Is Sealift Ready for Great Power Competition?

Dec 10, 2019 | Beyond the Headlines

Is Sealift Ready for Great Power Competition?

By Sharon Lo, Managing Editor, DTJ & The Source

UTRANSCOM recently completed a no-notice turbo activation exercise. This consisted of rapidly activating a mix of Military Sealift Command and Maritime Administration Ready Reserve ships on the East, West, and Gulf Coasts. The exercise validated the readiness of selected ships and tested their ability to meet activation time standards and Department of Defense mission requirements.

So how’s our long game?

The exercise confirmed our ability to rapidly project sealift power in the short term. But are we ready to reliably transport and sustain forces over greater distances and a longer time frame? The answer is maybe not. In such a (likely) scenario, the US could fall short in accessing the fuel and manpower it needs. And that’s not all we have to consider.

We are going to need ships

The United States will conduct over a trillion dollars in trade with other nations this year, much of it by sea. However, virtually none of the ships engaged in that trade will be built in America. The US used to lead the global shipbuilding industry several decades back. Currently, it isn’t even second-rate when it comes to building container ships and tankers for international trade. The main reason is foreign government subsidies to shipbuilders in China, Japan, and South Korea—subsidies that Washington ceased providing to its own shipbuilders in 1981. The US shipbuilding industry would be gone completely today except for one thing: The Jones Act. 

As most of us know, The Jones Act is no stranger to controversy. And controversy is brewing again as new legislation seeks to restrict the use of Jones Act waivers by those in the oil and gas industry.

And we need the right ships…

 Growing military capabilities and escalating belligerence of China, Russia, and Iran are increasing the threats to support and supply ships and civilian cargo vessels. The Commandant of the US Marine Corps Gen. David H. Berger has said he might need these and other unconventional vessels to augment or replace traditional amphibious warships to transport and sustain expeditionary operations in heavily contested littoral waters.

Berger bluntly stated the need for a broader concept of expeditionary vessels in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance: “Our naval expeditionary forces must possess a variety of deployment options, including L-class and E-class ships, but also increasingly look to other available options such as unmanned platforms, stern landing vessels, other ocean-going connectors, and smaller more lethal and more risk-worthy platforms.”

In his guidance, Berger also suggests using “commercially available ships and craft that are smaller and less expensive” and “a wider array of smaller ‘black-bottom’ ships” that “might supplement the maritime preposition and amphibious fleets.”

 China thinks that’s a good idea too

China’s PLA Navy is testing a portable underway-replenishment system that can convert any cargo ship with the right deck configuration into a dry stores naval auxiliary. If successful, the development would give the PLA another way to utilize China’s 3,500-vessel merchant marine in time of war. 

According to the People’s Liberation Army News and Communication Center, the modular system leverages several technological advances to enhance its utility and portability, including all-electric drive, supercapacitor energy storage, and constant tension control. It is designed to be deployed and installed on civilian cargo vessels on short timeframes to transform them into UNREPS-capable auxiliaries, with “practical significance for realizing the dream of a strong military.”

 Speaking of ships (and China), the US is giving one away

Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced while visiting Vietnam that the United States would be providing the country’s coast guard with a surplus American ship. Vietnam is one of the region’s most vocal critics of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and has accused China of wading into Vietnamese-controlled waters. 

At a speech earlier that day, Esper had criticized China for using coercion and intimidation against smaller Asian nations as it continues to try asserting its influence and power across the region.

And China was making its presence felt again in the region this week. Israeli satellite imagery shows what appears to be an aerostat deployed above the Chinese outpost on Mischief Reef in the South China Sea.

The aerostat could be part of a broader surveillance network to keep an eye on the area as China seeks to enforce territorial claims its neighbors, and the US, reject.

Tying it all together

The Department of Defense’s enduring mission is to provide combat-credible military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of our nation. Turbo activation proved the US is ready to respond rapidly in the short term. But transportation and sustainment over a greater distance and for a longer time period may not prove so successful. And in the current era of Great Power Competition, that is something for which the US must prepare.

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