Logistics and Transportation Industry Response to the Pandemic and Contested Environment

Jul 12, 2021 | DTJ Online, Logistics, Surface Force Projection 2021 Videos

By Sharon Lo Managing Editor, Defense Transportation Journal and The Source


NDTA and Christopher Newport University’s Center for American Studies (CNU CAS), in cooperation with the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), the Maritime Administration (MARAD), and the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), hosted the Surface Force Projection Conference (SFPC) May 18-20, 2021. The conference brought together US government and industry subject matter experts in logistics and transportation to examine the challenges associated with deployment and employment of forces and equipment in support of US national security objectives. A keynote address by Eric Mensing, President and CEO, American President Lines LLC, provided perspective from the US flag carrier industry.

Mensing described a rapidly changing global perspective driven by factors such as the world’s emergence from an unprecedented global pandemic that wreaked havoc on populations as the economy slowed, a ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal disrupting world trade, a massive and debilitating cyber event that shut down a pipeline, and port network congestion that has impacted the nation’s supply chain, among others. The commonality between these occurrences is they are all contingencies.

There has also been a significant change in the US maritime sector, including a realization that it is clearly not where it needs to be. Members of Congress and US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) Commander GEN Stephen Lyons have called for action to improve the situation. A clear mandate was given through President Biden in his Buy American Executive Order to support the nation’s maritime industry, the Jones Act, and the Maritime Security Program (MSP) carriers. This is positive news for the industry that Mensing believed would spur action. Though, the question of how the US becomes more resilient and self-sufficient, controlling more of its own commerce for the sake of its security, must be addressed.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored that the US cannot take its ability to get to overseas locations for granted. The pandemic was an unprecedented contingency that taught the industry many lessons. Mensing shared that they all realized early on the need to operate differently and keep US flag ships moving. Though, he shared, the true scope of the pandemic and its impact on vessel operations and crewing was not initially understood.

“The impact spared no players and had far-reaching impacts on the industry,” said Mensing. It was a perfect storm of longshoremen getting ill limiting poor productivity, unforeseen cargo surge moved by buying more goods than services ramping up volumes to record levels, we experienced inward network failures, equipment shortages, and we saw the immense backup at the ports.”

Confronting the COVID-19 challenge required a team effort. Industry worked closely with the unions and the seafarers to create safe environments onboard ships to keep cargo flowing. This required sacrifices such as ship crews needing to stay onboard and adhere to strict quarantine restrictions.

The industry also worked closely with the Department of Defense (DOD), led by USTRANSCOM Deputy Commander VADM Dee Mewbourne, USN, and MARAD led by Administrator RADM Mark Buzby, USN (Ret.), and their teams. Weekly coordination calls included the Coast Guard, state labor, and several other industries. And, carriers worked collaboratively, not as competitors, to share coded information.

The pandemic did reveal some cracks and opportunities for improvement in the system, like ensuring that US flag vessels are prioritized during contingencies to keep military supplies moving to overseas troops. In addition, though their work was critical, crews never received priority for the vaccines.

The Indo-Pacific region is a major source of business, critical to the commercial container business. It encompasses 38 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), nearly 40 percent of global exports, and 61 percent of the world population. Approximately $3.4 trillion of commerce transits the South China Sea each year.

“We have outstanding commercial relationships, and politics do not play,” said Mensing.  “In the case of the US flag, there is no advantage or disadvantage. We have easy access and understanding of the terrain. Commercial customers, even if they are US-based, do not support or seem to care about the US flag. The world is simply too competitive.”

In the event of a contested environment, the carrier’s role would be to provide needed sustainment support. The Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility (AOR) is vast and waterborne transit is usually the best way to move a significant amount of cargo. “We believe that this will be the need, but things are much different today than in the past. The last time we were in a contested environment was World War II,” Mensing explained.

US flag carriers have evolved from operating port to port to operating point-to-point. They take into account how to deploy their assets appropriately near overseas troops to provide the greatest benefit to their military and government partners. Carriers also bring to the table critical logistics relationships such as those with the key ports assets, access to infrastructure, and critical know-how.

In the event of a contingency, Mensing said the industry had been warned, “maritime logistics forces would likely suffer significant attrition, logistics facilities ashore would be targeted, and ships would be sunk. This situation would likely extend to not only maritime logistics assets supporting US Navy operations, but also the full range of government and strategic sealift shipping.”

He welcomed input on how the industry could best prepare for this, as well as the opportunity for regular exercises with the military. He also expressed concern over the industry’s ability to continue crewing ships with qualified Merchant Mariners in a contingency. When crews required rest, existing Mariner shortages are likely to make finding replacement crews all the more difficult.

Mr. Mensing expressed the industry’s desire to grow and support DOD with logistics solutions. As an example, he suggested DOD could consider moving benign cargo on commercial ships in the Pacific in order to have it available on day one of a contingency.

USTRANSCOM has identified a shortage of roll-on roll-off ships—there are only 50 ships, 33 of which are aging out, while the need is for 91 ships. Mensing sees this as a significant opportunity to develop a multi-mission support vessel customized for DOD.

This could be achieved by modifying aging ships in US shipyards to meet DOD’s specific needs. These are ships that are no longer commercially viable and could be modified at platforms, prices, and done at wet bursts at significantly lower cost—perhaps one-tenth of a new build. Features could include roll-on roll-off, ammo, hospitals onboard, heavy lift, containers, self-sustaining, with gantry cranes, fuel carriage, and troop carriage, among other possibilities. Former MSP ships have the potential to be used in this way.

“This is a great opportunity,” said Mensing. “We could buy suitable used ships and mission tailor them in US shipyards. We could include built-in defense systems self-contained to fill the gap in existing capabilities. They could be used for pre-positioned vessels and then as regional connectors in the RRF. We could pre-po[sition] them with equipment at strategic locations to facilitate dispersed ops. [To] use this to refresh the RRF we think is a valid idea.”

“It could also help to close the 200 square foot gap identified by USTRANSCOM for rolling stock. Develop and exercise rapid transload between us and MSC [Military Sealift Command] ships for threat-based options, and this could be a turnkey operation where MSP carriers could deliver a finished product and then manage it to the end of its life,” he continued. “Let’s reimagine our reposition force and how we acquire and manage those ships. I think this is modernizing our relationship.”

“We weathered COVID and learned valuable lessons,” Mensing said in closing. “The partnership is strong and both sides are fortunate for this. DOD is working with MSP partners who have incredible resources and knowledge to support the nation—like APL and others did in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, we are lucky to be part of this effort and plan, and we appreciate the business we receive.”

“We are an important part of TRANSCOM’s ability—we know that and we accept it, but we are concerned that the rest of the maritime program is struggling. We are merchant mariners and merchant carriers, not warfighters,” he stated. “We will need help in potentially contested waters to provide the needed sustainment. We will almost surely volunteer well before activation, so let’s grow the US fleet and grow it now, driven by cargo growth. Potentially through mandated commercial cargo movement or with better cargo preference enforcement of what is already the law, this will solve the mariner issue.” 

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