforts to deploy and sustain small, forward deployed units.

Unfortunately, the ability to support the numerous small positions, as envisioned by EABO, is limited more by the number of deployable hulls than the capacity of those hulls. Thus, while the new platforms will help, it will take time for them to arrive, and they will almost certainly not be enough to satisfy the demand for distributed sealift when they do.

This paper proposes a complementary solution which could be implemented immediately and continue to operate in parallel with these new platforms to further increase sealift capacity and flexibility. Simply put, 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.

The implementation details are naturally dependent on tactical, operational, and strategic plans which cannot be publicly discussed in full, and which will inevitably be further refined by experiments and wargames. That said, it should be readily apparent that supplies can come from shore facilities or large sealift ships operating farther back for safety, with fresh water being particularly relevant to this discussion since it can be generated aboard ships and transported ashore in collapsible bladders to minimize its impact on the ship. It’s also worth noting that keeping large sealift ships further from the front puts them closer to friendly shores, reducing their transit time and allowing them to deliver supplies at a higher rate.

With these basics established, we can move on to a brief overview of the opportunities each ship type presents.


Perhaps the most familiar combat platform in this discussion is the submarine. The special forces community is very familiar with operating from submarines, and submarines are likewise familiar with hosting special forces. Therefore, it would be simple to task special forces with EABO-type missions using this deployment method. Naturally, the robust joint special operations community could easily use its existing pipeline to train Marines to deploy from submarines as well, so this offers an extremely covert and survivable, albeit low-capacity, sealift option.

It’s also relatively easy to improve the ability of submarines to support EABO forces by developing self-propelled cargo pods to bring supplies ashore. Such a pod might be as simple as a cargo tube with a motor and compass that drives in a pre-programmed direction until it beaches itself, and could be strapped to the side of the sub or carried in the new Virginia Payload Module (VPM) in addition to existing deployment options.

Finally, it may be worth revisiting the old amphibious warfare submarine concept in the future Large Payload Submarine to further enhance these resupply capabilities and split the underwater missile carrier role onto a drone.

Carrier Strike Groups and Traditional Surface Combatants

Aircraft carriers and traditional surface combatants merit discussion under the same heading because aircraft carriers are always escorted, relatively few traditional surface combatants operate independently, and yet escort vessels operating independently offer relatively similar opportunities to full carrier groups, just at a smaller scale.

Note that this section’s “traditional surface combatants” includes Ticonderoga-class cruisers, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Zumwalt-class destroyers, and future Constellation-class frigates because all these ships offer relatively similar opportunities at this level of discussion.

While aircraft carriers and, to a lesser extent, their escorts, are obviously not designed for amphibious warfare, there are clear similarities to amphibious warships. Most critically, they operate helicopters, and now the CMV-22B Osprey Carrier Onboard Delivery Aircraft, so they could easily utilize established amphibious warfare techniques to deploy personnel, supplies, and heavy equipment over long distances. Marines and smaller supplies could be distributed across the strike group, while heavy equipment could potentially be stored on the carrier’s hangar deck if space is available.

Alternatively, any version of the V-22 could be flown to the carrier for refueling, and then sent on its way to provide rapid, long-range deployment with no impact on the carrier’s air wing. This would protect vulnerable sealift ships through the relative safety of distance while still letting their aircraft reach their destinations, and could also facilitate staging from still more distant (and less vulnerable) shore facilities.

Finally, while it would probably be too risky to bring an aircraft carrier into boat range of the shore, supplies and personnel could be transferred to a smaller platform like LAW, an Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV), a patrol ship, a Coast Guard cutter, a commercial vessel, etc. which do have the range to act as surface connectors for the carrier.

Independent surface combatants have a wider variety of options for unconventional sealift, although this flexibility is offset by the variety of missions they may be assigned and their more limited resources. For example, while they could stage V-22s or perform organic airlift with their H-60-family helicopters, this could conflict with ASW operations, especially if the ships’ aircraft are used. Alternatively, delivery ashore could be done by boat since these ships can afford to get closer to the coast than a carrier, especially if they are called on to provide fire support for EABO Marines. Nevertheless, the range and payload of a RHIB is still a limitation. The most attractive option is transferring cargo to a larger delivery platform as discussed above, but this may be difficult to accomplish in practice since these surface combatants weren’t designed to offload heavy cargo or personnel to a smaller vessel. Still, in spite of these limitations, the number of destroyers currently in service and future frigate plans makes surface combatants an important option for nontraditional logistics. Consequently, these platforms will probably offer the greatest return on investment as the Navy explores ways to implement this concept.


The misnamed Littoral Combat Ships would be particularly useful for nontraditional sealift. Since these ships are better described as drone carriers, they have the internal volume and launch capacity to deploy substantial equipment or carry specialist facilities to support other units in theater. Their high speed will also be useful for rapid forays into dangerous waters, and the reduced demand for other missions means they can more easily be tasked with these support roles.

On the specialist facilities front, the modular nature of these ships means it would be easy to build very capable medical, repair, C2, or intelligence facilities into their mission bays. This would provide much greater mobility and survivability for these support activities than island-based EABO installations, especially if additional air and missile defense capabilities like a Mk 56 lightweight vertical launch system for the RIM-162 ESSM are also added.

Lightly Manned Autonomous Combat Capability (LMACC)

While it’s easy to see the future LMACC as a simple corvette since it mounts heavyweight anti-ship missiles on a 600-ton hull, sealift is a core part of its design. Its survivability is greatly enhanced by blending into littoral clutter and it is intended to shoot targets spotted by other forces. This means it will preferentially operate in conjunction with EABO Marines so virtually every combat mission will be ideally tailored to provide sealift support for the Marines. Its very long range also provides operational flexibility to perform secondary lift between islands and act as a connector for larger vessels operating further back. The only major limitation is that its 11m RHIB can’t carry heavy equipment, but its very shallow draft and navigation sonar will let it get close enough to shore for Marines to swim if required.

Furthermore, LMACC is heavily armed for land attack and well equipped for missile defense, especially using electronic warfare, so it is uniquely suited to high-risk missions. When islands are contested and too dangerous for most platforms to approach, LMACC can reinforce or extract embattled Marines, provide fire support, and sink hostile warships. This means LMACC not only increases total sealift capacity, but provides unique capabilities not available anywhere else in the fleet.


In summary, the Navy’s existing fleet of warships offer opportunities to expand sealift capacity, and future platforms promise unprecedented new capability at minimal cost. These new distributed operating concepts synergize well with the numerous hulls but limited cargo capacity of these nontraditional sealift platforms to expand the reach of the American combat logistics system. Since these hulls already exist, the Department of the Navy can rapidly test and implement these concepts and continue them in parallel with current sealift expansion and recapitalization plans to improve overall capacity.

The use of warships as nontraditional connectors can also reduce risk to the logistics fleet by keeping these large, vulnerable ships further from the enemy. This obviously isn’t a silver bullet that will solve every problem, but it could be a useful piece of a future logistics system and help the Joint Force affordably meet overall needs.

Ben DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces.

Feature Photo: USS Begor (APD-127) stands offshore, ready to embark the last U.N. landing craft, as demolition charges wreck Hungnam’s port facilities, 24 December 1950. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)

Strategic Sealift is Broken: Which Direction Are We Headed?

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By David Sloane

In March of 2020 the Commanding Officer of the United States Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) General Stephen R. Lyons told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee and the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee that

“USTRANSCOM’s number two readiness concern is the Strategic Sealift Fleet. The sealift fleet is responsible for moving approximately 90% of wartime cargo. Sealift readiness rates have declined to 59% compared against a goal of 85%, with vessel material condition and age as the primary factors. Most sealift ships are reaching the age where maintenance and repair costs are escalating and service-life extensions will not yield proportional increases in readiness. Starting in the mid-2020s, the sealift fleet will lose 1-2 million square feet of capacity each year as ships reach the end of their useful life.”

None of this is a surprise to anyone who has been involved with or has observed the slow and steady decline of the Strategic Sealift fleet. This article will survey some of the issues that have caused this decline, describe some mistakes that have been made in trying to correct them, and propose a few possible solutions to ensure the warfighters have the tools they need to quickly respond to emergent contingencies.

The Reduced Operating Status Model Is Broken

The United States maintains a fleet of ships on standby to be available to meet warfighter needs to mobilize equipment on short notice. These ships are Roll On/Roll Off (RO/RO) ships kept at layberths at ports all over the country. The strategic sealift ships are divided into two separate fleets, managed by two separate government organizations: the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD). The ships are kept in a reduced operating status (ROS 5) which is designed to have the ships fully ready to activate and load cargo five days after notification at which point the ships are in fully operational status (FOS).

Within the current strategic sealift fleet, the five ships of the BOB HOPE class are the “gold standard,” and would probably be activated first as sealift needs arise during an emergent crisis. The issues raised in this article are specific to the BOB HOPE class, which is managed by MSC, but similar problems exist within other segments of the strategic sealift fleet. These ships are operated by a private shipping company contracted to MSC to operate and maintain these ships. This arrangement is referred to as government owned and contractor operated (GOCO).

When fully operational in FOS the ships are manned with 30 U.S. citizen mariners. When in the normal ROS status while layberthed the ships are manned with only 14 mariners who are tasked with completing all maintenance tasks required to keep the ship fully prepared to activate within 5 days’ notice. These mariners work a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 schedule, living ashore at night and over weekends. It should be noted that the ships’ preventative maintenance requirements change very little between ROS periods and when the ship is fully manned for FOS periods. Consequently, it is nearly impossible for the smaller ROS crews to keep up with all of the maintenance required to ensure that these ageing ships are fully prepared to activate.

These ships, like any others, require more maintenance with age. The BOB HOPE class ships were built at the now-defunct Avondale shipyard, and are now between 19 and 22 years old. That would be very old for a commercial RO/RO ship, but these are the babies of the strategic sealift fleet.

Furthermore, ships are made to operate at sea and not sit in port for months and months at a time. When a ship sits in port the equipment and machinery that needs to be in good working order just is not exercised enough. As a result, when it’s time to go to sea much of this same equipment will either not work properly or will break shortly after getting underway. Of course, the preventative maintenance assigned to the ROS crew is designed to ensure this doesn’t happen, but there are not enough hours in a normal work week for the smaller crew to keep up under the current funding scheme. Consequently, the ships keep degrading and have a low state of readiness.

Budget Woes

The government is not funding the five ships of the BOB HOPE class adequately to support the state of readiness required by the warfighter to support contingency scenarios. The ship’s operator annually submits an operating budget to MSC for review, including funding levels for all aspects of the ships’ operation, including maintenance and repair. As the operator and employer of the mariners performing maintenance, the operator is in the best position to estimate what will be required to keep the ship’s equipment fully functioning to the international standards for safety, as certified by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS).

Unfortunately, the last several years have seen a severe shortfall of funds authorized as compared to funds requested. Here are a few examples of the funding shortfalls for the budgets covering Industrial Assistance, Spare Parts and Crew Overtime: 

  • FY20- Funding was $19.5 million short of the requested budget. The government provided 44% of the requested amount.
  • FY21- Funding was $30 million short of the requested budget. The government provided 38% of the requested amount.

The underfunding problem is getting worse instead of better, but as anyone who has had responsibility for maintaining operating ships can attest, neglecting a ship’s maintenance only means the future costs will only go higher, never lower. The government claims to have “managed” the shortfalls by deferring required maintenance for critical items across the fleet. These items include but are not limited to Main Diesel Propulsion Engines and Ships Service Diesel Engines. Not surprisingly, one of the ships was issued a non-conformity – a failing grade – during a regulatory audit due to a shortage of spare parts; the ship’s under-funded budget for spares had already been exhausted. Note that the budget issues described above are only for annual operating expenses, not the periodic maintenance costs required every 30 months. These have their own funding issues.

2009 – A helicopter is loaded aboard LMSR USNS Bob Hope in Antwerp, Belgium, for redeployment to the United States. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The government has also severely underfunded the critical Repair/Overhaul (ROH) periods that are required twice every five years to keep the ships fully certified by the USCG and ABS. These are shipyard periods where the ships are drydocked in a U.S. shipyard for a typical 90 day (or more if problems are discovered while the ship is in the shipyard) repair period. Planning for these periods is a year-long process to identify the critical repairs that must be done to keep the ship in good shape for the next 2 to 3 years. In addition to critical repairs to the underwater portions of the ship, special attention is given to fuel and ballast tanks which need to be preserved, especially as these ships go past 20 years of age.

USNS MENDONCA serves as a case in point. Cost estimates for required work during her ROH period last year totaled $27.9 million, but when U.S. shipyards provided bids in line with those numbers, the government de-scoped the ship’s work package by 40% due to a lack of funding available. The 60% of approved work was completed at a cost of about $21 million. When the repair period was over the ship did not meet USCG and ABS regulatory standards and had to proceed to a layberth under a “permit to proceed” – a one way ticket to a pier that would not allow further voyages until all of the work was completed. Once the ship was at a layberth, work continued, but funded from the normal operating budgets nominally assigned to other ships, further reducing the amount of funds to keep the fleet in a ready status.

This same process repeated when BOB HOPE had her ROH period last year: The USCG and ABS did not approve the ship to leave the shipyard in a fully certificated status and the ship was allowed to be shifted to a layberth to complete needed repairs. These ships would not have been ready to meet warfighter requirements as a direct consequence of chronic and systemic underfunding. It is embarrassing that the first line of defense strategic sealift ships are not funded to meet the same standards that ships owned by private U.S. flag ship owners must meet to stay in business.

Software and Hardware

Everything discussed so far addresses hardware concerns with the strategic sealift ships themselves – and the lack of funding to maintain these vessels. Often not discussed is the software that makes these ships go, the U.S. citizen mariners who accept jobs as civilians to voluntarily make a career of working aboard ships that rarely move. Readiness discussions often only relate to the hardware, but readiness of the software is just as important.

The ROS model of keeping ships with only 14 crewmembers permanently assigned has led directly to a long term lack of readiness of all of these ships. When a ship is activated it is very likely that several licensed officers will be assigned that have never been aboard that ship before. While that may have worked in previous generations of ships where there was very little difference between critical systems, it does not work in 2021.

Imagine being a deck officer who reports to a ship never having operated ship specific critical equipment such as stern ramps, cargo cranes, navigation equipment, main engine controls and communication equipment. At the same time, these officers have likely never worked together as a bridge management team, something critical to safe ship operations, especially within restricted waters. On top of that imagine that these officers are not familiar with the ships USCG required Safety Management System (SMS). All of these issues exist, and the crew has less than 5 days to have the ship ready to depart.

Another rarely-discussed but important issue is the shrinking labor pool that is available and willing to work aboard these ships. Mariners generally want to work on ships that spend their time completing voyages at sea, not moored to a pier for months at a time. These mariners appreciate the lifestyle that allows generous vacation pay which affords them a great deal of time off when they return to their friends and families. Mariners who work aboard ships in ROS status receive the advantage of going home every night but their pay is significantly less than those working on fully active ships, as they do not receive the same vacation pay. Total compensation for a ROS mariner is about 45% lower for the officers and 25% lower for unlicensed mariners compared with what a mariner earns for working on a fully active ship for a typical 120 day assignment.

An even more troubling consequence of this self-selected labor pool is that the very ROS mariners who know the ship best are also accustomed to going home every night, and often decide NOT sail with the ship when activations occur because they don’t want to go to sea. So, when a ship gets activated the companies responsible for manning them take whoever might be available. A very brief activation of a week or so might attract mariners who are on vacation from their “regular” ships, but a mission of several months will produce a far smaller pool of available mariners. Most mariners prefer to stick with their regular jobs over these longer activations, because once the ship returns to ROS their regular jobs will be filled and over half of the FOS positions will disappear. These factors make the proper maintenance of strategic sealift ships an incredible challenge. Ships work best when they have steady crews who are given the opportunity to operate the ships at sea with steady employment.


Old ships eventually need to be replaced, and the idea that the ageing strategic sealift fleet needs to be replaced is not a new one. The Department of Defense and Congress have been discussing this for many years, but nothing happens quickly in the procurement of ships for DoD. These parties, along with TRANSCOM, have realized for a long time that the only practical solution is to purchase foreign-built hulls and convert them for service in the strategic sealift fleet. The length of time it would take to design, procure and build new strategic sealift ships in U.S. shipyards is just too long for the pressing needs, given the nature of American government bureaucracy.

U.S. shipbuilding interests have strong political influence, and so it is a small miracle that Congress has approved and funded this plan to purchase ships that were not built in the United States for strategic sealift recapitalization. MARAD intends to hire a private company to procure, convert, and operate “new” ships for the fleet via a contract titled “Vessel Acquisition Manager (VAM) service for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Fleet (RRF) Recapitalization.” The original Request for Proposals (RFP) went out to industry in February 2020, but due to a series of protests that were sustained by the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), MARAD has been unable to award this contract to date. The eventual awardee will have to identify the ships and get approval to purchase them for the government and then convert them for service. It will take years, not months, to complete these tasks.

Unfortunately, prices for used RO/RO ships on the international market have recently surged along with the demand created by the post-COVID economy, leading to a reduced availability of commercial RO/RO tonnage. Several companies have ordered new vessels, but it will take a few years for these new deliveries to be completed and the older ships to be available. If the U.S. Government is planning on recapitalizing the strategic sealift fleet by purchasing good, used ships, the last thing that should happen is to purchase older existing U.S. flag tonnage, as this will only recreate the current situation in a matter of years. The government missed a good opportunity to purchase replacement tonnage at bargain prices, and will be forced to pay millions of dollars more for the fewer ships available on the open market.

What’s Next?

It’s not clear that there is strong political will for the Department of Defense to operate and maintain a fleet of ships that is fully prepared on short notice to be available to carry its heavy equipment to the battle as the U.S. faces growing threats in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. While it is safe to say this problem has been discussed at great length, little is being done to correct this issue other than allocate a far too little amount for replacement ships that will arrive too late. A few suggestions:

  • Change the operating model for the ships that still are in the fleet- assign full crews to the existing ships to allow them the opportunity to properly maintain and exercise the equipment.
  • Assigning full crews will grow the motivated and fully trained personnel pool that will be available to meet emergent mission requirements.
  • Spend more days at sea- ships are much more dependable when they operate regularly
  • Fully fund both annual and periodic maintenance- you can pay now or pay later but paying later will always cost more.
  • Engage private industry for ideas- the firms that operate ships in the international market keep their ships operating or they go out of business. If you talk to companies that operate ships in both commercial and government service you will find out that the ships in commercial service have nowhere near the down time that ships in government service do. Maybe there are some reasons for that? Maybe that should be looked into?
  • Instead of purchasing old ships consideration should be given to chartering newer ships for 5 to 10 years. These ships can merely be replaced when the charters expire. This would ensure that modern ships are always available to the warfighter and eliminates any costs associated with disposing of older and no longer needed tonnage.

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.

David Sloane is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy has worked afloat and ashore in the U.S. flag maritime industry for almost 40 years. He currently works for Maersk Line, Limited and teaches “International Maritime Transportation” at Old Dominion University. Any views/opinions represented in this article are personal and belong solely to the author and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the author may be associated with in a professional or personal capacity.

Featured Image: USNS Bob Hope (T-AKR-300) at Naval Base San Diego (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)