Adapting to the Changing Operational Environment

Oct 1, 2018 | Defense Transportation Journal

By RADM Dee L. Mewbourne, USN Commander, Military Sealift Command

Continuing attacks on commercial vessels operating near the strait of Bab-Al-Mandeb and the Red Sea demonstrate that there are, and will remain, threats to mariners and ships that make portions of the maritime commons contested. In fact, there is broad consensus that today’s security environment is faster paced, more complex, and increasingly competitive.1

The recently published National Defense Strategy makes this very clear: “We are facing increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long standing rules-based international order—creating a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.”2 The strategy leaves no uncertainty as to our charge: “The Nation must field sufficient, capable forces to defeat enemies and achieve sustainable outcomes that protect the American people and our vital interests.”3

Sealift is integral to executing the requirements of the National Security and National Defense strategies. To give context, an example from World War II demonstrates where sealift was the decisive factor in the outcome of a larger national security imperative.

The Battle of the Atlantic pitted German U-boats against US and Allied merchant shipping. The Battle of the Atlantic was not what one usually thinks of as a “battle,” since it did not take place in one location over a limited period. It was a battle for control over the supply chain. Using escorted convoys, the Allies moved equipment and supplies that fed, fueled, and armed Great Britain and were essential to her survival. The success of the Allied effort enabled the build-up of troops and supplies that led to the defeat of the Germans on the continent.

Winston Churchill, the wartime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom noted in his memoirs, “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.”4

Looking at the environment today, [former] Commander of US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), General Darren McDew, said:

“When the United States goes to war, USTRANSCOM moves 90 percent of its cargo requirements with the strategic sealift fleet…The ability to deploy a decisive force is foundational to the National Defense Strategy, as the size and lethality of the force is of little consequence if we are unable to project power in the pursuit of national objectives.”5

Throughout its history, Military Sealift Command (MSC) has contributed to American security and prosperity by providing assured maritime logistics during peace and war. If it is to continue to meet this obligation, MSC must adapt to meet emerging security challenges in order to fulfill vital responsibilities that are fundamental to our nation’s sealift strategy. Our mission is clear: MSC exists to support the joint warfighter across the full spectrum of military operations, providing on-time logistics, strategic sealift, as well as specialized missions anywhere in the world, under any condition, 24/7, 365 days a year.6

Under our surge sealift portfolio, we operate 15 CONUS-based, large roll-on/roll-off vessels in a reduced operating status, located near ports of embarkation and able to load unit equipment within five days of force activation. These ships, along with the Maritime Prepositioning Forces located in Guam and Diego Garcia, quite literally will be the first to move out to carry forces forward should our nation go to war—the “911 force” for heavy sealift. To give perspective, just one of these ships can hold half of an Armored Brigade Combat Team; a single ship can carry the equivalent of about 260 C-17’s worth of cargo!7

For MSC, as the Naval Component Command to USTRANSCOM responsible for operating the sealift fleet, maintaining and sustaining these ships and providing for the training and readiness of their crews is a demanding challenge and one of our most important priorities. First and foremost, consider the age of the platforms involved. When we look to industry, we note the commercial standard for ship life is about 25 years based on an exponential rise in maintenance costs at that age.8 The 15 surge sealift ships in the MSC fleet range from 15 to 46 years old, with the majority being 30 years or older. As ships and machinery get older, they require more resources to maintain them at the same level of readiness. Repair parts for many pieces of equipment are no longer available, necessitating replacement of obsolete machinery.

In addition to aging platforms, this is also a fleet uniquely dependent on yesteryear’s technology. Of the 61 sealift ships that MSC and the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) support, 26 are steam ships, a propulsion method that the commercial shipping industry began to phase out due to the size, weight, efficiency and reliability advantages of diesel engines.9 Adding to this challenge is the ability to sustain the skilled mariner workforce required to operate and maintain steam propulsion plants. As the number of steam ships throughout the globe has dwindled in both commercial and military fleets, so too has the number of licensed steam engineers, with limited opportunities to gain practical experience, sustain their readiness, or to train their reliefs.

To address the challenges inherent to this critical component of our nation’s defense, MSC has implemented a robust effort to improve sealift capability and readiness. Over the past two years we have been instituting actions to adapt to the changing environment in which we operate. At MSC, we like to call it “Bending the Curve”—our comprehensive multi-year plan of action to gain and sustain competitive advantage and relevance. We are focused in four broad areas of improvement:

  • Holistic Readiness: Ensuring the modernization and readiness of our platforms;
  • Training Wholeness: Ensuring our mariners have the skills to mitigate emerging threats across all five dimensions;
  • Capability Alignment: Ensuring we remain aligned with the Fleet and Joint Forces; and
  • Experiential Learning: Ensuring that we are learning as fast as possible.

In the area of holistic readiness, we are making whole our maintenance and readiness accounts, executing inspection programs to quantitatively assess ship readiness, and developing detailed force generation models for each class of government-owned ships. The result of these efforts will ensure MSC ships are ready for tasking and can perform across the full spectrum of maritime operations.

Within the training wholeness line of effort, we are focused on mariner training, ensuring Department of Defense mariners have the skills to fight and survive in the new operating environment. To meet this need we have implemented basic and advanced operations courses that focus on operating ships in a contested environment. We are improving mariners’ tactical knowledge through academies, war games, and participation in integrated Fleet events, as well as tactical afloat training that includes skills such as multi-ship maneuvering, counter-detection tactics, and emissions control. Ultimately we must train and empower our mariners to operate in the new maritime, focusing on developing leaders of winning teams, teaching the skills needed to survive and prevail at sea, and unleashing a warfighting mindset that embraces adaptability and toughness.

Capability alignment includes our campaign to operationalize MSC and align priorities and actions with the Fleets, Joint and Naval doctrine, USTRANSCOM, the Joint Staff, and the Department of Defense. In addition to promoting Fleet Design and joint warfighting integration, we are focused on leading edge cyber knowledge and resilience across our enterprise. Specific areas we are addressing include: accelerated data throughput, creating a scalable afloat network, developing an embarkable maritime communications capability, producing resilient navigation systems, and providing a secure and collaborative environment to communicate with industry partners.

We are supporting our work in these areas through experiential learning with a focus on experimentation and learning fast. We are participating in wargames, Fleet experimentation and exercises, ensuring that operational logistics are accurately and robustly incorporated into problem sets and models.

Finally, we are reaching out to our partners in industry, the maritime unions, and maritime academies to collectively address and solve common problems. Areas ready for industry action and collaboration include developing an unassailable supply chain, building resilient and adaptive networks, fostering a culture focused on advancing capabilities, and growing a capacity for rapid expansion. Our partners expand our scope of operations by providing additional tools to accomplish the mission. Said another way, we cannot accomplish our mission without maintaining strategic relationships with organizations and partners that mutually strengthen one another.

At MSC we recognize the imperative to adapt to the exponential changes in the maritime environment and boldly pursue uncompromising effectiveness in mission execution. We are doing so by harnessing innovation, creatively partnering with stakeholders, and ensuring a high standard of material readiness for our sealift ships and realistic, rigorous training of our crews. We do so with a thoughtful and persistent approach to caring for our people, a watchful eye on efficient stewardship of the resources entrusted to us, and alignment with our nation’s strategic guidance. Providing assured sealift logistics to the warfighter demands nothing less.



1 US Navy, The Future Navy (White Paper), May 2017, p. 3.
2 Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, p. 1.
3 Ibid., 5.
4 Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Volume V, Closing the Ring (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951).
5 Testimony of Gen. Darren McDew, USAF, Commander, US Transportation Command, before HASC Readiness/Seapower & Projection Forces Joint Hearing, March 2, 2018.
6 US Navy, Military Sealift Command, Voyage Plan Mission Statement, March 29, 2018.
7 US Army, Notional Deployment Data, April 2016.
8 US Code Title 46, requires Maritime Security Program (MSP) vessels to be less than 25 years old to participate.
9 Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, “Marine Power Plants for the 1970s,” Technical and Research Bulletin 3-26, January 1974, sections 2.3.4 and 2.4.1.

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