WASHINGTON — With Russia’s reemergence as a menace in Europe, the U.S. Army has been laying the foundations to fight once again on the continent it defended through most of the 20th century. But if war were to break out tomorrow, the U.S. military could be hard-pressed to move the number of tanks, heavy guns and equipment needed to face off with Russian forces.

And even if the Army could get there in numbers, then the real problems would start: how would the U.S. sustain them?

The U.S. sealift capacity — the ships that would ultimately be used to transport Army equipment from the states to Europe or Asia — is orders of magnitude smaller than it was during World War II. Combine that with the fact that the commercial shipbuilding industry in the U.S. is all but gone, and the U.S. can’t launch the kind of massive buildup of logistics ships it undertook during wartime decades ago.

Among the ships the country has for sealift and logistics forces, the Government Accountability Office has found a steady increase in mission-limiting equipment failures, which raises questions about how many might actually be available if the balloon goes up.

The ships the U.S. counts among its ready stock available for a large-scale contingency are 46 ships in the Ready Reserve Force, 15 ships in the Military Sealift Command surge force, and roughly 60 U.S.-flagged commercial ships in the Maritime Security Program available to the military in a crisis,

The 46 Ready Reserve Force ships, overseen by the Maritime Administration, are old and rapidly approaching the end of their hull life, as are many of the senior engineers who are still qualified and able to work on the aging steam propulsion plants.

This is setting up a struggle to get more funding into sealift as the Defense Department realigns itself for the potential of largescale combat operations after 17 years focused on small wars.

Spotlight on logistics

The decline of U.S. surge capacity has been raising alarm bells in Washington as the National security structure comes to grips with facing dual threats from China and Russia, and has spurred efforts in Congress to try and get the Navy moving on a new class of logistics ship — also suggesting a look on the open market for used commercial ships to bridge the modernization gap.

But the list of issues the Ready Reserve Force faces in the meantime is ponderous. And solving them is going to mean the Navy, on the hook for the funding, will have to spend a lot of money on ships that largely stay in port during anything but national emergencies. This at a time that the Navy is trying to buy a new class of ballistic missile submarines, frigates and a new large surface combatant.

Shaking the dust off its long-range logistics plans has been a priority in the Army. A recent Navy report to Congress from March estimated that about 90 percent of all equipment used by the Army and Marine Corps in a major contingency would be transported by sea and the Army has been practicing moving large numbers of troops and equipment to Europe.

In 2017, the Army deployed two heavy Armored Brigade Combat Teams to Europe back-to-back, including their state-side heavy equipment, and is looking to move even larger groups in the future. But if the Army is to get in any large-scale fight in Europe, it has to start thinking big, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with consulting firm The Telemus Group.

“The American people far too often seem to believe that we could fly everything we needed over to Europe but that’s just not the case,” Hendrix said. “We’ve been practicing with Brigade Combat Teams but if we needed to respond to a large-scale contingency with Russia, you’d be looking at the need to move a corps — two or three divisions.”

Goddamned steam

Of the 46 ships in the ready reserve force, which combined with Military Sealift Command’s 15 roll-on/roll-off container ships makes up the U.S. surge fleet, 24 are steam operated. Steam is largely obsolete in the commercial world that the U.S. relies upon to keep its emergency stock of trained mariners employed and in seagoing careers. And the hulls themselves are rapidly approaching the end of their useful service life.

“The average age of this fleet is 43 years,” said the maritime administrator, retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, in a recent interview. “They are some old girls that have served well. They aren’t commercially viable anymore but they are militarily useful because of their configuration, deck strength, height of their hulls that can take large equipment that wouldn’t fit in commercial designs.”

Of the 46 ships in his reserve force, about 23 or 24 need urgent attention, Buzby said. The Navy has a plan that includes a mash-up of service-life extensions, new-build replacements (the most expensive option) and buying used ships from the commercial market that can measure up to the task. But a used ship could cost anywhere from $75 to $100 million, even before the needed retrofitting and modernization bill that would accompany such a purchase, he said. A Navy estimate found that some ships couple be purchased and repurposed for more like $30 million.

Related to the issues of recapitalization are a heap of personnel issues. A recent report to Congress from the Maritime Administration estimated that among active mariners the agency would have just barely enough personnel to man the reserve force up front, and if they needed to start rotating crews during sustained operations, the numbers quickly fall short.

The Maritime Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, estimates it has 11,768 qualified mariners with unlimited credentials available to crew the Ready Reserve Force, a number that just barely exceeds the needed total of 11,678 to operate both the reserve and commercial fleets at the same time.

But that comes with a big catch: this service is entirely voluntary.

“Maritime Workforce Working Group estimates that there are sufficient mariners working in the industry to activate the surge fleet if the entire pool of qualified United States citizen mariners identified by MWWG are available and willing to sail when required,” the report reads. “This assumption is of paramount importance given the voluntary nature of mariner service.”

Furthermore that number is just what it would take to activate the ships and operate them for a little while. If the nation needed to sustain a largescale effort, it would soon begin to falter.

“We are about 1,800 mariners short for any kind of long-term sustainment effort,” Buzby said. “We believe we have enough today to activate all the ships we would need to activate … But anything less than an all-of-nation effort … where everyone who went out to sea, stayed at sea, we start to run short of people as we rotate.”

And inside that pool of mariners, there is a growing issue forced on the Ready Reserve by its steam plants.

All junior engineers come out of training certified to work on steam plants, but the opportunities to actually work on steam are limited to non-existent in the commercial sector. That means most of the operational experience junior engineers get in their day jobs is with more modern diesel systems unless they are actually working for either Military Sealift Command or Ready Reserve Force, opportunities which are of course limited.

Some issues are being addressed by doubling up on engineers when the steam ships are operating to get the hours they need in to stay qualified, but the net result of the problem is that there are lots of junior steam plant engineers and a big group of greybeards, and few in between.

“Most of my senior steam engineers are in their 50s,” Buzby said. “There is a whole block of them who came up when there still was a lot of steam ships, but they’re all going to be retiring soon.”

Congress stepping in

It’s a problem that Congress and the military, with little fanfare, are starting to focus on.

In the 2018 and 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress freed up authorization for the Defense Department to buy up to seven commercial ships, built anywhere in the world, that could recapitalize the Ready Reserve Force.

The kicker, however, is that Congress wants the secretary of the Navy, prior to purchasing more than two of the new ships, to submit a plan for a new class of new-build sealift ships.

“In order to procure more than two such vessels, the secretary would need to certify that the U.S. Navy has initiated an acquisition strategy for the construction of no fewer than 10 new sealift vessels, with the lead ship anticipated to be delivered by not later than 2026,” according to the explanatory statement released by Congress.

The 2019 NDAA also requires the Navy to submit a business case analysis for getting the Ready Reserve recapitalized.

Ultimately if the U.S. is serious about great power competition, it has to get serious about its logistics fleet, said Hendrix.

“It is a growing strategic problem we are facing right now,” Hendrix said. “We don’t have the capacity for great power competition if we don’t have the enabling force — logistics trains and sealift — we need to sustain operations on that scale.”

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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