The Surface Force Projections Conference Meets Challenges Head On
The third annual—and second virtual—Surface Force Projection Conference (SFPC) took place last week. During these challenging times, NDTA has continued to build on its partnership with conference co-host Christopher Newport University’s Center for American Studies (CNU CAS), as well as with the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), the Maritime Administration (MARAD), and the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC). NDTA President & CEO VADM William “Andy” Brown, USN (Ret.) described the evolution of the meeting, saying that its development would continue in accordance with the needs of the collective government-industry partnership in mind.
“This gathering of professionals who are involved in all logistics facets of deploying our forces and ensuring the required national networks of capabilities are in place during peacetimes so that we can do it during times of crisis,” said Brown. “Movement of forces from fort to port to multiple locations in a contested environment is a challenging assignment that requires a synchronized process with visibility and speed.”
The SFPC seeks to find creative and innovative ways to improve deployment readiness, solve challenges and improve America’s ability and capability to respond and operate in a global, multi-domain, and contested environment. This fits with the purpose of the CAS, which Dr. Nathan Busch, Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Center, described as an academic program at CNU dedicated to fostering teaching and research on America’s founding principles, economic system and national security.
AAPA President and CEO Chris Connor shared a brief overview of the role America’s public Port Authorities serve in the US economy and defense. He also highlighted the investment needed to assure continued economic growth and readiness for military mobilization support.
“Our nation’s seaports deliver vital goods to consumers, facilitate the export of American-made goods, create jobs, and support local and national economic growth,” said Connor. “The total economic value generated by US coastal ports is $5.4 trillion annually, or roughly 26 percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product], and nearly 31 million Americans are employed in jobs generated as a result of port activity. Ports also play a crucial role in our national defense, highlighted by the DOD [Department of Defense] designation of 17 strategic seaports that comprise the National Port Readiness Network [NPRN].”
America’s ports are intermodal connectors that like roads and rail require both periodic maintenance and capital investment. Connor attributed much of the current freight congestion to decades of neglected investment in supply chain infrastructure and stated that the lack of investment also affects DOD force projection efforts.
The 17 ports that have been established as members of the NPRN have volunteered to serve in support of DOD force projection needs. This involves making space in their ports available on demand, maintaining docks and equipment in a state of readiness, and regularly conducting reviews and reporting on readiness. All of this is currently accomplished with no financial support from the federal government. While participation is a point of patriotic pride, Connor reported that it is an increasingly difficult challenge, with greater demand for port facilities and requirements to accommodate larger ships with greater loads and increased freight movements.
Kevin Tokarki, Associate Administrator for Strategic Sealift, MARAD, and Chair, NPRN Steering Group, underscored the importance of meetings like the SFPC, “Our nation’s ability to project military power across the globe necessarily relies on strong relationships with ready and resilient private sector enablers. Events like this conference help to strengthen those relationships, not only by giving us all a venue to share perspectives on force projection, but also to provide an opportunity to identify planning and logistics challenges now when we can address them before a crisis.”
Tokarski pointed out the relevance of the COVID-19 crisis to transportation and logistics including forcing providers to rapidly adapt in innovative ways to keep cargo moving, “the pandemic has been a huge test of the resilience of these crucial systems,” he said. “We rightfully spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sure our nation’s critical transportation infrastructure will stand up to future hybrid threats from our adversaries. Since last March, we’ve had a real-world test of our ability to do that and although it obviously can’t act with intention, COVID-19 as a pandemic has arguably held the world at risk—forcing major changes in behavior throughout global supply chains.”
This year’s SFPC theme was CONUS to the INDO-PACIFIC Region: Projecting Forces through Strategic Ports to Provide Combat Power. MG Heidi Hoyle, USA, Commanding General of SDDC, described the significance of this theme, “the Indo-Pacific region now, it is such a strategic of value to our nation and first of all, from a maritime industry, but then also from national defense perspective.”
Hoyle described the conference agenda of keynote speakers, panels, meetings, and breakout sessions, saying that she expected many actions to come from the proceedings. In addition, she described “gaps and seams” identified by the military that industry could help to close through its knowledge of precise port logistics and operations.
While the virtual event—and the requirements, needs, capabilities, policies trends issues, and innovations it highlighted—provided great value to the meeting stakeholders, plans are already underway to return to a live conference at CNU’s campus in May 2022.