Lose the Merchant Marine, lose the war

Lose the Merchant Marine, lose the war
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The portents are grim for U.S. warmaking capacity in what the Trump Pentagon terms a “return to great-power competition,” an age when America could grapple with antagonists comparable to it in fighting power. The U.S. armed forces need to up their game after decades of dominating outmatched opponents, and in many respects they are doing so. Glamour platforms such as stealth fighters and major surface combatant ships are flourishing under newly generous defense budgets. Meanwhile, though, more mundane capabilities that are just as crucial to success in “near-peer” tests of arms languish.

Case in point: logistics. An old military joke holds that amateurs talk tactics while professionals talk logistics. There’s truth to this quip, as with all good quips. Just as only a fool embarks on a long road trip without making arrangements to resupply with fuel, food and other essentials, so an army, air force, or navy stands little chance of overcoming its foes without regular deliveries of food, fuel, ammunition, spare parts, you name it. And an expeditionary force needs these deliveries in bulk. If a local defender prevents U.S. supplies from reaching the theater of conflict, U.S. forces wither on the vine. They go inert or withdraw. The defender prevails by default.

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Jokesters would nod knowingly at recent news about U.S. maritime strategy. They might even wisecrack that amateur hour is in full swing. Nowadays the U.S. Navy’s syllogism for logistical support to expeditionary forces waging war in Europe or Asia seems to run something like this: the U.S. logistics force has shrunk, and it faces far greater threats than ever before; therefore we will not protect that force while it does its work.

Let’s break down the logic. Proposition No. 1: Decades of neglect have depleted the U.S. civilian fleet of unarmed transports, freighters and tankers. This is the fleet on which the U.S. armed forces depend to carry manpower, armaments and stores to embattled zones across the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian oceans. It appears the U.S. armed forces can count on about 231 logistics ships of varying tonnages and purposes to haul cargo or troops to faraway theaters. The inventory is scattered among the U.S. Military Sealift Command and the Department of Transportation’s Ready Reserve Force and Maritime Security Program.

Proposition No. 2: Deadly high-seas predators — chiefly nuclear-powered submarines bristling with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes — will obstruct the civilian fleet’s passage to Eurasian theaters. It could prove far harder for the merchant marine to ferry troops and materiel to Europe or Asia than it was for the fleet’s forebears during World Wars I and II. And it was hard indeed back then. In both wars, hostile submarines and surface raiders turned out in force to cut the sea lanes connecting North America with foreign battlegrounds.

The logic propelling enemy strategy was impeccable: U.S. soldiers, marines and aviators can’t wage war, let alone triumph, if they can’t reach scenes of combat, or if they manage to arrive on scene but have too little ammunition or too few stores to keep up the fight long enough to win. In short, foreign foes can hope to defeat the United States without even engaging main U.S. battle forces. Sinking freighters — among the most unsexy implements in any national arsenal — could debilitate, cripple or defeat even an overpowering U.S. fighting force.

The logic remains impeccable. A fleet comprising 231 ships may sound like a lot. But bear in mind that Axis submarines — rudimentary boats by today’s high-tech standards — sank or damaged nearly 1,200 American merchantmen during World War II. That figure includes over 500 during the critical opening year of 1942 alone. And that was when Allied navies were straining with all their might to keep the sea lanes open for friendly merchant shipping. If Russian or Chinese raiders even approached the Axis total, they could grant Russian or Chinese land and air forces months to accomplish their goals on Eurasian battlefields. U.S. forces might arrive too late to make a difference.

But, proposition No. 3: The U.S. Navy boasts too few light surface combatants to furnish escorts for the civilian fleet. It is constructing a fleet of 35 littoral combat ships, vessels meant to do battle near shore. These warships are suboptimal, at best, for fending off missile or torpedo attack on the high seas. The navy leadership intends to assemble a fleet of 20 guided-missile frigates better suited for convoy duty. But the leadership has yet to select a design for the frigate. It will be years before the new ship class joins the U.S. Navy — and it’s doubtful whether 20 hulls will suffice to meet the demand even after the new contingent takes to the sea.

Which leads to proposition No. 4: Because the U.S. Navy fleet is so lean in numbers, naval commanders will provide few, if any, escort ships to defend cargo vessels bearing war materiel across the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian oceans. Indeed, the chiefs of the U.S. Maritime Administration and Military Sealift Command, who would oversee the resupply effort, report being told, “You’re on your own” when the balloon goes up. Merchantmen will shut down telltale electromagnetic emissions that betray their positions to hostile navies, ring up top speed, and hope for the best.

So the syllogism amounts to deciding to confront an intensely forbidding environment with inadequate naval resources and hoping for the best. Another old joke pertains — this one from the mathematical world. A graduate student fills the chalkboard to his left with equations and comes out with a seemingly satisfactory outcome to his right. Between the calculations and the end result, though, the student scrawls: “Then a Miracle Occurs.” Case proven!

Except the professor admonishes his intrepid student to show his work in Step Two. The administration, Congress, and the American electorate need to play the part of the math professor — insisting that the sea service show its logistics work in Step Two. The fate of future U.S. foreign-policy enterprises could depend on it.

James Holmes is J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of “Red Star over the Pacific,” which has been described as the seminal work on Chinese maritime strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.