U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman OpEd on a ready Reserve Force

(dailypress) While news cycles and memes have recently focused on the future Space Force, I believe we need to first focus on another, already existing force: the Ready Reserve Force (RRF).

The RRF functions as the nation’s emergency seafaring logistics arm, ready at a moment’s notice to support rapid worldwide deployment of U.S. military forces, namely, the Army and the Marine Corps. Until recently, for one reason or another — budget cuts, low prioritization, or finger pointing between the Services — the 46 ships of the RRF have atrophied with little resources allocated toward refurbishment and, worse, little thought given toward replacement. At an average age of 43 years old per ship, these critical resources and their mariners needed Congress to step up by providing a plan. We did.

The RRF began in 1976 as part of the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) to transport Army and Marine Corps unit equipment, combat support equipment, and initial resupply during the critical surge period before commercial ships can be organized. The merchant mariners who operate and maintain these ships today carry on the great tradition of their predecessors. At the end of World War II, Fleet Admiral Ernest King reflected on the past four years at war when he wrote, “The war has been variously termed a war of production and a war of machines. Whatever else it is, so far as the United States is concerned, it is a war of logistics.”

The ships and merchant mariners that resupplied the American warfighters across the Pacific and the Atlantic were an integral part of the fight and victory while suffering losses just like their uniformed brethren.

This brief lesson from history reminds us of a critical point: Force-on-force lethal engagements, like those of World War II, are only as effective as their ability to be resupplied by a survivable and persistent logistics network. Unfortunately, in its current state, the RRF cannot be confidently relied upon in the upcoming decades.

Today, while MARAD works hard to maintain the RRF ready, the fleet ages faster than the ships can be replaced and costs skyrocket. The RRF operates most of the few remaining steam-powered propulsion ships in the world. Newer ships have abandoned steam technology in favor of cheaper and more reliable propulsion alternatives.

Further, the RRF’s capacity problem is a symptom of larger trends that have reduced America’s relative role in global commercial shipping over the decades. Those trends have also reduced the number of U.S.-flagged ships and U.S. civilian mariners that can be called upon to move military supplies and military personnel when DoD’s Transportation Command determines the Navy’s organic sealift forces and commercial assets aren’t sufficient.

These shortfalls can have devastating operational impacts if ignored. This year I asked the Army about the RRF’s current condition and how it would affect future deployments. Part of the sobering answer indicated, “Without proactive recapitalization of the Organic Surge Sealift Fleet, the Army will face unacceptable risk in force projection capability beginning in 2024. And by 2034, 70% of the organic fleet will be over 60 years old — well past its economic useful life; further degrading the Army’s ability to deploy forces.”

In response, this year’s National Defense Authorization Act takes strong steps toward recapitalizing the RRF. First, the bill supports American shipyards by authorizing the design and construction of ten new RRF ships. Second, the bill allows for efficient procurement of seven already constructed ships, each likely between 10-15 years of age, so the RRF can receive immediate reinforcement at a cost-effective rate. These two steps are by far the largest taken in many years to support the RRF and its mariners and they consider the priorities of the military, the shipbuilding workforce, and the American taxpayer.

I remain committed to ensuring that all facets of the United States military are properly funded and maintained so that our men and women in uniform, and those who support them, can be ready when the nation asks. The RRF will continue to be a vital resource for transporting equipment to any future conflict and will be relied upon to do so effectively and in a timely manner.

We in Congress should hold ourselves to the same high standard with funding one of the steadiest forces this nation has known: the Ready Reserve Force.

Wittman is the U.S. Representative for Virginia’s 1st Congressional District where he sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman OpEd on a ready Reserve Force