WASHINGTON — In the event of a major war with China or Russia, the U.S. Navy, almost half the size it was during the height of the Cold War, is going to be busy with combat operations. It may be too busy, in fact, to always escort the massive sealift effort it would take to transport what the Navy estimates will be roughly 90 percent of the Marine Corps and Army gear the force would need to sustain a major conflict.

That’s the message Mark Buzby, the retired rear admiral who now leads the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, has gotten from the Navy, and it’s one that has instilled a sense of urgency around a major cultural shift inside the force of civilian mariners that would be needed to support a large war effort.

“The Navy has been candid enough with Military Sealift Command and me that they will probably not have enough ships to escort us. It’s: ‘You’re on your own; go fast, stay quiet,’” Buzby told Defense News in an interview earlier this year.

Along with Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne at Military Sealift Command, who would get operational control of the whole surge force in a crisis, Buzby has been working to educate mariners on things that might seem basic to experienced Navy personnel but are new to many civilian mariners.

Losing ships and qualified mariners would rapidly put enormous pressure on U.S. logistics trains if the nation had to support a major war effort overseas. With far fewer qualified and trained mariners than existed during World War II, combined with an all-but-extinct commercial shipbuilding sector in the United States, sealift would rapidly become a massive strategic liability if Russia or China were able to begin sinking ships in numbers as Germany did during both World Wars.

Today, the Maritime Administration estimates that to operate both the surge sealift ships — the 46 ships in the Ready Reserve Force and the 15 ships in the MSC surge force — and the roughly 60 U.S.-flagged commercial ships in the Maritime Security Program available to the military in a crisis, the pool of fully qualified mariners is just barely enough.

They need 11,678 mariners to man the shops, and the pool of available, active mariners is 11,768. That means in a crisis every one of them would need to show up for the surge, according to a recent MARAD report to Congress. By contrast the U.S. had about 55,000 active mariners in the years prior to World War II, with that number swelling to more than 200,000 at the height of the war, according to most sources.

That means that significant losses among the available pool of mariners would likely dissuade some from volunteering (bad) and would mean the loss of mariners with critical skills needed to operate the fleet for months or even years in a major contingency (worse). And even without losses, MARAD estimates the country is about 1,800 mariners short if any kind of rotational presence is needed. (To read more on this, click the link below.)

Electronic warfare

To try and offset these daunting challenges, MSC and the Maritime Administration are getting their mariners to think more like sailors when it comes to digital emissions. U.S. Navy ships have for decades had to be conscious of electronic sniffing equipment that can identify U.S. warships by the specific electronic emission made by a big fire-control radar or military communications gear.

Often U.S. ships will turn off all systems except a small commercial navigation radar to appear to be, electronically, just a commercial vessel, or even go dark all together. That kind of electronic trickery is going to be vital to preserving the sealift fleet if it has to operate with Russian or Chinese military on the prowl in the Atlantic of Pacific theaters, Buzby said.

“Adm. Mewbourn at Military Sealift Command and I have talked a lot about this and we have been trying to get the word out to people that we are going to have to do things differently,” Buzby said.

“Turn your navigation lights off, turn your [Automatic Identification System] off, turn your radars off, tell your crews not to use their cell phones — all those [Emissions Condition] things that we in the Navy are familiar with that are completely foreign to a merchant mariner and are seen as an imposition.

“But it harkens back to some of the hard lessons we learned in World War II where in 1942 the Germans were sinking us left and right,” he noted.

As MARAD and MSC has dug into the issue, they’ve been amazed by vulnerabilities that have arisen, Buzby said.

“Even some of the equipment that’s on ships now automatically transmits data,” he said. "We put new cargo-control consoles on our Kaiser-class oilers at MSC, and one of the things we discovered soon after was that those things are talking constantly.

“When we thought we were setting EMCON on the ship, these consoles were just merrily sending signals out and we had no idea that they were doing that. Diagnostic functions, those kinds of things. So we had to figure out how to turn that off. And its [much more prevalent] on our commercial ships.”

Military Sealift Command is focusing more on operating inside contested waters, said Tom Van Leunen, the command’s spokesman.

Navy Maritime Prepositioning Force ship Jack Lummus during a Group Sail off the coast of Guam, Oct. 4, 2017. The U.S. has been increasingly focusing on how to move logsitcs to and from large theaters such as the Asia-Pacific and Europe. (MCC Joan Jennings/U.S. Navy)
Navy Maritime Prepositioning Force ship Jack Lummus during a Group Sail off the coast of Guam, Oct. 4, 2017. The U.S. has been increasingly focusing on how to move logsitcs to and from large theaters such as the Asia-Pacific and Europe. (MCC Joan Jennings/U.S. Navy)

“We are operationalizing the force, that’s been Adm. Mewborne’s focus since he got here. We’re focused on preparing mariners for the more complex operational environment,” Van Leunen said.

As part of those efforts, the command has developed a basic and advanced operations course for its mariners and has been participating in more fleet exercises, he said.

Mewborne’s efforts on “mariner resiliency” have been setting the right tone, Buzby said. The effort focuses on containing electronic emissions, becoming physically fit to be able to combat damage over long periods and a sobering reminder at the end, he added.

“The last bullet point on one of the slides is ‘Learn how to swim,’” he said. “It’s to that point. There’s not going to be a bunch of destroyers around us as we take those ships over there. We’re going to be hitting the sea buoy, cranking it up and going hell-bent for leather, hoping to stay undetected.”

4th Battle of the Atlantic

The lessons from World War II are on the minds of many in the U.S. military’s high command when it comes to logistics.

The head of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Adm. James Foggo, has already declared the renewed competition with Russia “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic,” referring to the standoff with Germany in the first and second World Wars, and the standoff with Russia during the Cold War.

But with the expansion of NATO to former Soviet satellite states, the Battle of the Atlantic will sprawl from the Eastern Seaboard all the way to the Baltic and Black seas, areas that Russia has fortified with anti-access, area denial weapons and other capabilities in recent years.

In an Oct. 5 presentation at the Atlantic Council, Foggo pulled up an image of the immense landing and sustainment force on the beaches of northern France in 1945 to demonstrate what was made possible by containing German submarine activity in the Atlantic.

“Operation Overlord. Look at all that stuff,” he said, pointing at the picture. "That would not have happened if we had not won the Second Battle of the Atlantic. That battle raged during the first few years of the war and the Germans almost brought us to our knees using the Wolf Pack tactics.”

To that point, Foggo said that focusing on logistics is a vital part of the upcoming NATO exercise Trident Juncture, happening in and around Norway in October and November.

“We have 45,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines; over 60 ships; 120 aircraft, and 10,000 vehicles,” Foggo said. "So we are really testing our response to an Article 5, our ability to move rapidly ... and even more importantly, we are testing our ability to conduct operations in the ‘Sixth Domain’ of warfare and that is logistics, which is so important.

“When you have 45,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and all of their kit, you’ve got to get it there. So that’s several lifts of aircraft, several [roll-on/roll-off] or sealift ships that have to get in, you have to put the vehicles on the ground.”

But while the alliance continues to scrape the rust off its large-scale logistics trains, the question of whether the mariners will show up to man the lift vessels is an open one, and one that Buzby thinks about from his office at the MARAD.

“We are going into a contested environment, so we are going to have attrition to deal with, in both ships and the people who sail on them,” Buzby said. "Who knows, that might dissuade some people.

“The tradition of the Merchant Marine is we go to sea no matter what, damn the torpedoes. Most of us believe that our people will not be dissuaded. But until they walk up the gangway, you never know.”