Testing long-term US readiness posture is vital to US defense
Earlier this fall, the Defense Department’s U.S. Transportation Command launched a no-notice “turbo-activation,” a useful exercise intended to assess our capabilities to rapidly activate a short-term sealift. The 28-vessel exercise included the Military Sealift Command fleet and the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force. A turbo-activation tests our nation’s ability to quickly deploy both the ships and the manpower needed to transport armaments and supplies at the outset of a massive military movement. Vessels located on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts were successfully deployed in the first wide-scale test since 2003.
While the outcome of this exercise was seen as positive by some at DOD (a view not shared by all involved), we should not develop a false sense of security. The deeply concerning reality is that testing our ability to reliably transport and sustain our forces across long distances for a long period of time would not yield the same high marks.
Much has already been written about the dismal state of our dry cargo sealift forces, but the situation is even worse for fuel-carrying tankers. In reality, the U.S. Navy would run out of fuel in a matter of weeks in foreign contested waters, and — let’s face it — an aircraft carrier without access to fuel is an artificial reef in the making.
A program for defense sealift must ensure the availability of a proper mix of both wet and dry cargo ships, along with sufficient numbers of service-obligated mariners, if we are to have truly deployable, sufficient sealift support when needed. As our world changes and the maritime might of China and Russia grows, U.S. forces must be transported — and supported — at speed to defend the security interests of a nation increasingly at risk.
Conflict-necessitated sealifts last months, not days, and inevitably require calling Navy Reserve Strategic Sealift Officers (SSOs) to active duty. The SSO force is comprised of specially trained merchant marine officers, the great majority of whom are graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). Congress recognized the crucial role the merchant marine — the fourth arm of defense — plays in wartime when it created the USMMA 75 years ago, and — as with the four other Federal Service Academies — USMMA’s service-committed graduates fulfill a vital role in maintaining the security of the nation.
To ensure defense readiness, we must develop an exercise, perhaps in tandem with armed forces maneuvers, that simulates as realistically as possible a full, several weeks-long test of our obligated force — with both vessels and manpower called to duty. Such a meaningful test of readiness posture will bring much needed attention to the nature and scale of the shortfalls we face.
It is past time to recognize that if this problem is not solved and solved urgently, our adversaries will outlast us in conflict and eventually dictate the outcome. Sealift — the ability to sustain our forces over long distances at the speed of war — must be viewed as an indispensable element of a forward-leaning, lethal, combat force. Without attention paid now to this gap in our readiness, our shock and awe capabilities may be rendered moot.
Steve Carmel is Senior VP at Maersk Line Limited. Among other activities he is a current member of the Naval Studies Board, and past member of the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel and Marine Board.
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