Category Archives: Strategic Sealift Week

Across the Expanse: The Sealift Dilemma in a War Against China

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By Major John Bowser, U.S. Army


The DoD has shifted its focus away from fighting insurgents in the Middle East to prepare for large-scale combat operations. The shift in focus requires that DoD reassess its critical vulnerabilities, especially against its principal great power rival, China. China’s growing navy and increasingly hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific have the potential to disrupt alliances and create a unique logistical problem for expeditionary U.S. military operations. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one of the key U.S. alliance disruptors as China expands its reach in the Indo-Pacific and across the globe. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the largest navy in the world, outnumbering the United States by approximately 60 ships in 2020.1 The BRI and growing navy are part of President Xi Jinping’s strategy to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 20492, and they both will contribute to the U.S. military’s logistical challenges.2

A conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific will require the U.S. military to support expeditionary forces with extremely robust logistics. The DoD sustains expeditionary forces with both military and commercial contracted shipping assets. The United States’ Maritime Administration (MARAD) uses tools such as the Maritime Security Program (MSP), Voluntary Tanker Agreement (VTA), and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) to supplement the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) grey hull fleet. 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. Failing to address these critical sealift shortfalls could degrade deterrence and invite defeat in conflict.

The Road to the Current Situation

The past two decades of focus on the counterinsurgency fight have stymied U.S. sealift readiness in the Indo-Pacific. To understand why refocusing on sealift to prepare for potential great power conflict is so important, look no further than the Pacific theater in WWII. To get to the South Pacific, the U.S. had to move land and maritime forces thousands of miles from Hawaii to Australia to the landing sites. Oilers were a critical shortfall. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. only had four oilers on the west coast capable of at-sea refueling.3 Fortunately, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) did not deliberately target U.S. oilers at Pearl Harbor or throughout the war like Germany did in the Atlantic. German submarines effectively took out 141 tankers in the Atlantic, sinking a quarter of the U.S. tanker fleet in 1942.4 One of the greatest enablers of U.S. success in the Pacific was that the U.S. Navy’s fleet remained in the AOR on a constant basis, supplied by an entire military and commercial logistics fleet.5

To win a Sino-U.S. war today, the U.S. military would still rely on a combination of military and commercial vessels to sustain maritime and land forces. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have nearly the same sealift capacity it did pre-WWII, nor the shipyards to generate ships as it did with the 1941 Shipbuilding Act. Today the Navy’s grey hull fleet is 296 strong, with only 37 logistic vessels. Of those logistic vessels, 12 move dry cargo, and 25 move petroleum.6 While a Geographic Combatant Command has the authority to direct a single service to provide “common item” logistics to other services within the joint force, the Navy fleet cannot support the full spectrum of operations across all services. The Navy’s logistics fleet primarily supports Navy and Marine assets. In a large-scale combat operation, U.S. land forces, especially mechanized units, require significant fuel and dry cargo tonnage. Since the Navy does not sustain a robust logistics grey hull fleet due to funding, maintenance, and manpower shortfalls, the DoD relies on commercial shipping to fill the gap through the congressionally approved Maritime Security Program (MSP).

The Maritime Security Act of 1996 established the MSP as the commercial solution for DoD’s wartime logistics requirement. The MSP is a fleet of merchant ships that can provide sealift capacity during a time of war. The MSP fleet works off contractual agreements between U.S.-registered vessels and the U.S. government for an annual retainer so that, if needed, the vessels in the MSP will become available to support wartime sustainment. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act allows 60 congressionally-funded agreements under the MSP of various vessel sizes to support dry cargo transport.7 The MSP relies on independent companies to commit vessels, but no ships are tankers.

In addition to the MSP is the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). The Defense Production Act of 1950 and the Maritime Security Act of 2003 authorized the VISA program. VISA is MARAD’s official voluntary partnership umbrella between the U.S. government and the maritime industry. The program includes qualified U.S.-flagged merchant vessels that agree to volunteer their “intermodal capacity during wartime in exchange for priority access to DoD cargoes during peacetime.”8 This program also includes the Voluntary Tanker Agreement (VTA). MARAD’S U.S.-flagged Privately-Owned Merchant Fleet report as of March 16, 2021 shows 60 militarily useful ships in the MSP, an additional 38 in the VISA, and zero tankers in the VTA.9 The MARAD report does list 52 U.S.-flagged military useful tankers, but none are contractually bound. While the mechanisms are in place to support an expeditionary force in the Indo-Pacific through a military and commercial solution, the number of available ships shows a vulnerability in sealift capacity.


A large-scale combat operation against China will require sealift capacity that the U.S. military’s grey hull fleet and MARAD’s MSP and VISA programs cannot adequately address. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) estimated that in an expeditionary high-tempo conflict with China, a forward-deployed U.S. Navy fleet would consume 150,000 barrels (bbl) of E-76 naval and JP-5 aviation fuel per day, or over 4.5 million bbl per month.10 This is the equivalent of 14 tanker loads per month to support one fleet, which is over half the Navy’s fuel distribution capacity. This fuel requirement poses a significant limiting factor and operational risk to U.S. Navy fleets and is critically vulnerable to attrition. The CSBA estimate does not account for ground or land-based air forces. An Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) maneuvering on the offensive can consume up to 56,255 gallons of fuel every 12 to 24 hours.11 One mechanized division with a full complement of enabler brigades creates a fuel requirement of over 450,000 bbl per month. Including all the services, DoD can conservatively expect a 7-8 million bbls per month fuel requirement in a Sino-U.S. large scale conflict.

PHILIPPINE SEA (June 3, 2021) The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey (DDG 97) conduct a simultaneous replenishment-at-sea with the Henry J. Kaiser-class underway replenishment oiler USNS Rappahannock (T-AO-204). (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Operations Specialist Michael Ojeda)

Moving equipment and petroleum across the Indo-Pacific is the ultimate time-space-force factor problem. The Navy has between 21-25 available tankers in the inventory.12 Navy fleet replenishment oilers travel at an anticipated speed of 20 knots.13 The Navy’s slow tankers have vast ocean to cover, have more requirements than they can support, and are vulnerable, high-value targets that require escorts. The 98 militarily useful vessels in the MSP and VISA do not address fuel, and the 52 militarily useful tankers are not contracted and are currently employed elsewhere in the global economy.

RADM Mark Buzby (ret.), the former Maritime Administrator, told Seapower Magazine in November 2020 that the combined government-owned and commercial sealift assets could move the 19.2 million square footage estimated for large-scale combat operations requirements. However, this assumes all ships on the MSP and VISA fulfill their obligations and that there are no major readiness setbacks or attrition from the enemy.14 RADM Buzby also expressed concern that the MARADs Ready Reserve Force (RRF) is only funded to maintain 85 percent readiness.15 CSBA gave a less optimistic view in a 2019 report on sustaining the fight with maritime logistics, writing, “the current and programmed defense maritime logistics force of the United States is inadequate to support the current US National Defense Strategy and major military operations against China or Russia.”16 The best-case scenario is that the U.S. can manage the beginning of a conflict with China if all Navy logistics and U.S.-flagged commercial vessels activate and surge without attrition. Assuming attrition, the concerns from CSBA and MARAD provide a stark warning, that the U.S. military must address inadequate sealift capacity prior to a Sino-U.S. war.

DoD joint doctrine recognizes the need to establish logistical support before a conflict. Maritime theorist Milan Vego addressed this pre-war requirement by writing, “some key parts of operational (theater) support [logistics] needs to be done in peacetime.”17 The U.S. military does not have the resources, space, or authority to build robust in-theater stocks to negate a shipping capacity issue, in addition to the risk China’s long-range missiles pose to pre-positioned stockpiles. The challenge with solving the capacity problem at the strategic and operational level is that no single service or organization owns the whole problem. Strategic logistics includes industrial base capacity managed through the services and DoD-level agencies. Not even the functional combatant command TRANSCOM owns all sealift.18 The Navy’s fleet supports the Navy first, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is contract-bound, and the Army only focuses on Army Watercraft Systems. This hodgepodge of ownership and authorities could lend itself to a confused situation at the outbreak of conflict.

Operational Security (OPSEC)

In a Sino-U.S. conflict the U.S. would likely have to rely on foreign-flagged vessels to make up for the capacity gaps and hope for support from partners and allies. But relying on foreign-flagged vessels presents operational security vulnerabilities and dependencies on partnerships.

At the operational level, the goal of OPSEC is to deny the “enemy operational commander information concerning one’s capabilities, vulnerabilities, and intentions.”19 Relying on commercial ships for sealift capacity creates an enormous OPSEC challenge that threatens U.S. success against China in the Indo-Pacific. Since the U.S. does not have enough U.S.-flagged vessels to meet demand, it will have to rely on foreign-flagged vessels. Foreign-flagged ships present an even greater OPSEC concern than U.S.-flagged ships because foreign companies are unlikely to give up ships without their crews and or Global Positioning System (GPS). China could easily track foreign-flagged vessels through either GPS or insider threats among the crews. Many foreign-flagged vessels were built in China or are owned by Chinese companies.

Soldiers assigned to a brigade of the PLA 73rd Group Army guides a military truck to pull out of a military RO-RO ferry vessel during a loading-unloading training exercise from May 18 to 21, 2021. (Photo via Jiayu)

RADM Buzby stated that that the issue “truly is the cybersecurity threat.”20 Cellphones, social media, and commercial-grade vessel systems present cybersecurity risks and avenues for subversion and intelligence gathering. Even if the crews and companies only know which vessels have military supplies, this gives the PLAN tremendous opportunity to gain insight into potential interdiction targets and DoD operational plans. Whether China acquires the location of commercial vessels through nefarious means or accidental leaks, the PLAN will most likely know the location of at least some contracted DoD sealift vessels, their loads, and destinations. Sealift OPSEC failures could even provide the PLA with valuable targeting data and turn out to be a critical vulnerability for the joint force.

The OPSEC concern with commercial vessels really equates to survivability. The concern over maritime survivability grows as China’s regional influence and potential to commerce raid requires the Navy to use more warships to secure Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). A significant tenant of the PLA’s strategy is to deny maritime powers access, and it will not likely repeat the Imperial Japanese Navy’s WWII strategic failure to not target U.S. tankers.21 The U.S. Navy does not have the grey hull fleet to adequately escort logistics ships around the Pacific, control SLOCs, and find first to attack effectively first.22 DoD must address the critical OPSEC risk that could be posed by commercial logistics vessels in the event of conflict with China.

Partnerships and Alliances

The U.S. should not mistake the BRI as only China’s attempt to peddle influence to become the world’s largest economy. China’s growing hegemony is a direct threat to the partnerships and alliances that the DoD relies on to establish seaports of debarkation and fleet logistics centers. These centers and seaports are critical to sustaining expeditionary forces. Partnerships and alliances give the DoD port access, safe SLOCs, as well as wartime resources and commodities. As China disrupts U.S. partnerships in the region, the U.S. staging base situation in the Indo-Pacific starts to resemble the British situation in the 1982 Falklands War.

In the Falklands campaign Britain had to rely on a single staging base on Ascension Island located 3,300 nautical miles away from the scene of conflict.23 The difference between the 1982 Falklands War and a Sino-U.S. conflict is that Britain had superior weapons, platforms, sensors, alliances, and industrial base capacity over Argentina. A Sino-U.S. war would be more evenly matched regarding forces, and one major staging base for U.S. forces in Hawaii and possibly one fleet logistics center in Japan will not suffice. In WWII, Australia was the staging area for the arrival of much of the U.S. military’s manpower and materiel.24 Despite strong U.S. relations in the past, Southeast Asian countries, including Australia, do not want to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China.25 Many states may well remain neutral in a Sino-U.S. war, and neutrality could be more than enough for China to achieve its desired ends.

A critical policy consideration is the non-binding partnerships and dwindling alliance structures that suggest regional “allies” and “partners” may not open ports, share resources, or allow domestic companies to support expeditionary U.S. military forces. If partner nations block the U.S. from opening logistics hubs, or block their companies and resources from use in a Sino-U.S. war, then China will have a distinct advantage over the U.S. military across the first and second island chains. China’s economic policies aim to achieve this advantage over the long term, and the PRC is already experiencing success with the BRI. Some may point to the strategic theater ports China has gained in the region, such as the Hambantota in Sri Lanka where the PRC negotiated a 99- year lease over a key port with 15,000 surrounding acres.26 Every port the U.S. military cannot use to establish a logistics hub limits freedom of maneuver and is another potential port for the PLAN to exploit. The U.S. military requires reliable Indo-Pacific port access to win an expeditionary Sino-U.S. war, and U.S. policymakers need to contractually codify alliances to stave growing Chinese influence and ensure that U.S. forces are sustainable.

A PLA Navy warship formation attached to a naval flotilla under the PLA Southern Theater Command steams steadily during a maritime comprehensive replenishment training exercise in early spring, 2021. (Photo via Chenxu)

Some could argue that a Sino-U.S. conflict will escalate quickly and a more pressing requirement for the DoD to address is increasing number of frontline combatant platforms. The PLA’s growing navy, space, and long-range precision strike capabilities might suggest that a Sino-U.S. conflict has the potential to be quickly resolved before robust sustainment is required. The PLAN is larger in quantity than the U.S. Navy, especially with respect to local overmatch in the region, and has modernized numerous platforms to carry advanced anti-ship cruise missiles.27 The PLA’s significantly greater volume of offensive anti-ship firepower and numbers could quickly overwhelm and destroy naval assets through missile salvo combat. More frontline warships prepare the DoD for increased PLA capabilities and could ensure U.S. and foreign-flagged commercial vessels will become available because companies and nation states want confidence in U.S. victory and to know their assets will be protected.

But the argument that the DoD’s immediate need is for more frontline combatant platforms as opposed to sealift capacity is faulty because the sustainment of full spectrum operations starts immediately with the onset of conflict. Relying on foreign-flagged ships contains risks, and the seat of purpose (and the origin of sealift cargoes) is on land.28 The petroleum requirement in a large-scale conflict will require a robust oiler fleet moving to and from the strike groups and surface action groups, to the logistics hubs and back again, to sustain the extraordinary consumption rates during initial phases of conflict. In a full conflict scenario, foreign-flagged vessels will become less reliable and present unacceptable security risks to forward-deployed forces.

More frontline warships assigned to a carrier strike group or surface action group in the AOR only increases the requirement for high-value logistics vessels on trans-oceanic voyages into the theater. But if protecting supply ships and SLOCs was a key lesson from WWII, increasing frontline warships that stress already inadequate sealift capabilities the Navy cannot effectively escort is counterproductive.

Lastly, the notion that a Sino-U.S. conflict will end quickly does not account for the duration of land operations. If WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the past two decades in the Middle East are any indication, a Sino-U.S. conflict could become a protracted affair, especially in a Taiwan invasion scenario.


The U.S. military must address its critical sealift vulnerabilities in fuel capacity, operational security, and vulnerability to uncommitted partners to win an expeditionary Sino-U.S. war. The U.S. military cannot sustain itself with military logistics assets and the commercial solution is not currently viable to fill the gap. China’s efforts to limit U.S. access to potential logistics hubs by targeting vulnerable nations and partners through BRI is working, and while the PLAN builds capabilities that can disrupt SLOCs and target logistics vessels.

China well knows the U.S. military’s sealift shortfall and understands that sealift is ultimately how the U.S. military projects its power. The U.S. military’s ability to credibly deter or win large-scale conflict against the PRC will ride on its ability to sustain expeditionary combat operations across the vast Pacific expanse on the back of sealift.

Major John Bowser is a Finance and Comptroller officer in the United States Army. He commissioned in 2010 with a BS in Accounting from the University of Pittsburgh. He served as a Field Artillery Officer in the 1st Cavalry Division, as a Comptroller in the 25th Infantry Division, as a Detachment Commander in the 82nd Sustainment Brigade, and most recently graduated ILE/ILC from the U.S. Naval War College where he earned an MA in Defense and Strategic Studies. Major Bowser additionally holds MBA and MPA degrees from Syracuse University and is a Certified Defense Financial Manager.


1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” Annual Report to Congress, 2020, ii.

2. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments,” 1.

3. Patrick H. Donovan, Lieutenant Colonel USAF, “Oil Logistics in the Pacific War,” Air Force Journal of Logistics XXVIII, no. 1, (Spring 2004): 37.

4. Patrick H. Donovan, “Oil Logistics in the Pacific War,” 39.

5. Douglas N. Hime, “The Leyte Gulf Case Study,” Newport, RI: Naval War College, Department of Military Operations, December 2013, 22.

6. Timothy Walton, Ryan Boone, and Harrison Schramm. “Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), 2019, viii.

7. U.S. Department of Transportation: Maritime Administration, “Maritime Security Program (MSP),” Accessed March 20, 202,

8. U.S. Department of Transportation: Maritime Administration, “Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA),” Accessed April 1, 2021, intermodal-sealift-agreement-visa.

9. U.S. Department of Transportation, “United States Flag Privately-Owned Merchant Fleet Report,” Last modified March 16, 2021, Fleet_2021_0316.xlsx.

10. Timothy Walton, Ryan Boone, and Harrison Schramm, “Sustaining the Fight,” 11.

11. Mike Hammond, Lt. Col, “Achieving Simultaneity of Logistics and Sustainment on the Decisive Action Battlefield: an Essentia,” November 4, 2019, 0one%20of%20the%20most%20important,gallons%20of%20fuel%20every%2012%20to%2024%20hours.

12. Timothy Walton, Ryan Boone, and Harrison Schramm, “Sustaining the Fight,” viii.

13. U.S. Navy’s Military Sea Lift Command. “Fleet Replenishment Oilers.” Accessed May 1, 2021,

14. Mark H. Buzby, RADM, “Maritime Administration Q&A,” Sea Power, (November 2020), 11.

15. Mark H. Buzby, RADM, “Maritime Administration Q&A,” 11.

16. Timothy Walton, Ryan Boone, and Harrison Schramm, “Sustaining the Fight,” i.

17. Milan Vego, Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice 2d ed, (New York: Routledge, 2017), 166.

18. James Gannon, “Naval Logistics Primer.” Newport, RI: Naval War College, Joint Military Operations Department, January 2019, 6.

19. Milan Vego. Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice 2d ed, 172.

20. Mark H. Buzby, RADM, “Maritime Administration Q&A,” 12.

21. Edmund J. Burke, Kristen Gunness, Cortez A. Cooper III, and Mark Cozad, “People’s Liberation Army Operational Concepts,” Rand Corporation, (2020): 7.

22. Wayne P. Hughes and Robert Girrier, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations 3rd Edition, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 17.

23. Milan Vego, Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice 2d ed, 177.

24. Kirby, S. Woodburn, C.T. Addis, J.F. Meiklejohn, G.T. Wards, and N.L. Desoer, The War against Japan, Vol. 68 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957), 263-68.

25. Jonathan Stromseth, “Don’t Make Us Choose: Southeast Asia in the throes of U.S.-China rivalry,” (Brookings Institution, October 2019), 20.

26. Maria Abi-Habib, “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port,” The New York Times, June 25, 2018,

27. Thangavel K. Balasubramaniam and Ashok Kumar Murugesan, “China’s Rising Missile and Naval Capabilities in the Indo-Pacific Region: Security Implications for India and its Allies,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press, June 08, 2020, rising-missile-and-naval-capabilities-in-the-indo-pacific-region-securit/.

28. Wayne P. Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations 3rd Edition, 17.


Abi-Habib, Maria. “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port.” The New York Times. June 25, 2018.

Balasubramaniam, Thangavel K., Ashok Kumar Murugesan. “China’s Rising Missile and Naval Capabilities in the Indo-Pacific Region: Security Implications for India and its Allies.” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press. June 08, 2020. and-naval-capabilities-in-the-indo-pacific-region-securit/.

Burke, Edmund, Kristen Gunness, Cortez A. Cooper III, and Mark Cozad. “People’s Liberation Army Operational Concepts.” Rand Corporation. (2020): 7.

Buzby, Mark, H. RADM. “Maritime Administration Q&A.” Sea Power, November, 2020, 11-12. Donovan, Patrick H., Lt. Col. USAF. “Oil Logistics in the Pacific War.” Air Force Journal of

Logistics XXVIII, no. 1, (Spring 2004): 30-40.

Gannon, James. “Naval Logistics Primer.” Newport, RI: Naval War College, Joint Military Operations Department, January 2019, 6.

Hammond, Mike, Lt. Col. “Achieving Simultaneity of Logistics and Sustainment on the Decisive Action Battlefield: an Essentia” November 4, 2019. 228814/achieving_simultaneity_of_logistics_and_sustainment_on_the_decisive_action_b attlefield_an_essentia#:~:text=Fuel%20is%20arguably%20one%20of%20the%20most% 20important,gallons%20of%20fuel%20every%2012%20to%2024%20hours.

Hime, Douglas N. “The Leyte Gulf Case Study.” Newport, RI: Naval War College, Department of Military Operations, December 2013, 22-23.

Hughes, Wayne P. Jr., Robert Girrier. Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations 3rd ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Office of the Secretary of Defense. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020. Annual Report to Congress, 2020.

Stromseth, Jonathan. “Don’t Make Us Choose: Southeast Asia in the throes of U.S.-China rivalry,” Brookings Institution, October 2019, 20.

U.S. Department of Transportation: Maritime Administration. “Maritime Security Program (MSP).” Accessed March 20, 2021. sealift/maritime-security-program-msp.

U.S. Department of Transportation. “United States Flag Privately-Owned Merchant Fleet Report.” Last updated March 16, 2021. Fleet_2021_0316.xlsx.

U.S. Navy’s Military Sea Lift Command. “Fleet Replenishment Oilders.” Accessed May 5, 2021.

Vego, Milan. Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Walton, Timothy. Boone, Ryan. and Schramm, Harrison. Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), 2019.

Woodburn, Kirby, S. C.T. Addis, J.F. Meiklejohn, G.T. Wards, and N.L. Desoer. The War against Japan, Vol. I. (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957), 263-68.

Featured Image: June 2021 – A warship attached to a PLA Navy destroyer flotilla with the navy under the PLA Southern Theater Command receives the refueling probe from the comprehensive supply ship Chaganhu (Hull 967) during a four-day-long realistic-combat training exercise in waters of the South China Sea. (Photo via Wei)

The Fourth Arm of Defense: America’s Merchant Mariners

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By James Caponiti

From its earliest days when the American colonies were dependent on trade with Europe, the United States has been reliant on merchant shipping. During the fight for independence beginning in 1775, an effective American strategy was to arm merchant ships to disrupt the British supply chain of ships along the eastern seaboard and across the Atlantic Ocean. In this way, the U.S. Merchant Marine’s vital role of support in wartime predates both the United States Coast Guard (1790) and the United States Navy (1797). As another measure of its importance, the development and passage of laws related to maritime issues and the merchant fleet were among the early priorities of the newly formed Congress.

The United States benefits economically and strategically from an abundance of ocean coastline and internal rivers and lakes, and U.S. citizen merchant mariners navigate, maintain, and work on the ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, and other vessels that provide service in associated waterborne trades. U.S. mariners are expertly trained and perform their respective shipboard tasks to the highest of standards anywhere in the world. The adequacy and viability of a qualified pool of citizen mariners is distinguishable from many other civil occupations since it is critical to U.S. national security and to America’s ability to project power.

Though it is fundamentally a commercial enterprise, the U.S. Merchant Marine has proven throughout history its capability to serve as an auxiliary to the Navy. The often overlooked “fourth arm of defense,” [along with the Navy, Army, and Air Force] as described by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. Merchant Marine and American seafarers have been called upon repeatedly to deliver U.S. military personnel and materiel to areas of conflict or emergency. 

Perhaps most notably, the U.S. Merchant Marine and civilian merchant mariners were integral to the Allied Forces’ victory in World War II, delivering nearly 270 billion long tons of cargo in support of the war while risking their lives in the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All told, 733 American cargo ships were lost during World War II. Though U.S. Government records management for merchant mariners failed to match the precision applied to the other services, it is widely held that proportionately, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered a higher fatality rate during World War II than any of the Armed Forces. According to the 1946 Report of the War Shipping Administration “Up to V-J Day, 5,638 merchant seamen and officers are dead and missing; 581 were made prisoners of war.”

The U.S. Merchant Marine has continued to demonstrate its value as a strategic resource into the 21st Century and beyond providing worldwide shipping facilities and support to the Department of Defense (DOD) and to essential foreign assistance programs, such as waterborne response related to domestic and international disaster recovery operations. U.S.-flag industry sealift missions in support of U.S. military operations throughout recent decades have been historically efficient, especially its ability to deliver more than 90 percent of all cargoes bound to and from Afghanistan and Iraq during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. 

U.S.-flag ships have also supported months-long U.S. Gulf of Mexico recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, have responded to the devastating 2010 earthquake destruction in Haiti in 2010, and have bolstered federal and state recovery efforts in the New York/New Jersey area following destruction to that region as a consequence of Hurricane Sandy. Sadly, few Americans will forget the evacuation of New York City on 9-11 and the selfless acts of U.S. mariners and private sector companies to evacuate citizens from lower Manhattan – the largest and safest evacuation of citizens in U.S. history.

It is important to note that U.S.-flag capability brought to bear in the wartime and hurricane missions noted above included both U.S. Government-owned sealift vessels and privately-owned commercial ships. However, the same single pool of trained and qualified civilian mariners is called upon during emergencies to crew government ships, the majority of which are idle and maintained in readiness prior to activation—all while simultaneously meeting service requirements in U.S.-flag commercial trades.

The availability of a trained and qualified mariner pool sufficient to support the activation and operation of the U.S. Government’s surge sealift assets is a key element of U.S. strategy and planning. This organic lift includes the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force (RRF) which currently numbers 41 ships and the Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) 19 Large Medium-Speed Roll-on Roll-off ships (LMSRs). These vessels are maintained by commercial ship managers in prescribed levels of readiness and outported in reduced operating status (ROS) in commercial berths or in government facilities, available to be activated when crises arise. To promote readiness and to enable rapid transition to operational capability, ROS vessels are partially crewed while idle. Once activated and fully crewed, all of these assets, RRF and LMSR alike, fall under MSC’s operational control. The surge sealift capabilities comprised from these vessels enable deployment of combat forces in the early stages of a conflict. Of course, the vessels themselves are essentially useless without trained civilian crews to maintain and operate them.

The government relies on a partnership with U.S.-flag operators and maritime labor organizations to assure access to commercial sealift capability and civilian merchant mariners. The framework through which this is possible is the Maritime Security Program (MSP) and its companion program, the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). These programs are administered jointly by MARAD, an agency within the Department of Transportation, and DOD’s United States Transportation Command. With MSP funding, the Government leverages a relatively small investment, $314 million for fiscal year 2021, and $318 million annually for fiscal years 2022 through 2025 for 60 ships of diverse capability, gaining assured access to militarily useful ships and related intermodal transportation networks. 

The investment also works to ensure the continued viability of both a U.S.-flag fleet engaged in international trade and the pool of seafarers to crew those vessels. Without a viable U.S.-flag commercial fleet, and the American merchant mariners this fleet supports, the United States would be unable to deploy and effectively sustain its military forces on a global basis.

The government / private industry partnership itself is unique, and it entails peacetime planning and an operational relationship through peacetime service contracts. The U.S. companies enrolled in MSP/VISA agreements are required to be managed by U.S. citizens, and those companies with a foreign parent are required to execute security agreements that protect the rights and interests of the United States. The companies have the equivalent of a “secret” clearance enabling participation in joint planning and operational exercises with U.S. military commands in a secure environment at regular intervals.

MSP is approaching the end of its third 10-year authorization cycle, and the program has been authorized for a fourth time through Fiscal Year 2035. Given the austere fiscal environment facing DOD and every other executive agency from time-to-time, it is important to note from a budgetary standpoint that the fleet of vessels and infrastructure available for military missions through the MSP is capitalized and recapitalized solely through the private investment of the owners and operators of enrolled vessels.

The current annual taxpayer investment in MSP is modest when compared to an alternative scenario that would call for the Government to acquire, operate, and maintain equivalent sealift capabilities on its own. Accordingly, to assess the cost effectiveness of the MSP, it is important to understand this huge cost avoidance at the same time one evaluates the cost of Government programs and policies that support the U.S. Merchant Marine to achieve national sealift objectives. For example, the cost of MSP operating agreements during the program’s first 15 years were less than $1.9 billion; meanwhile the U.S. government benefitted by saving nearly $70 billion in other costs that would have been incurred for equal readiness. 

Perhaps the largest bargain gained from the government’s maritime investment lies in sustaining jobs on U.S.-flag ships, benefitting America economically as a large international trading power while also ensuring that the country has the readily available pool of trained and qualified citizen seafarers on which the nation relies to provide sealift during emergencies. 

A fundamental element of U.S. maritime legislative policy is — and has been — that “vessels of the merchant marine should be operated by highly trained and efficient citizens of the United States.” Of course, the application of this principle is especially true with respect to developing and maintaining the nation’s military sealift capability. Military planners understand that America’s security is best protected when the country relies on a commercial shipping industry domiciled in the United States, employing U.S. citizens both at sea and ashore, and subject to U.S. laws and regulations.

The statutory requirement for U.S.-flag vessels to be crewed by Americans is enforced by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). There are two general categories, licensed (officers) and unlicensed (non-officers, sometimes referred to as “ratings”). Only U.S. citizens and aliens lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence may be issued a USCG credential. All licensed officers must be U.S. citizens, and only 25 percent of the unlicensed crew on board each vessel may be aliens lawfully admitted to the United States. U.S. mariners are issued licenses and credentials based on their training and experience, and U.S. standards and the level of enforcement are considered by observers to be the most stringent in the international community.

The United States has been able to respond to crises and support military operations in recent decades because its U.S.-flag maritime industry was sufficiently sized to do so. Likewise, U.S. sealift strategy calling first for the deployment of government-owned surge assets followed by the use of commercially sourced ships for the longer sustainment phase of missions has been very effective. As explained earlier, the critical component of this strategy has been maintaining a pool of qualified oceangoing U.S. mariners adequate enough to crew the government’s surge ships when necessary without disrupting commercial crewing requirements. However, recent trends could cause concern among military planners and industry officials with respect to the availability of U.S. mariners to meet surge and sustainment requirements for the duration of a conflict in the future.

The pool of U.S. mariners available to crew government ships when activated has declined over the last decade, creating the distinct likelihood that America’s national security could be adversely impacted in the near future if the trend continues. Much of this decline stems from the fact that it is increasingly difficult for U.S.-flag ships to compete in international commerce against heavily subsidized foreign flag vessels, many of which operate in a tax-free environment.

Competition in global shipping is fierce and survival depends on many factors. Quality of service can eclipse cost to a degree, but much of the market is driven by carriers adhering to a minimum level of compliance with international safety and environmental standards while employing mariners from underdeveloped countries, all to minimize cost. Much of this occurs within open registries which account for more than half the ships in the world’s commercial trading fleet. Competitive pressures have been magnified in recent years by the economic crisis worldwide and by an oversupply of shipping tonnage. The result has been a loss of U.S.-flag oceangoing tonnage and related afloat jobs. This is partly because federal programs designed to support the maritime industry have been reduced in some instances while others have failed to keep pace with rapidly changing national and international factors affecting shipping conditions and economics.

Other issues have further impacted the mariner pool. The loss of shipboard billets when U.S.-flag ships leave commercial service has a compounding effect on the mariner pool since each billet supports roughly two individuals when vacations, training, and other time spent on shore are taken into account. The loss of billets also negatively affects the ability to recruit and develop new mariners to grow the manpower pool. International and domestic regulatory rules limit mariners’ ability to maintain and upgrade their seafaring credentials without possessing sufficient sea time and without meeting recency of service requirements. For example, a mariner might require specific training to update practical experience in technical skills before being allowed to volunteer for an emergency sealift billet during a contingency.

A primary element of DOD’s sealift planning framework are manpower exercises that focus on and test proficiency in the timely recruitment of qualified personnel necessary to crew organic government assets to meet emergency activation requirements. MARAD and MSC place a high priority on working with carriers and labor unions to identify, contact, and prepare qualified mariners leading up to and during emergencies. MARAD has developed and maintains a Mariner Outreach System with the cooperation of willing mariners to maintain and update contact information and current USCG qualifications. 

Notwithstanding the willingness of U.S. mariners to maintain their qualifications and stand ready to sail – for any reason – into harm’s way, the retention of mariners in the workforce is a growing problem. This problem exists not only in the United States but globally, especially among mariners in developed economies. For more than a decade, there have been concerns about a global shortage of qualified seafarers and the reasons are numerous and varied. It is a difficult and often dangerous occupation that, for many, is arduous to endure long term. 

Time away from family is probably the most prominent downside for individuals sailing far from home. In the modern age of containerization, expedited cargo handling, and sophisticated shipboard technology the job is more intense than ever. Expectations and communications from management are endless, which can impact mariners during working shifts and beyond. The sense of adventure once associated with going to sea has eroded significantly. A mariner today gets only a limited dose of “seeing the world.” 

Turnaround intervals in ports today are usually numbered in hours – not days – and access to the cities attached to ports of call has been eliminated or minimized at best. Security issues, together with strict limitations on the granting of entry visas by port states, also prominently impact port access. These and other issues cause some mariners entering the workforce to view it as a short term opportunity to make some money rather than as a career.

This is especially true in the United States, where competition from onshore job opportunities is a significant factor that draws mariners away from sailing. The work has always been demanding, but imagine the impact of the ongoing pandemic. New and lasting pressures combine with frequent instances whereby crews remain trapped on board with little certainty of when they can disembark to enjoy families and something approaching normalcy, even as mariners wonder if they can ever forget the risks experienced in close quarters and unknown threats stemming from the virus. 

Due in no small measure to America’s standard of living and the reasonable expectations all American workers, including American mariners, have for a living wage, health and pension benefits, a safe workplace environment, and other employment-related terms and conditions, it is difficult for the U.S.-flag maritime industry to compete in the international cargo markets against foreign flag of convenience vessels and their third world crews. This is why the Federal government has administered and must continue to administer programs to support the industry.

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. The government also administers a framework of cargo preference programs designed to provide access to military and civilian government-impelled cargoes. Especially with respect to food assistance, certain of those programs should be expanded to promote global peace and stability. In any case, authorizing statutes and programs should be supported by all Federal agencies to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent at least in part to enable U.S.-flag shipping and not spent in their entirety to rely on foreign-flag shipping and foreign crews. Finally, the domestic shipping statutes commonly referred to as the Jones Act should be retained to sustain the commercial shipping base that helps support the civilian manpower pool needed to meet defense requirements.

Ocean-borne transport is largely taken for granted by the American public. It is predominantly about freight, and therefore essentially invisible to most citizens, who view the television in their living room as having come from Walmart instead of from Asia. The United States remains the largest trading nation in the world based on exports and imports of goods and services. Yet only about four percent of U.S. foreign trade is carried on U.S.-flag ships. The benefits of maintaining a strong maritime industry does not naturally resonate with citizens, so the shipping industry is trying to raise public awareness to this vital capability. To learn more about the U.S.-flag maritime industry and the benefits it provides, please visit 

James Caponiti joined the American Maritime Congress (AMC) in 2011, following 38 years of distinguished service in the Federal Government. He served with the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration for 37 years. He is a recipient of the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award and the Distinguished Rank Award, the highest Civil Service awards for Senior Executives. Mr. Caponiti also served as Chairman of NATO’s Planning Board for Ocean Shipping for 14 years, responsible for developing and maintaining plans for civil shipping support to deploy NATO military forces during times of crisis and war. 

AMC is a research and educational organization dedicated to informing the public, media, and government officials on policy and issues affecting the U.S.-flag merchant marine and the maritime industry.

Featured image: US Navy (USN) Ships assigned to the Enterprise Carrier Strike Group (CSG) conduct Replenishment At Sea while underway on a scheduled deployment in the Arabian Sea. (Photo via U.S. National Archives)

Strategic Sealift Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Strategic sealift week is now underway. For the next two weeks, CIMSEC will be featuring writing sent in response to our call for articles on strategic sealift, issued in partnership with U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM). The command conducts globally integrated mobility operations, leads the broader Joint Deployment and Distribution Enterprise, and provides enabling capabilities in order to project and sustain the Joint Force in support of national objectives.

Strategic sealift is a critical foundation upon which U.S. military power rests. As a maritime nation separated from most of the world by vast oceans, any robust and sustained projection of U.S. military power must ride upon the sealift fleet. But as the sealift fleet ages and great power competition intensifies, the fleet is being increasingly stressed as it is becoming ever more indispensable. 

Below are the articles and authors featuring during the topic week. This listing will be updated with further submissions as Strategic Sealift week unfolds.

The Fourth Arm of Defense: America’s Merchant Mariners,” by James Caponiti
Across the Expanse: The Sealift Dilemma in a War Against China,” by Major John Bowser, U.S. Army
Obsolescence, Chokepoints, and the Maritime Militia: Facing Primary Threats to U.S. Sealift,” by Nicholas Ayrton and Brandon Walls
Recapitalizing Strategic Sealift Should Be DoD’s Number One Modernization Priority,” by Dr. Daniel Goure
American Strategic Sealift in Peer-to-Peer Conflicts: A Historical Retrospective, Pt. 1,” by Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.
For a Greener, More Lethal Force, Look to Strategic Sealift Recapitalization,” by Joshua Tallis and Ronald Filadelfo
Solutions to Revitalizing America’s Strategic Sealift,” by Todd M. Hiller, P.E.
American Strategic Sealift in Peer-to-Peer Conflicts: A Historical Retrospective, Pt. 2,” by Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.
One Fleet, One Fight: Four “Fs” to Give About Sealift,” by Benjamin Clark and Gregory Lewis
Sealift Forces for the Future Operating Environment: An Airlifter’s Perspective,” by Phillip Amrine
Strategic Sealift is Broken: Which Direction Are We Headed?” by David Sloane
Beyond MSC and Amphibs: Unconventional Sealift,” by Benjamin DiDonato
Strategic Sealift’s Merchant Mariner Problem,” by Geoffrey Brown
Don’t Overlook the Medical Fleet in Distributed Maritime Operations,” by Misty Wilkins
The Future of Sea Basing for U.S. Army Transportation,” by Mike Canup, Tim Fitzgerald, and Tim Owens
The Glutted Mariner Shortfall,” by LCDR Adena Grundy
Clandestine Cargo: Hiding Sealift in Plain Sight,” by Christian Morris and Heather Bacon-Shone

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

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