By Benjamin Clark and Gregory Lewis
“In future wars, there will be a fight to get to the fight.” —VADM Dee Mewbourne, TRANSCOM Deputy Commander
“We’re going to have to fight to get to the fight.”—Gen. Robert Neller, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps
The U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) Deputy Commander and the former Commandant of the Marine Corps are in one accord. These leaders have effectively parsed out two distinct dilemmas — an “away game” fight and a battle to get to that fight. The wicked problems facing the Marine Corps, its fellow services, and TRANSCOM are, in fact, components of a collective dilemma. The strategic competition milieu no longer differentiates between the frontline and the homefront as if there were combatants and non-combatants. It is a singular fight.
As the TRANSCOM component that bears the preponderance of sustainment requirements for the Joint Warfighting Concept, Military Sealift Command (MSC) faces a boatload of wicked problems. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments’ 2019 report “Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era” clearly articulates these challenges. The 18 May 2021 House Armed Services Committee’s hearing on “Posture and Readiness of the Mobility Enterprise” was another prescient reminder for General Lyons, TRANSCOM’s commander, and Congress of the myriad national security challenges weighing on MSC.
MSC’s ships are too big and too tired – and those are the ships that work, but they must fight with the fleet they have, not the fleet they want. It is time for Congress and the Defense Department to build a sealift force capable of handling the multiplicity of challenges presented in competition, crisis, and conflict by giving MSC warfighters, a fleet, fuel, flexibility, and friends.
The Fighting Sustainers
A dangerous mindset has crept into sustainment organizations like MSC. “Warfighter support” is a moniker these organizations should find patronizing. Sustainment is a warfighting function; ergo, those organizations which sustain forces are warfighters. The notion that there is somehow a divide between combatants and sustainers as de facto non-combatants has led to casualties throughout history, from the English baggage train at Agincourt in the Hundred Years War to ambushed refueling vehicles during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Maritime sustainers should consider the hulking watery graves of “warfighter supporters” littering the harbor entrances along the Eastern Seaboard, casualties of the Battle of the Atlantic. If the wrecks off America’s coastline are not enough of a harbinger, the hunter-and-prey carnage of the 2020 movie Greyhound illustrates the even grimmer tale of combat in the North Atlantic sea lanes.
Alongside these sunken graveyards, however, are the rusting steel coffins of U-boats, a testament to the eventual shift in mentality when sustainers became part of a convoy system of hunter-killers.
Today, sustainment organizations are under attack from the factory to the fleet and the fighting hole through cyberattacks and disinformation. America’s pacing threats are already in our “backyard.” MSC must embrace a warfighter ethos now, as the sustainment gun trucks of Vietnam did after taking significant casualties, or risk joining its predecessors on the ocean floor. The Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) has begun taking steps to change this by recruiting veterans through its Military to Mariner program. MSC and MARAD should capitalize on these veteran warriors’ expertise to hone the next generation of Strategic Sealift Officers into fighting sustainers.
The Fleet: Joint Sustainment Ships
Warfighters need weapons. While the primary mission of MSC is sustainment, it should be well-prepared to have its mission contested as aggressively as any other warfighting unit. MSC must clarify its need for defensive resources in the budget debates for research, development, and operational funding. In a contested military campaign, enemies will target sustainment vessels, arguably more than their surface Navy counterparts. Adopting platforms and training that better prepare MSC for wartime will dramatically improve the strength of the joint force as a whole.
MSC is responsible for transporting the equipment sets associated with the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations, the Naval Services’ Advantage At Sea, and the Air Force Future Operating Concept. Not surprisingly, these concepts envision tanks, trucks, and aircraft consuming significant amounts of fuel to accomplish their tasks. To move these forces and the fuel they need for combat, MSC’s fleet will need its own separate ocean of fuel. The projected escort requirements to protect the volume of convoys needed to support these force flows would be astronomical. In a major conflict with a peer competitor, it is anticipated the surface Navy will have no resources to spare for escort of shipping. Expected shortfalls in surface combatants so severe, the Navy has essentially told MSC “you’re on your own” when it comes to a major war.
To address this challenge, MSC needs the maritime equivalent of gun trucks that can self-secure convoys across the seas. These ships would be the naval equivalent of the Army and Marine Corps Logistics Vehicle System Replacement (LVSR), the backbone of sustainment operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the LVSR, these ships should carry containers and come equipped with an onboard crane to support transferring cargo where no external lighterage equipment is available. MSC’s new fleet must also include container-capable connectors, perhaps leveraging wing-in-ground effect technology to rapidly close the last tactical sustainment mile from seabasing platforms such as the USNS Hershel “Woody” Williams.
General Lyons has stated that MSC needs ships capable of moving into the smaller ports of the world with “shallow draft kinds of vessels,” based on rapid mobility to support dynamic fleet operations. The Navy’s research and development for the Overlord–class unmanned surface vessels and the Coast Guard’s Fast Response Cutters provide foundational designs with the mobility required to fulfill the needs of maritime platforms for fighting sustainers.
Defensive capabilities are essential for self-securing sustainment ships. Due to their smaller size, these ships may be more challenging to detect from long range and could use torpedoes for defense in open water. They could be outfitted with missiles like the Harpoon or the Naval Strike Missile for protection while providing limited strike capabilities close to advanced bases. By investing in multiple smaller ships instead of larger platforms, MSC would be in more places at once, thereby enhancing the sustainment force’s self-protection posture while increasing the ability to provide intelligence to the larger force.
The Fuel: Energizing the Fight to get to the Fight
Ever since there has been combat at sea, fleets have needed energy. Robert Fulton’s steamboats revolutionized commerce and control of the seas in the age of sail, with iron-clad steamships making their debut as weapons fighting for the inland waterways of a divided United States. Wood and coal were the dominant fuels until Winston Churchill navigated the shift from “Coal to Oil.” As nations learned to harness the atom, nuclear power became a critical energy source for fleets during the Cold War and beyond.
Nuclear power has been the primary technological enabler of the Navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers, allowing the Navy to achieve key advantages over comparable conventionally-powered platforms. Most critical for logistics is extending refueling cycles up to twenty years, relying on the large quantity of energy stored in the highly-enriched uranium fuel. This technology has not been extended to other maritime applications partially due to cost, but more importantly due to weapons proliferation risks of increased production of highly-enriched uranium, which could be used either as a fuel or in nuclear weapons production. Generation IV reactor designs, adapted for ship propulsion and power, have the potential to solve both the issues of proliferation concerns and high costs. Fast spectrum nuclear reactors designed for maritime applications are already in development, and based on current projections, will eventually be more economical than fossil-fuel powered shipping, while still maintaining a refueling cycle of up to 20-30 years.
Fleet sustainment is at the crux of naval strategic thinking, and reduced sustainment chains are the real strategic advantage achieved through this technology. Until fleets can economically convert to something akin to nuclear power, refueling on the timeline of decades, energy sustainment will continue to impact war at sea and capital costs will remain high for ships in harm’s way.
While there is no magic bullet for the myriad challenges facing MSC, part of the solution may come from a single element with a single electron— hydrogen. Hydrogen has been used by the military since World War I, and since the Clinton Administration, every president has pursued a national hydrogen roadmap. Today, hydrogen energy looks increasingly feasible as a replacement for existing fossil-fuel-based power systems.
The International Energy Agency’s Hydrogen Projects Database tracks “320 green hydrogen production demonstration projects worldwide.” Even Saudi Arabia, where Marine Colonel William Eddy brokered the enduring U.S.-Saudi petroleum relationship, is now seeking to “rule the $700 billion Hydrogen Market“. China has publicly stated that it intends to be carbon neutral by 2060 and has showcased its vision to “harness the rock star of new energies” in its hydrogen-powered Qingdao Port Facility. A cynical observer could view this apparent international race to develop green hydrogen technologies as energy profiteers simply taking advantage of climate alarmism in the Western world, but even a cynic should not deny the potential for technological advantages offered by alternative energy. No advantage should be abandoned simply because of the lack of an obvious reward in the short term.
Hydrogen-fueled engines can be part of deepening the concepts of standardization, resilience, and self-reliance in naval ship design. The “Liberty Ships” of WWII exhibit many elements of design that were adopted solely for ease of manufacture and maintainability, enabling them to be deployed in great numbers at short production lead time, fulfilling logistical needs that supported more intense combat operations in geographically disparate theatres. Energy advancements in the current day should be viewed as a similarly powerful enabler. Hydrogen is a flexible fuel that can be burned directly by engines as a fuel, or in fuel cells to produce electricity, allowing it to be used as either a fuel or an energy storage medium. If designed as the fuel supporting ship designs utilizing Integrated Power Systems, the result would be greater standardization and maintainability supported by the electrification of propulsion.
Hydrogen fuel for large vessels is unlikely to be practical without first being combined with a carrier liquid (like ammonia) due to hydrogen’s low volumetric energy density, but for smaller vessels employed in defensive or escort missions compressed hydrogen used in fuel cells should be considered a viable option. Fischer-Tropsch processes produce synthetic fuel from a wide range of possible feedstocks, like captured carbon dioxide, making them a potential direct replacement for existing fossil fuels. The highest aim would be to achieve a process that can use feedstocks easily procured or produced anywhere in the world.
Technologies like electrolytic cation exchange modules could reduce the need for feedstocks dependent on sources other than water. The yield relative to the energy required will likely remain a challenge, one which could be solved by the employment of hydrogen and synthetic fuel production in nuclear cogeneration plants deployed close to the point of use.
A recent Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory “BruteCast” provides a plausible system design for production and use of hydrogen at the front lines of deployed ground units, a system which would mesh neatly into a larger upstream supply chain of hydrogen-based production and transportation. Designs currently under development, including some already approved by the American Bureau of Shipping, would have advanced nuclear reactors (such as those discussed above) employed as floating power plants. If built as a cogeneration plant for hydrogen and synthetic fuels, these floating power plants could become a self-sustaining source of fuel for a wide variety of vessels and other military equipment stationed close to any theatre of operations. The ultimate goal of this design philosophy, whether or not the technologies discussed here are actually adopted, is deliberate development of a fuel system of systems, a network of independent processes which are simultaneously self-sustaining and mutually supportive.
Earlier in the 21st Century, the Navy explored ways to “flip the fleet” from fossil fuels to biofuels with the “Great Green Fleet.” This endeavor ultimately proved untenable, mainly because of supply constraints of biofuels, but also because the focus of the program was on creating a market for politically-popular biofuels, instead of improving the Navy’s ability to sustain itself. Bureaucracies, politics, and budgets will always be a constraint for applications of new technology.
Despite the failures of the Great Green Fleet, the Navy should nevertheless confidently endeavor to forge a fleet based on advanced energy systems and bold new designs, with stubborn insistence on the goal of increased resilience and flexibility of the fleet. Following the advice of Admiral Rickover: “Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.”
Astute sustainment planning and technological prowess can turn energy risk into a strategic advantage. Technological dominance in weapons of the more traditional sense has contributed to the rules-based international order, energy superiority can also contribute to achieving global peace and cooperation.
The Flexibility: Creating an Afloat Containerized Sustainment Kill Web
The Defense Department has developed the concept of cross-domain kill webs to address strategic competition dilemmas. Whereas kill chains have exploitable weak links, kill webs are flexible, resilient, and lethal. The INDOPACOM Commander, Admiral Aquilino, stated that he does not need another carrier. Instead, he and every geographic combatant commander need sustainment forces fully integrated into Joint All Domain Command and Control kill webs. Ultimately, America needs an MSC with the capability and capacity to put boots on the ground and boats on the water to ensure the nations’ deeds can match its words. America’s ability to sustain its resolve is a powerful deterrent and a quintessential part of ensuring freedom of navigation.
A fleet carrying containerized command and control nodes and missiles becomes a potential floating kill web. Modular capabilities are not new to the Navy’s ship designers, but use of the concept to deploy weapons on platforms where they would not be expected is novel. The joint force should focus on designing modular capability sets that are rapidly deployable, transferrable, and even operable from MSC platforms.
A containerized kill web offers the flexibility of keeping capabilities afloat or putting them ashore for missions like airfield damage repair. These containers could contain the initial operating capability for an Army Multi-Domain Task Force, a Navy Carrier Strike Group, a Marine Littoral Regiment, or an Air Force Deployable Air Base System.
Containerized flexibility for sealift is not solely about lethality, it must also be included in the Navy’s artificial intelligence and information warfare planning, as well as its “presence” and sustainment missions.
The need for flexible manufacturing systems in modern industries has enabled technology built for ease of assembly and configuration changes. This same innovation applied to equipment for a modern machine shop, including additive manufacturing, could enable depot-level repair capability closer to advanced bases. The aggregation of these capabilities would give MSC a fleet that is leaner, meaner, and smarter.
MSC is at the forefront of supporting whole-of-government efforts led by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Containerized humanitarian assistance, disaster recovery, and Expeditionary Medical Facility sets remain crucial to America’s response to disasters at home and abroad.
The Friends: Engagement through Sustainment
The shipbuilding effort for this fleet could be part of an International Armaments Cooperation program much like the Joint Strike Fighter. Partner nations build these fighters domestically, deploy them on each other’s carriers and receive maintenance and upgrades at each others’ facilities.
The Navy’s new fleet of sustainment ships could follow a similar cooperative program. Although such programs are complex, they incentivize defense industries to innovate with the promise of a larger market with economies of scale for their production, which, in turn, keeps the American industrial base warm. International defense partners, in return, are provided with reliable, well-supported systems, greater interoperability, and overall greater confidence in the cooperative partnership.
This revitalized MSC fleet would be a key component of what Admirals Foggo and Greenert described in “Forging a Global Network of Navies.” For example, the U.S. Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) established a Logistics Interoperability and Integration Strategic Framework, opening more significant avenues of cooperation in fleet sustainment.
MSC is crucial to operationalizing agreements like these as its Indo-Pacific headquarters, as CTF-75 has done with their JMSDF counterparts. With a more agile and dispersed fleet, MSC could increase these partnerships because of its ability to deploy and sustain itself longer. Combatant commands are recommended to map out engagement plans that consider how MSC can contribute to further optimization of relationships established by the Navy’s Maritime Partnership Program and the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. MSC has the unique ability to engage local civil and military partners close to the spheres of influence of great power rivals without implication of commitment to a binding military alliance, allowing the Navy to maintain long-term presence in key regions without high-profile, large-scale exercises.
MSC’s new hydrogen-fueled fleet could leverage the Defense Logistics Agency’s existing energy partnerships and tap into the burgeoning hydrogen infrastructure evolving around the globe. MSC would then be well-positioned to facilitate “whole of government” maritime sustainment networks analogous to the Northern Distribution Network’s contribution to the State Department’s Silk Road Initiative. Built to sustain operations in Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network was an excellent case study demonstrating how to leverage short-term, concrete logistical needs of building and maintaining sustainment networks to create a wider network of engagement in regions of strategic importance.
The same day General Lyons briefed Congress on TRANSCOM’s readiness dilemma, the Marine Corps Commandant, General Berger, addressed the Brookings Institute on the future of warfare and his warfighters’ sustainment dilemma. If properly equipped, MSC can address these interwoven challenges. Congress and the Navy have the opportunity to rekindle the innovative spirit of America’s first fleet, as told in Ian Toll’s Six Frigates as it designs and builds a fleet for the 21st Century.
America needs a warfighting sustainment fleet organized, trained, and equipped to shoot, move, and communicate in a major combat operation or add value during a humanitarian response. China has weaponized its supply chain. America needs its own afloat sustainment kill web hinged on MSC’s fleet. Such a fleet would move the Joint Concept for Contested Logistics from aspirational to operational. Moreover, building this fleet would reinvigorate American shipbuilding. Most importantly, launching this fleet will signal America’s friends and foes alike that it is committed to maintaining freedom of the seas, even in the face of the threat of total war.
Benjamin Clark is a contract electrical engineer for the U.S. Coast Guard and a five-year U.S. Navy veteran. He earned his Master’s in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Riverside, specializing in power systems and electrical power markets. He is a 2012 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the official views of his employer or the government departments he is associated with. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Greg Lewis is a contract Operational Logistics Planner and Instructor at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command’s Warfighting Development Center. He is a retired Marine Logistician and Regional Area Officer. He earned his Master’s in National Security Affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School and is a 1996 graduate of Norwich University. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the official views of his employer or the government departments he is associated with. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Commander Bill Balding (USN, ret.), Lieutenant Commander Chris Blake (USN), Major Brent Jurmu (USMC), and Captain Walker Mills (USMC).
Featured image: Capt. David Gray, the military detachment officer in charge of the Military Sealift Command expeditionary sea base USNS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams (ESB 4), gives guidance and direction to Sailors while leading a training evolution aboard one of the ship’s ridged-hull inflatable boats while the ship was at anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, Sept. 15, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Bill Mesta/Released)