Tag Archives: Merchant Marine

Panda Express: A Proposed Convoy Operation in the Red Sea

Red Sea Topic Week

By Clay Robinson

It was a sunny morning with calm seas on March 6, 2024, a fine day for sailing the tranquil waters of the Gulf of Aden. The crew of M/V True Confidence, however, were on edge: less than 10 hours before, their ship had come under attack from a Houthi-launched Iranian missile. Through sheer luck, the missile missed its intended target, and the ship continued its westerly journey bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. At 11:34 AM, the crew’s luck ran out: another Houthi missile ripped through the deck house, exploding in a massive fire ball that set the bridge ablaze.1 Two innocent civilian mariners were killed and four more critically injured. The captain ordered the fifteen surviving crew to abandon ship, leaving it adrift and in flames, yet another victim of the Houthis’ senseless and indiscriminate violence. 

Red Sea Fast Pass: Chinese Opportunism

Even as the tumultuous situation in the Red Sea takes ever more deadly and dangerous turns, China continues to sit idly by and reap the economic and diplomatic benefits thanks to the Houthis’ Iranian patronage and their own calculated self-interest. While much of the world’s shipping has been forced to take longer and more expensive routes to avoid Houthi missiles in the Red Sea, Chinese shipping continued virtually undisturbed, protected as it were under a modern day “non-aggression pact” between China and Houthi forces.2 However, just a few days after the Houthis granted this assurance to China that their ships would not be targeted in exchange for political support, on March 23, 2024, a Houthi missile struck the Chinese-owned M/V Huang Pu.3 Houthi spokesmen were unusually tight-lipped4 after this attack, likely the result of severe chastisement behind the scenes by both China and Iran, and will take extra efforts to avoid targeting Chinese shipping in the future.

It is not clear yet whether this Houthi attack should be attributed to an administrative oversight, missing that M/V Huang Pu’s ownership had recently transferred to China. Or perhaps the Houthis were targeting another vessel nearby. Either way, the safest place to transit the Red Sea is now onboard Chinese-owned ships.

The combination of the Houthi’s public agreement with China to not target their shipping and the likely private reprimand after striking the M/V Huang Pu sets up a scenario whereby Chinese shipping will be getting a free pass through the Red Sea. That provides China a significant competitive advantage at the precise moment its economy is starting to falter. There is a way, however, to both remove that advantage and force China to abide by its international obligations.

The time has come to exact a cost on this unbridled Chinese opportunism.

Panda Express: A Proposed Convoy Operation

The idea is simple: vulnerable multinational commercial vessels would closely shadow Chinese ships as they transit safely past Houthi missile launchers in a convoy-type operation. The Houthis, knowing their targeting is lacking, would refrain from shooting lest they accidentally hit a Chinese ship and anger both Beijing and Tehran. The U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces or the European Union Naval Forces’ Operation Aspides are the most obvious candidates to organize such a convoy – nicknamed Panda Express – but arguably it could be self-organizing or organized under an alternative multinational coalition. The shipping industry could institute a loosely organized program to surreptitiously appropriate passive escort of commercial vessels by Chinese vessels sharing the same shipping lanes. In short, these vessels will shadow Chinese vessels at a safe but proximate distance such as to keep the Chinese vessel between them and the direction of the Houthi missile threat. A limited handful of multinational commercial vessels will transit under the shield of the security that each of the Chinese vessels enjoy, taking advantage of a reliable and predictable, yet passive escort courtesy of China.

The current situation (Figure 1) consists of multinational commercial vessels transiting independently under the impressive but less-than-omnipresent protection of the multinational warships participating in Operation Prosperity Guardian and Operation Aspides. These warships endeavor to intercept Houthi missiles and attack drones targeting commercial shipping.

Figure 1: Status quo of Operation Prosperity Guardian. (Author graphic)

A brief vignette will serve as an example of what Panda Express might accomplish. Prior to a southbound transit of the Red Sea, a multinational commercial vessel will loiter temporarily at the southern end of the Suez Canal, awaiting the passage of another southbound Chinese vessel. This will occur ostensibly every few hours as an average of over five Chinese vessels transit the Suez Canal per day.5 The multinational vessel will then take station on the starboard quarter of the Chinese vessel at a safe distance, but in close proximity such that a sort of passive, perhaps even unwitting, screen of the vessel by the Chinese vessel will occur (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Panda Express concept. (Author graphic)

Some might argue that Panda Express would put innocent civilian mariners at risk by shadowing Chinese merchant vessels, and from a practical standpoint, that threat would exist. But therein lies its value as a deterrent because the Houthis have already stated that they will not attack Chinese shipping. As the two vessels reach the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, air defense vessels of Operation Prosperity Guardian and Operation Aspides can provide a more robust ability to detect and engage any Houthi missile that might be close enough to discern the multinational vessels from the Chinese one. Once through the western reaches of the Gulf of Aden and outside the threat area, the vessel can once again resume navigating independently.

Panda Express leverages opportunities fomented by China for both a protective and influence advantage. This concept is not an evaluation of the technical aspects of a possible tactical advantage on a notional battlefield. Assessments would need to be made about just how close these vessels would have to transit near their Chinese escorts to achieve sufficiently low levels of probability hit (PH) or probability of kill (PK) for inbound Houthi missiles. Similarly, there would be limits to how many vessels could safely transit in company with each Chinese vessel. This concept is rather about taking advantage of the deterrent value of the present situation and using it as a way to exact diplomatic costs on China for sticking to its opportunistic agenda in the Middle East. This is a way to erode China’s economic and diplomatic advantages by highlighting China’s malign opportunism and providing safe passage through the Red Sea. Panda Express is a low cost, legal, and pragmatic way to compete with China.

What will Panda Express accomplish? This escort tactic would begin to serve as a strategic deterrent against Houthi attacks in three ways. First and foremost, the risk of the Houthis accidentally hitting a Chinese vessel while targeting other vessels one would be too great, and it would deter attacks on any ships traveling in close company with Chinese ships. Additionally, Panda Express could reduce the strain on the contingent of warships supporting Operation Prosperity Guardian and Operation Aspides that are spread very thin by helping to better position these assets in order to more efficiently focus their layered defense on the places where they can be most effective. Lastly, diplomatically, China could be held accountable for malign hedging behavior and an opportunistic silent partnership with Iran. Panda Express could drive China to increase pressure on Iran to rein in all Houthi attacks, not just prevent attacks on Chinese vessels.

How long could Panda Express be sustained? There are risks to be sure, but most are worth accepting. China might stop sending its ships through the Red Sea, but this is extremely unlikely. The Suez Canal and Red Sea serve as the primary route for China’s westward shipments of goods, including around 60% of its exports to Europe, representing one-tenth of the Suez Canal’s annual traffic.6 China cannot afford to avoid the Red Sea route altogether.

The maritime shipping industry can determine that the cost of loitering at the entrances to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to wait for Chinese escort are too high. Yes, loitering temporarily for a few hours costs some money, but it is also likely to be far less than transiting around the Capes of Africa.

All this cat and mouse activity on the high seas might lead to collisions between vessels, but these are professional mariners with years of experience plying these waters. They can handle it. And, if Chinese ships were to be instructed to somehow attempt to disrupt this passive escort program, it will only cost them more in time and money.

China: A Silent Partner in the Axis of Insecurity

Is Panda Express worth it? Some points to consider: Chinese leaders have repeatedly claimed they hold very little sway over Iran, and by extension the Houthis; however, several key factors seem to indicate otherwise, and China’s opportunistic fingerprints are all over the Red Sea crisis. China asked Iran to rein in the Houthis.7 China is not alone in asking Houthis to cease the attacks.8 Yet, the Houthis publicly stated only Chinese and Russian ships have a free pass.9

China knows its ships are safe, too. Despite having a significant naval presence in the region, China has kept its Naval Escort Task Force (NETF) out of the Red Sea, choosing instead to loiter in the safer waters of the eastern Gulf of Aden. In late February, the Chinese Defense Ministry denied the 46th NETF deployment is related to the Red Sea crisis and reiterated that it is a “regular escort operation.”10 That none of these NETF vessels are needed in the Red Sea to ensure the safe passage of Chinese shipping is proof China knows its vessels are exempt from Houthi attack.

China does indeed have influence over Iran and, by extension, the Houthis in what has now become an “Axis of Insecurity.” Panda Express would reduce the likelihood of new attacks like that on M/V True Confidence and M/V Huang Pu and put direct pressure on China to either explain to the court of international opinion why shadowing Chinese vessels is a safe tactic, or influence Iran and the Houthis to end their aggression in the Red Sea altogether. Either way, China loses, and the rest of the world wins. It’s time to order Panda Express.

Commander Clay Robinson is a retired surface warfare officer and antiterrorism/force protection specialist. He has worked for the U.S. Department of Defense since 2017 as a strategic planning specialist and is currently an Adjunct History Instructor with the U.S. Naval Community College. He served on board the USS Russell (DDG-59), USS Laboon (DDG-58), and USS Nitze (DDG-94), and commanded Maritime Civil Affairs Squadron One (MCAS-1).


1. Jonathan Saul, “Ship evacuated after first civilian fatalities in Houthis’ Red Sea attacks,” Reuters, March 7, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/ship-evacuated-after-first-civilian-fatalities-houthis-red-sea-attacks-2024-03-07/.

2. Sam Dagher and Mohammed Hatem, “Yemen’s Houthis Tell China, Russia Their Ships Won’t Be Targeted,” Bloomberg, March 21, 2024, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2024-03-21/china-russia-reach-agreement-with-yemen-s-houthis-on-red-sea-ships

3. Luther Ray Abel, “Chinese Tanker Struck by Houthi Missile,” National Review, March 24, 2024, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/chinese-tanker-struck-by-houthi-missile/

4. Heather Mongilio, “Chinese Tanker Hit with Houthi Missile in the Red Sea,” USNI New, March 24, 2024, https://news.usni.org/2024/03/24/chinese-tanker-hit-with-houthi-missile-in-the-red-sea

5. “Suez Canal Blocking Could Hike Freight Fees between China and Europe If Not Cleared Soon: Analyst,” Global Times, March 24, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202103/1219372.shtml.

6. Amr Salah Mohamed, “China’s growing maritime presence in Egypt’s ports and the Suez Canal,” Middle East Institute, November 3, 2023, https://www.mei.edu/publications/chinas-growing-maritime-presence-egypts-ports-and-suez-canal.

7. Parisa Hafezi and Andrew Hayley, “Exclusive: China presses Iran to rein in Houthi attacks in Red Sea, sources say,” Reuters, January 25, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/china-presses-iran-rein-houthi-attacks-red-sea-sources-say-2024-01-26/.

8. Burak Bir, “24 countries condemn Houthi attacks in Red Sea,” Anadolu Agency (AA), January 24, 2024, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/world/24-countries-condemn-houthi-attacks-in-red-sea/3117236.

9. “China and Russia Get a Free Pass Through Houthis’ Red Sea Blockade,” The Maritime Executive, January 23, 2024,


10. Zhao Ziwen, “Why China’s Red Sea diplomatic mission is unlikely to stop Houthi shipping attacks,” South China Morning Post, March 4, 2024, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3253641/why-chinas-red-sea-diplomatic-mission-unlikely-stop-houthi-shipping-attacks.

Featured Image: Photo of the MV True Confidence after it was struck by a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile in the western Gulf of Aden, March 6, 2024. (Photo courtesy U.S. Central Command)

Solutions to Revitalizing America’s Strategic Sealift

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By Todd M. Hiller, P.E.

“. . . without their skill and devotion to duty our men and materiel could not have been delivered. . . “President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The U.S. flag commercial fleet and government owned vessels serve a crucial capability to successfully execute and accomplish USTRANSCOM’s (USTC) worldwide operations by sea. Ongoing issues occurring in the global commons have pressured USTC reliance on the U.S. Merchant Marine through the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force (RRF).1

Enduring commitment to historic naval functions of deterrence, sea control, power projection and maritime security remains essential to American national strategy; however, the security conditions have become more sophisticated and uncertain, forcing the Department of Defense to change how it conducts sustainment operations. Through a distinguished history of sacrifice, valor and courage, the U.S. Merchant Marine has proven its tenacity in support of a common calling to serve the nation.

Today, threats continue to compel the United States’ need for strategic sealift. Considering the nation’s dependency on imported products, it is timely to reconsider just how dependent the international supply chain is on the primary conveyance for cargoes coming to and from the United States. Over 90 percent by volume or weight comes by sea, but American flagged carriers account for less than 2 percent of these cargoes. American dependency on foreign-flag vessels will inevitably become more problematic with the continuation of stop-gap measures to meet national security requirements.

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

Domestic Shipbuilding Capacity

The United States’ sealift fleet has received limited Congressional attention over decades of continued use. New construction and conversion of Maritime Prepositioning Ships and the development of large medium speed roll-on/roll-off vessels achieved successful results, but the alignment of sealift ships under a 30-year shipbuilding plan has never materialized. Most recently, the Navy’s 30- year shipbuilding plan and the SECNAV’s Sealift that the Nation Needs (STNN) report to Congress (2018) considered sealift vessels or auxiliary vessels.

However, its vessel proposals are not in sufficient numbers and the timeline described to achieve increased readiness and availability is not effective. Sealift vessels generally fall into 10-15 year shipbuilding periods, with long lapses between programs that can exceed 10 or even 20-years. These aging vessels are often managed with decreasing levels of resourcing over time, despite the increasing need. The greatest shortfall in plans for a viable sealift fleet involves short-term programs of 20-25 years or less, for a fleet intended to last 50 or even 60-years.

Philly Shipyard (Photo via Clem Murray/Philadelphia Inquirer)

The sealift fleet includes both commercially-operated vessels, in-service, as well as organic sealift vessels, many of which were former commercial vessels or built to rigorous commercial classification society standards. Both the United States government and the shipbuilding industry would benefit from a shipbuilding plan that identifies ship construction opportunities over a 20–30-year timeframe.

  • The Navy’s existing Long-range (30-year) Shipbuilding Plan narrowly focuses on Combatant and Auxiliary vessels; leaving sealift vessels for ad-hoc recapitalization strategies.

Acquisition and modernization of ships for defense agencies has been successfully executed since 1976. Capital improvements were executed through the modernization of Joint Logistics over the Shore (JLOTS), Offshore Petroleum Discharge System (OPDS), and an intentional shift from breakbulk cargo to roll-on/roll-off vessels. Staying current with modern technology, MARAD was forced to continually upgrade the organic fleet to deliver increased sealift capacity to meet the demand signal from USTC. Today, the STNN report outlines a path that provides limited resourcing of ships on a progressive, but low-accession rate. Newer ships, ships built today and those available for procurement do not match ships built 30-40 years ago in terms of structural arrangement (scantlings) or suitability for laid-up status – both of which are important considerations for strategic sealift.

RO/RO vessel MV Greene Cove (Photo via MarineTraffic.com)

Shipbuilding Plan

MARAD has proposed development of a long-term, planned sealift shipbuilding initiative that focuses on commercially-developed but militarily useful ships. The greatest gap in shipbuilding is the difficulty in constructing ships usable for commercial purposes that could also be useful as naval auxiliaries in time of war or national emergency. By developing a shipbuilding plan, MARAD seeks to coordinate with commercial ship owners, whereby the government invests a reasonable or an agreed upon portion of the cost at new construction for any vessel, and after operation for a period of ten years commercial service, accepts the vessel into the organic sealift fleet for an additional 20-25 years. By offsetting the initial, up-front costs for ship owners, and including national defense features in construction, MARAD would recapture a stake in the efficient construction and operation of a U.S. flag vessel. Participation would come with conditions including periodic inspection, equipment validation, modernization upgrades, and other program involvement as well as full Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA)/Maritime Security Program (MSP) enrollment. This initiative works in conjunction with all other sealift programs to ensure a continuing supply of modern, U.S.-built ships for procurement for defense needs.

At scale, this plan could include the construction of four ships per year for ten years, for acceptance by the Government after ten years. The 4/10/20 plan involves initial investment by the Government, paired with industry financing to build U.S. flag ships in domestic shipyards. This accession rate exceeds the rate of the STNN report, decreases the average age of the commercial / organic sealift fleets, and reduces a reliance on foreign-built ships for defense purposes. Most importantly, this plan provides a predictable timeline of ship construction options at a rate of four ships per year. Because the government pays their share up front, concerns of subsidies can be avoided, and it combines both government funding and private financing for greater effect in the shipyard industrial base.

MARAD’s key focus areas for domestic shipbuilding capacity include:

  • Continuation and expansion with reduced barriers of application and award of the Title XI financing.
  • Development of a sealift plan that parallels Navy’s 30-year Shipbuilding Plan and provides insight to optioned ships (4/10/20 Plan)
  • Continued effort to align all non-combatant, national shipbuilding needs through the Government Shipbuilders Council (GSC-V)
  • Revision of the National Defense Features and Sealift Enhancement Features catalogues for outfitting on any U.S. flag ship
  • Availability of other sealift programs, including procurement for NDRF, Ship Disposal Programs, etc.

Single Sealift Manager

The nation’s sealift capacity exists in multiple organizations with potential shortfalls as these ships age and competition for resources does not match organizational objectives. Through multiple ship repair contracts of existing ships, both the MARAD and Military Sealift Command (MSC) compete for available dry-docks in an increasingly difficult regulatory environment. With ship repair availabilities taking longer, ships and their programs must choose to prioritize based upon the urgency of the ship’s required performance, e.g. prepositioning, and the regulatory requirements of American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard. Aligning sealift capacity to one single manager could alleviate congestion and give greater insight to shipyards seeking work on up to 61 ships.

Reroute Ad Valorem Tax Funds

Domestic shipyard availability, increasingly longer and more complex repairs, and skilled worker shortfalls means that repairs in foreign shipyards may be more desirable or simply necessary due to availability and skilled labor pools that combine to meet an approved ship repair availability timeline. Today, MSC ships and even MARAD’s RRF ships still face 50% Ad Valorem taxes for repairs made overseas.2 The benefit of this tax is not gained by the industry, as the intent of the tax is meant, because it reverts only to the Department of the Treasury. Moving into a period of necessary ship construction revitalization, MARAD has proposed that the Ad Valorem tax be revised to fund activities that directly benefit domestic shipyards, through funds applied for increased infrastructure improvements, cybersecurity and industrial security, sill dredging, and skilled worker recruitment and training. By applying Ad Valorem funds directly, this initiative could be executed like the Small Shipyard Grant Program, through a validation process recorded and assessed by MARAD.

MARAD’s key focus areas for redirecting Ad Valorem funds to domestic shipyards include:

  • Select infrastructure improvements and modernization
  • Cybersecurity and industrial security measures
  • “Last mile” graving dock and floating dry-dock area sill dredging
  • Skilled worker recruitment, training, and apprenticeship programs

There are many factors to take into consideration in the rapid decline of the shipbuilding industry, including global oversupply, recessions and changing economic fundamentals, but one policy decision clearly stands out. For decades, countries around the world have subsidized their national shipbuilding industries. Up until 1981, the U.S. followed suite through the payments of construction differential subsides (CDS). As soon as foreign shipbuilding companies gained the advantage of subsidization from their governments, subsidization for U.S. shipbuilding went in the opposite direction leaving the U.S. industries at a disadvantage and unable to compete for business.

Currently, the U.S. ranks 19th in the world for commercial shipbuilding, accounting for approximately 0.35% of global new construction, which is a mere one-third of one percent of new commercial shipbuilding occurs in the United States, despite having the world’s largest economy.3 In the absence of any U.S government action to enforce fair market participation, the commercial shipbuilding industry almost immediately began to suffer a steady decline and struggled to remain competitive against foreign subsidization. The impact of these trends is evidently clear. South Korea has 37% of global shipbuilding, Japan has 27% and China has 21%.4 South Korea alone is building more than 100 times the number of ships as the United States.

Maritime Security Program

Military, congressional, and other government leaders noted that while MARAD’s RRF offered an effective and rapid source of ships for strategic deployment, even the RRF and the sealift capabilities of Military Sealift Command together could not sustain a serious and prolonged U.S. military deployment overseas. Additional support from a commercial U.S.-flag merchant marine is essential for strategic sealift requirements, as was proven in all American wars of the twentieth century, including Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. Accordingly, in 1996, Congress passed and the president signed the Maritime Security Act of 1996 (MSA), which established the Maritime Security Program (MSP).

The Maritime Security Program (MSP) maintains a fleet of 60 modern, privately-owned U.S.-flag ships, active in international commercial trade, yet available on-call to meet U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contingency requirements during war and national emergencies. The MSP ensures a minimal but vital role for the U.S. in global sea trade, while employing some 2,400 of the trained, skilled U.S.-citizen Merchant Mariners needed to man the Government-owned surge fleet in times of crisis.

RO/RO vessel MV Liberty Passion (Photo via MarineTraffic.com)

The current MSP fleet includes 23 container ships, 11 geared container ships, 18 roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) vessels, six multi-purpose/heavy-lift ships, and two tankers. The cargo capacity of the MSP fleet, now exceeding 3.4 million sq. ft., is at the highest level in the program’s history, including some 117,000 TEUs, 3.16M sq.ft. of RO/RO capacity, 335,659 sq.ft. of heavy-lift capacity, and nearly 667,000 bbl. of fuel transport capacity.

Cargo Preference

Cargo preference statutes are crucial to U.S.-flag vessels and American commercial sealift. Currently, DoD cargoes are contracted through USTC, either by Surface Deployment & Distribution Command (SDDC) or MSC for full ship charters. However, a large portion of other government cargoes are shipped by various other agencies. Centralizing the contracting of all government impelled cargoes under USTC could effectively and efficiently reduce cost, increase visibility, increase cargo preference adherence, and strengthen national strategic sealift capability. USTC has the robust transportation in place to support this centralization.5

Pasha Hawaii vessel Marjorie C (Photo via Pasha Hawaii)

Sealift Recapitalization

In an effort to increase the RO/RO capacity through the MSP, scenario comparisons were made to show a generic time line and cost to reach USTC requirement for sealift square footage. To start, data of the notional Army unit types was used to calculate the number of vessels of each class to carry a full complement, Table 1.

Next, three scenarios were created, with assumed variables, how much it would cost and how long it would take to bring American strategic sealift within mission readiness standards set by USTC.

Scenario #1: Emphasis on a new construction program with new Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) RO/RO vessels replacing Large Medium Speed RO/RO (LMSR)’s currently in the afloat prepositioning fleet, and shifting to surge. Estimated time to meet USTC mission readiness is 12 years.

Scenario #2: Double the commercial MSP fleet of RO/RO vessels and limiting the number of new COTS RO/RO vessels to analyze the commercial increase option. Fewer new vessels will be constructed leaving funding for purchasing used commercial RO/RO’s in the open market. Estimated time to meet USTC mission readiness is 7 years.

Scenario #3: Same as Scenario #1 with the exception of restricting the time limit met in Scenario #2 of 7 years. This scenario fails the square footage requirement to meet USTC mission readiness.

Table 1 – Notional Army Deployment Data

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Scenario 1: 18 MSP RO/RO Vessels w/ 50 New Build & 9 Used Foreign (12-year period)

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Scenario 1 Summary

Case maintains a status quo of 18 MSP RO/RO vessels in the fleet with 50 U.S. new construction incorporating commercial build specifications with national defense features and complying with the Jones Act. The time to meet the TRANSCOM requirement of 19.6 million sq.ft. is 12 years at $3.0B per year for a total cost of $37.0B. Factors in the estimate include an average attrition of 17% for shipyard availability, general repairs and maintenance. Average cost for a new U.S. built COTS vessel is estimated at $280M per ship with 4 new vessels planned per year. Purchasing used foreign RO/RO’s is estimated at $84M per ship with approval to purchase up to 9 off the open global market. Estimates do not include rate of which ships are removed from service and either scrapped or placed into the NDRF.

Scenario 2: 36 MSP RO/RO Vessels w/ 29 New Build & 9 Used Foreign (7-year period)

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Scenario 2 Summary

Case doubles the MSP RO/RO fleet to 36 vessels in the fleet with 29 U.S. new construction incorporating commercial build specifications with national defense features and complying with the Jones Act. The time to meet the TRANSCOM requirement of 19.6 million sq.ft. is 7 years at $3.0B per year for a total cost of $22.2B. Factors in the estimate include average attrition of 17% for shipyard availability, general repairs and maintenance. Average cost for a new U.S. built COTS vessel is estimated at $280M per ship with 4 new vessels planned per year. Purchasing used foreign RO/RO’s is estimated at $84M per ship with approval to purchase up to 9 off the open global market. Estimates do not include rate of which ships are removed from service and either scrapped or placed into the NDRF.

*** Notable savings with Scenario #2. Fleet restored to 85% mission readiness, which includes a 17% attrition, 40% of the time and 41% savings. ***

Scenario 3: 18 MSP RO/RO Vessels w/ 28 New Build & 9 Used Foreign (7-year period)

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Scenario 3 Summary

Case maintains a status quo of 18 MSP RO/RO vessels in the fleet with 28 U.S. new construction incorporating commercial build specifications with national defense features and complying with the Jones Act. This scenario fails to meet the TRANSCOM requirement of 19.6 million sq.ft. at the 7-year mark with a delta of 16.8%. With 17% attrition for shipyard availability, general repairs and maintenance, mission readiness fails to meet at 83%. All variables and assumptions were the same applied to Scenario 1 and 2.

Potentially increasing the MSP fleet size, MARAD’s selection criteria for new ships entering the current MSP fleet reflect DoD’s stated priority preferences by vessel type. With the priority emphasized on RO/RO’s, replacements are already under an MSP Operating Agreement tend to be the same types as those being replaced. Two key benefits of increasing the MSP RO/RO fleet, they are instantly mission capable and operationally ready for service.

There are inherit risks to increasing the MSP. Some of these capabilities can never be fully replaced without construction or modifications. However, vessels of the U.S. flag commercial fleet can be purchased and modified to replace some Ready Reserve Force/MSC assets, as provided for in the U.S. Navy’s current surge fleet recapitalization planning. For political or economic reasons, the U.S. military could find itself in a situation in which foreign-flag shipping is not an option to support U.S. military operations.

Philly Shipyard’s 29th vessel, Daniel K. Inouye, floats in the Outfitting Dock at Philly Shipyard. (Photo via Business Wire)

For instance, due to prior circumstances of particular conflicts, flag states may refuse to permit their vessels to enter a war zone so as not to offend an ally or related business interest or operators do not wish to charter vessels to the U.S. military because they could potentially lose market share from their regular, existing customer base and trade routes. From a foreign operator’s perspective, carrying U.S. military cargoes, even at premium rates, may be a poor business decision in the long term, which may discourage foreign-flag owners and operators from even considering such an option.

New Cargo to Maintain the Commercial Sealift Fleet

In the 1970s the United States negotiated a bilateral agreement with Brazil reserving 40% of each country’s exports for the merchant fleet of each trading partner and the remaining 20% was available for third country fleets. Shortly thereafter the United States negotiated a similar bilateral agreement with Argentina. These agreements gained the interest of many developing nations and thus the “40/40/20” became a new standard adopted by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Code of Conduct for Liner Conferences. The UNCTAD Code came into force on October 6, 1983, six months after its ratification. However, the United States never ratified the Code even though the U.S.-carriers and the U.S.-maritime unions were supportive. The UNCTAD 40/40/20 was designed around the ocean shipping conferences that dominated ocean liner trade in the 1970s. Subsequently over the following decades, due to changing political environments, conferences have become unlawful in some parts of the world and are now practically non-existent. However, during this same period, carriers have developed operational conferences or cooperation in the form of vessel sharing agreements (VSAs), also referred to as liner consortia.6

Strategic Sealift Officers

Strategic sealift is essential to the U.S. Navy’s ability to carry out its sea control, power projection, and maritime security missions—and essential to strategic sealift is a cadre of Navy Reserve officers who provide emergency crewing and shore-side support for the Military Sealift Command’s Surge Sealift Fleet and the Ready Reserve Force in times of national defense or emergency.

Strategic sealift officers (SSOs) today have two priority missions: to provide strategic depth as tactically trained, experienced, and credentialed licensed mariners; and to deploy operational capability through their subject matter expertise in marine engineering, operations, and logistics and ties with the maritime ecosystem.

SSO Lieutenant David Gill runs radio tests onboard the RO/RO vessel USNS Benavidez (T-AKR 306) during Turbo Activation providing the subject matter expertise from the commercial maritime industry. (U.S. Navy photo)

This diverse maritime expertise is a force multiplier. The broad educational backgrounds, world- wide employment and specialties in work experience enable these dedicated mariners to apply critical skills and non-traditional methods to overcome current and future obstacles. Members will use their unique maritime industry understanding, training, and proficiencies in support of U.S. Navy and national-level requirements.

Years of specialized training and education are required to earn and maintain the U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine license and associated additional credentialing by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The U.S. Merchant Marine must continue to attract, retain, and promote top talent from the nation’s maritime academies. This workforce is the key enabler to accomplish a vital mission.

Concepts of Maritime Solutions

Strengthen the Maritime Industrial and Innovation Base. Reinvigorate and promote a competitive modern maritime industrial and innovation base. Leverage commercial leading-edge suppliers to provide a strong and sustained competitive advantage within the global maritime commons.

Sustain the Forces. The Maritime Services should generate resilient and adaptable logistics to sustain forces globally in contested environments. Successful mission execution demands the planning, prioritization and modernization of U.S. flag strategic sealift capabilities, maritime prepositioning network forces, prepositioned forward munition stocks, warfighter provisioning, allied and coalition partner support coupled with distributed and agile logistics. Logistics investments needed include the Next Generation Logistics Ship – which could be a commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) RO/RO vessel with NDRF capabilities, utilized to sustain afloat and ashore littoral forces and strategic sealift assets within the Ready Reserve Fleet – the Maritime Security Program, and a Tanker Security Program.

Outboard profile of a Container RO/RO (CON-RO/RO) vessel (Graphic via MarineLog.com)

Develop Integrated Maritime Forces with fiscal resources allocated to the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine by the U.S. Congress. Consistent and sufficient funding will support the strong maritime defense industrial base needed to deliver future naval and strategic sealift ships, aircraft, munitions and supplies. Steady resourcing will allow the Maritime Services to invest efficiently, provide accountability, preserve military advantages and enable consistent strategy execution in contested environments.

Address the Strategic Sealift Gap and Restore the U.S. Merchant Marine. Both a robust maritime industry and the policies that aim to support it are increasingly important in an era of great power competition (GPC). DoD mobilization requirements depend heavily on the U.S. flag commercial maritime industry. However, with now fewer than 90 vessels, this industry continues to face mounting pressures ranging from fragmented and ineffective policies to highly subsidized foreign maritime assets that undermine its long-term viability, its ability to innovate, and its capacity to support future military operations. To effectively compete, the U.S. must break with a long-standing approach that assumes the commercial and military requirements of the maritime industry are the largely distinct. Instead, the U.S. must adopt an integrated approach that recognizes the inherent interdependence between the two and foster a healthier commercial maritime industry that can effectively support DoD force mobilizations. In just one example, American shipyards require modernization through capital improvements, infusion of more efficient processes and a skilled workforce to fully realize increased capacity and capability. To address this, the development of a long-term, planned shipbuilding and repair initiative that focuses on commercially-developed, but militarily useful ships would inevitability help close the gap in shipbuilding. Without a “leveling” of the playing field for commercial shipyards through some form of construction subsidy, tax incentives, or long- term government shipbuilding program, U.S. shipyards will be unable to construct large commercial vessels at a cost more competitive with heavily-subsidized foreign (primarily Asian) shipyards.

This plan would provide insight and predictability to shipbuilders and an opportunity to construct ships for U.S. flag carriers. MARAD would provide stability where boom-and-bust cycles of episodic sealift shipbuilding has been the norm by supporting a shipbuilding plan in coordination with commercial ship owners, whereby the government invests a significant portion of the cost at new construction for any vessel and after operation for a period of ten years commercial service, accepts the vessel into the organic sealift fleet for an additional 20-25 years.

By offsetting initial, up-front costs for ship owners and by including National Defense features in the construction, MARAD would reclaim stake in the efficient construction and operation of U.S. flag sealift vessels. Participation could come with conditions, including periodic inspections, equipment validation, modernization upgrades and other program involvement as well as full MSP/VISA enrollment. While not excluding Jones Act ships, this initiative would work in conjunction with all other sealift programs to ensure a continuing supply of modern, U.S. built ships in support of an effective military mobilization.


The United States is already emerging from a period of strategic atrophy. American competitive military advantage is rapidly waning. With increased global disorder characterized by the decline in international order, the global security environment is becoming far more complex and volatile than any of us have experienced in recent memory.7 The time is now to recognize and commit to a new and comprehensive National Maritime/Defense Strategy to rebuild America’s merchant marine.

The commercial U.S. shipbuilding and repair industry today exists solely on work provided by government contracts and Jones Act construction and repair work. Absent the Jones Act, virtually all remaining large shipyards would be forced out of business, with a negative ripple effect on the supporting supply chain. U.S. shipyards need some combination of subsidies, stimulus, and predictable demand to compete with foreign shipyards that enjoy all of those advantages. American yards require modernization through capital improvements, infusion of more efficient processes, and a skilled workforce to fully realize increased capacity and capability. Those investments are not likely without external assistance.

Ways of promoting the U.S. Merchant Marine and substantially increasing the number of U.S.-flag ships in international trade are available. First, negotiate bilateral agreements with the major United States trading partners like the Brazilian bilateral agreement of the 1970s construct. The agreements may be constructed around the new Vessel Sharing Agreements and with higher levels of third country participation. Bilateral agreements may be prioritized with other countries based on data as a trading partner with the United States. As opposed to 40/40/20 the agreements could be more reasonably negotiated as 10/10/80 agreements. This should increase U.S.-flag participation in U.S.-trade twofold from the current 2% to 4% and beyond in support of American national security and economic prosperity.8 Second, provide additional tax incentives to U.S. carriers, perhaps along with shipper tax incentives. Existing laws and regulations that discourage operators from flagging their ships in the United States could be revised. None of these efforts would require additional appropriations. As far as tax incentives are concerned, the U.S. Treasury is not currently benefiting from foreign-flag operators paying taxes, so having similar tax breaks for a larger number of U.S.-flag operators would have no significant impact on tax revenues.9 First and foremost, the United States should focus on meeting the requirement for strategic sealift capacity.

Leveraging the commercial employment of SSO members the Navy will strengthen strategic relationships with the maritime industry. Industry partners provide complementary capabilities, unique perspectives and information that improves collective understanding of the operating environment and expands options. Correspondingly, strategic sealift officer experiences within the maritime ecosystem enable rapid identification and development opportunities to apply commercial best practices to more efficiently use resources and optimize operations. Mutually beneficial partnerships within the maritime ecosystem are crucial to national strategy. By being an integral part of the maritime ecosystem and the Navy, the SSO force supports successful naval operations and helps strengthen the preeminence of America as a maritime nation.

The Merchant Marine through Strategic Sealift provides the Nation’s “fourth arm of defense” and has historically organized, trained, and equipped to perform three essential functions: sea control, power projection, and maritime security. Curiously, it was an American, Alfred T. Mahan, who dramatically energized global powers, including, eventually, the United States, about the critical importance of commercial flag-state merchant shipping and accompanying naval power.

Contrary to the term that “size matters”, sealift forces do not need another fleet of 250,000 square-foot capacity LMSR’s. They do need ships that are commercially viable for Jones Act and international trade and that have national defense capabilities incorporated in the early stages of construction and built to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) specifications. Naval warship design technology is not applicable with strategic sealift vessels. Stick to the basics with the USTC 24-10 specification Appendix A for strategic sealift, not what the Navy assumes it needs for strategic sealift. Coincidently, RO/RO’s are built with similar USTC 24-10 specifications incorporated into the construction with ample deck strength on the permanent decks and clear overhead heights complying with basic sealift requirements.

U.S. strategic sealift needs to be both commercially and military viable, to serve dual purposes for the economic and national security interests. The fleet of strategic sealift vessels will serve no purpose sitting pier side in the U.S. waiting for the next conflict to arise. Ships need to be underway, making way and earning money for companies that have employed those vessels and U.S. merchant mariners.

Since World War II, the U.S. fleet has matured and withered to the laws of supply and demand due to the strength of foreign competition. As a nation, the United States have never let the fleet get too small without performing ambitious analyses in recapitalization or through creative means of subsidies and exclusive contracts.10 Through persuasive realignment of U.S. government policy and legislation that incentivizes the U.S. fleet to become globally competitive would be the fundamental basic principles of reviving a viable Strategic Sealift for the United States and allowing USTRANSCOM to successfully execute and accomplish worldwide operations that strengthen national security and directly contribute to achieving the nation’s objectives.

Captain Hiller is the officer in charge of the Naval Cooperation and Guidance of Shipping (NCAGS) for USCOMNAVCENT and USFIFTHFLEET in Bahrain. In his civilian capacity he works for the Maritime Administration as a naval architect in the Office of Shipyards and Marine Engineering. He holds a bachelor of engineering in naval architecture, U.S. Coast Guard Unlimited Tonnage License, and U.S. Navy commission from the State University of New York at Ft. Schuyler Maritime College and a master’s in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College.


1. USTRANSCOM Nation Maritime Day Speech, General Paul J. Selva, May 2015.

2. Department of Transportation, Comparison of U.S. and Foreign-Flag Operating Coasts, Sept 2011.

3. Department of Transportation, Maritime Trade and Transportation, 2007, Table 7-2.

4. Ibid.

5. Joint Publication 4-01, The Defense Transportation System, July 2017.

6. Alex Roland, The Way of the Ship, page 328.

7. Letter to the Honorable Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense, Congresswoman Elaine G. Luria, 31JAN20.

8. Revive Merchant Marine, Owen Dougherty, 2017.

9. Back to the Future, Christopher McMahon, 2019.

10. William Geroux, Mathew’s Men Seven Brothers and the War against Hitler’s U-Boats, Penguin Books, 2016.

Feature Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Oct. 28, 2019) Henry J. Kaiser-class underway replenishment oiler USNS Yukon (T-AO-202, right, prepares to conduct a consolidated loading with commercial tanker MT Empire State. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Patrick W. Menah Jr./Released)

Admiral, I Am NOT Ready For War

The following article originally published on gCaptain and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain)

“It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war.” -John F. Kennedy

As has been the case before every major world conflict a majority of citizens believe that peace will persist indefinitely and, as a civilian myself, I tend to agree that a large-scale war with a major superpower like China or Russia is unlikely. Regardless of my views, the United States military is spending billions to prepare for war against China in the hopes that being fully prepared for war is the most effective means of preserving peace.

This article is not intended to support or speak out against the U.S. military’s efforts to prepare for a war against China and it is not to discuss the wisdom of my nation’s military decisions. It is only written with one purpose. That purpose is to acknowledge two absolute facts today: that the U.S. Military is preparing for war and I, an American merchant ship captain, am not ready. 

What Is The U.S. Merchant Marine

“The U.S. Merchant Marine is in every war plan that I review, I guarantee you, because you’re going to be the fourth arm of defense.” -Former U.S. Secretary Of Defense James Mattis.

Members of today’s United States Merchant Marine (USMM) do not wear uniforms, they do not cut their hair short, they are not active duty military, and only a few are in the U.S. Navy Reserve. They do not get veterans benefits, special privileges, government healthcare or retirement pay. They have no special right to carry weapons on land or enter most military bases without special permission. They are civilians. 

Some members of the merchant marine wore uniforms while they attended maritime academies that must, by federal statute, follow military traditions. Others have never worn a uniform of any kind. Yet the importance of the merchant marine in past military successes is undeniable and all of today’s military flag officers admit they play a central role in all future war plans

But what is the Merchant Marine?

The truth is that despite having worn the uniform of a U.S. Merchant Mariner in college, despite having been a proud member of the U.S. Merchant Marine for over 20 years, and despite having risen to the rank of Captain… I’m still not sure what the Merchant Marine is. Yes, I have a strong understanding of its role in commerce and national defense, but I only have the foggiest of clues what the U.S. Merchant Marine is. 

As a journalist I have asked this very question (what is the U.S. Merchant Marine?) to our nation’s leadership, I have asked our Merchant Marine Veterans, award-winning historians, and the highest ranking U.S. military officials. Each has answered my question with a slightly puzzled look and vague statements about our role in national defense. 

In 1938 congress established the United States Maritime Service (USMS) to answer that question and established uniform standards, training requirements, and structure. Those regulations still exist and the USMS lives on today. We have a Commandant, we have Admirals and Commodores, and we have our own service academy, but not much else. 

Am I a Captain in the U.S. Merchant Marine? Absolutely! What is my role or rank in the US Maritime Service? Am I allowed to wear a uniform? If so, can I wear my navy medals on it? Do I salute? Does anyone salute me? Where do I report if war breaks out? Who at the USMS can I call with questions? 

Answer: I haven’t got a clue.

Equipment Versus People

“Remember, terrain doesn’t wage war. Machines don’t wage war. People do and they use their mind!” –Col. John Boyd, USAF

While the status of mariners in the USMM and USMS is vague and nebulous the status of ships is well-defined. Currently 81 U.S.-flagged ships sail internationally and our fleet of reserve ships are battered, old, and wholly insufficient for war. “Our sealift fleet is able to generate only 65 percent of our required capacity” said Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, Commander, U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), last month. “And is rapidly approaching the end of [its] useful life.” 

U.S. Maritime Administrator (and USMS Commandant) Rear Admiral Mark Buzby has made no secret of our need to build new ships and refurbish our fleet. The problem is that ships are expensive, take years to design and build, and do not capture the nation’s imagination like a new destroyer does. Most merchant ships are ugly but absolutely essential because there is simply no other way to move equipment and materials into theaters of war overseas. 

Nearly everyone in the United States military and Merchant Marine, including myself, readily agrees that we need to do more to support domestic shipbuilding. That said, everyone secretly knows another fact that few are willing to admit publicly. The fact is that in a large-scale war against China the United States can take the ships we need or demand them from our allies.

What we can’t demand is that foreign sailors man these ships and sail them into combat. For that we will need strong allies and highly competent and well-trained American sailors. 

Today’s American merchant sailors are well-trained and experienced but we are lacking skills in the latest technology and, as the number of U.S. flagged ships decreases, so do our numbers. According to Adm. Buzby the USMM is about 1800 mariners short of the numbers needed to do sustained sealift operation using today’s reserve assets (which are also insufficient).

If we can’t fully crew the ships we have available, how can we crew the ships we need? The answer is, I don’t know.

Are Mariners Prepared For War?

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”–Archilochos

During WWII the USMS invested enormous resources in training merchant mariners for war. Large training facilities were built across the nation and both naval and civilian instructors worked together to teach sailors how to survive the dangers of war. 

Not long ago USMM officers could enroll in basic classes on subjects like avoiding mines, joining a convoy, and secure communications. Then MARAD shut down the last school that offered these courses. Today a small percentage of U.S. Merchant Mariners receive basic military instruction as part of the Navy’s Strategic Sealift Officer program. This program however, lacks a cohesive structure, objective, and scope. And it is only open to those willing to join the Navy Reserves. 

Others that sail on ships contracted by the military take some basic classes including firearms and CBRD (Chemical Biological Radiological Defense) but the scope of these classes is limited to basic self defense.

Personally I attended four years of school at a merchant marine academy, sailed on ships for ten years, spent thousands of hours studying for U.S. Coast Guard Examinations, sat in hundreds of hours of post-graduate classroom instruction and demonstrated my knowledge and experience in  myriad of ways before earning a license to master the world’s largest ships.

Yet in all those years of study there are some questions I never learned the answers to:

How do I join a military convoy?

How do I share information with Naval Intelligence?

How do I contact a naval vessel on a secure line?

How do I navigate a minefield?

Will zig-zagging help me avoid modern submarines?

What do I secure for radio silence?

How do I darken ship to naval standards?

The answer to all these questions (and countless more) is, again, I don’t have a clue.

In recent months the U.S. Navy has been honest in telling mariners that, in the event of a major war with China or Russia, the U.S. Navy is going to be busy with combat operations and we can not expect naval escort. What they don’t tell us is that they also have no plans to train us to defend ourselves. 

Am I, as a captain in the USMM ready to sail my ship into contested waters? 

The answer is I am fully ready to sail my ship anywhere, even into conflicted waters, everywhere except into large-scale war. 

Will I Take Command Of A Ship During War?

“American needs to do its best for all our veteran families” –R. Lee Emery

I am convinced the nation will need the help of my fellow American ship masters but how many of us will join the war effort?

Based on historical evidence and the level of patriotism and will of today’s Merchant Marine most experts believe that, in times of war, a majority will answer the call. 

But is this true? During WWII President Roosevelt made a promise to all Merchant Mariners that they would receive full veteran status after the war. WWII mariners, however, did not receive any official veteran status for 40 years after the war and are still fighting for full veteran status today

Personally I can not answer for my fellow merchant mariners. I can only answer for myself. As an American I believe it’s my duty to serve my nation during a major crisis and I would absolutely sail into harm’s way. But why? The reason is I am a father and I want my children and grandkids to grow up in a free country and have the opportunity for a happy life. But that’s also the rub.

If war broke out tomorrow and I was killed or injured in the service of my nation who would take care of my family? Would my children be able to go to a Veterans Hospital if they got sick? Would they be eligible for any scholarships? Would they receive any financial compensation from the government?

Would they even be able to fly the gold star with a blue edge flag outside their house? The flag that represents a family member who died during military operations? Would my wife even be eligible to join veteran family support groups?

The answer to these questions is…I don’t know.

And so is the answer to the question of my willingness to captain a merchant ship into the next war… I don’t know.

A Message To Commandant Buzby

Commandant Buzby, many thanks for your tireless and continual effort over the last year to support the U.S. Merchant Marine. We American merchant mariners are truly grateful. Personally I would like to thank you for inviting me to Washington to review my criticism of MARAD’s efforts. Your efforts are making a difference and I thank you. 

That said, the next fight will not be about the number or condition of our ships or the strength of our enemy. We can not out build the new manufacturing nations. We only have one option to win the next war and that is by focusing on people.

To prepare this nation please prepare me and my fellow mariners. Let us train with the navy at no cost, ask the nation to subsidize not just ships but officer training, bring back the USMS, and let us know we are wanted by issuing DD214’s to all U.S. mariners who served in combat zones.

If the Navy continues to marginalize and ignore our needs then our nation will lose, but convince the military to help us train and make us feel like part of the team…and we will help the country win. 

Time is not on our side, we must do this now. 

A Message To Admiral Moran

To Admiral Moran, as our soon-to-be Chief of Naval Operations, do not let war be the reason we start working together. We can’t wait that long. Admiral Buzby and MARAD are working tirelessly to prepare the USMM for war but they do not have your budget, your influence, or your ability to mandate immediate change… and the civilian companies our Merchant Mariners work for today are just not going to prepare mariners for a full-scale conflict. Most don’t believe a full-scale conflict will ever take place. 

The ball is in your court. Please help us so that when you need our help we are ready. 

Captain John Konrad is the founder and CEO of gCaptain and author of the book Fire On The Horizon. John is a USCG licensed Master of Unlimited Tonnage, has sailed a variety of ships from ports around the world, and is a distinguished alumnus of SUNY Maritime College.

Featured Image: Atlantic Ocean (Oct. 17, 2005) — The Military Sealift Command (MSC) underway replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn (T-AO-198) underway in the Atlantic Ocean. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sinews of War

Fleet Admiral King – probably thinking about the challenge of getting from A to B.

I don’t know what the hell this “logistics” is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.

– Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King to a Staff Officer, 1942

Carting around beans and bullets has never much interested me until recently. Of course, the Military Sealift Command has been on my mind due to the recent engagement of a suspicious vessel by the USNS Rappahannock. I’ve also been reading more about the Falklands War after my conversation with Scott Cheney-Peters on TheRiskyShift.com‘s “Debrief” and recently found an out-of-print book from the 1960s titled Conflict and Defense: A General Theory with a lot of smart things to say about military might. Finally, Undersecretary of the Navy The Honorable Bob Work has been weighing in on forward basing of ships over at Information Dissemination. Though they seem unconnected, all of this has led me to the following conclusions:

  1. You can’t claim to be a Navalist without having an interest in logistics. When we talk about future fleet composition, we’re not spending enough time talking about how we will support our combat ships and how many/what types of replenishment and pre-positioning ships we need.
  2. If you’re looking for a single measure of national power, the size of a country’s merchant marine is a good place to start, but:
  3. The globalization of the shipping industry both affects this last measure and may make large conventional wars less likely.

The Falklands War is a clear example of what Scott calls “The Tyranny of Distance.” The further a state has to go to get to the fight, the less combat power they will be able to apply in that fight. Part of the reason Argentina decided to invade the Falklands in the first place was that they believed that they were so far away from Britain, whose military power (and some would argue, national power) was on the decline. Few believed the British could sustain military operations so far from home – and with good reason. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) could only muster 22 ships with around 120,000 tons combined displacement to sustain a naval task force, a brigade of Royal Marines, an army brigade, and other ground, air, and special operations forces.

The famous RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 converted for wartime service under “Operation Corporate.” Photo: Andy Shaw.

One of the reasons for Britain’s success was the rapid signing of the Requisition of Ships Order of 1982 and the launch of “Operation Corporate” – the rapid conversion of civilian ships to aid the RFA. Virtually overnight, Britain quintupled its replenishment and sealift tonnage. These ships were indispensable to the war effort, allowing the British to concentrate far more military strength in the Falklands theater than many outside observers anticipated. This is why I think a country’s merchant marine is a critical measure of national power – military forces rarely invest enough in logistics capabilities during peacetime. Once a crisis erupts, countries with robust merchant fleets can quickly convert them for wartime use. Great powers need to respond globally, and sometimes that will require surging logistics forces during a crisis.

The United States operates under the tyranny of distance every day. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become insensitive to our logistics forces – we rely on them so often. And we have such a professional and robust force in the Military Sealift Command that the merchant marine becomes an afterthought. But our merchant marine has shrunk drastically since the 1940s. It’s telling that the United States lost 733 merchant ships greater than 1,000 tons displacement in World War II – our current merchant marine stands at only 393 ships according to the CIA World Factbook. I’m not advocating for a return to a 6,000 ship merchant marine, but this historical perspective should spur us to ask the question: do we need more sealift capability in reserve? What kinds of policies might increase our merchant fleet? And comparatively, when we talk about China, we rarely note that it has the largest merchant marine of any great power at 2030 ships.

Going down the rabbit hole further, I find it interesting that our National Defense Reserve Fleet – the ships in “mothballs” – is shrinking significantly. According to a report published in May, the US Maritime Administration is planning to dispose of 34 of 142 ships, with the potential for more down the road. Most of the vessels being disposed of are some kind of bulk carrier or tanker.

Forward basing definitely mitigates some logistics challenges. According to Conflict and Defense by Kenneth Boulding, a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, forward bases can actually reverse the tyranny of distance – so powerful is their influence. Students of Mahan know this argument well. Forward basing is also the sensible posture to assume in times of austerity, allowing more operational use to be had from a smaller number of ships without completely burning out equipment or people. But we must consider the future of our logistics capability, particularly the reserves from which we might surge during a crisis.

Finally, a thought on globalization: with the rise of multinational shipping companies and the prevalence of flags of convenience, I think that conventional wars between great powers – particularly invasions across the seas – might be far less likely. In this sense, the decline of national merchant marines might offer some security advantages. Famed international relations theorist John Mearsheimer coined the term “the stopping power of water.” With countries less able to mobilize the logistics capability to transport large numbers of ground troops, great powers (like, perhaps, the United States and China) will be less able to invade one another.

What do you think: does the United States need more logistics forces? Should the United States seek to grow its merchant marine? How? What does China’s large merchant marine say about its national ambitions? This is a conversation worth having…

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.