WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command couldn’t have been any clearer when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee in March: The U.S. absolutely must recapitalize its sealift fleet if its going to be able to support a war in the theater.

“Clearly recapitalization of our sealift system is going to be critically important as its aging out and really has propulsion plants that [are] expiring in capability and our ability to maintain them,” Adm. Phil Davidson said. “It’s risk to our troops and all of our people that are forward in the region if there is any delay in our ability to deliver the logistics in accordance with the [operation] plans.”

America’s sealift fleet is responsible for providing the military with transportation across oceans, but despite seemingly universal acknowledgement that the fleet is in trouble, the current recapitalization plan significantly lags behind what the military needs to avoid a collapse in capacity, projected to start in 2024 if the current situation holds.

Though senior military leaders are aware of the shortfall, it’s unclear how the U.S. plans to stop a capacity collapse among the ships needed to transport up to 90 percent of the Army’s and Marine Corps’ equipment for a major conflict.

A broad report on U.S. maritime logistics from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments released earlier this year found that even with plans to perform service-life extensions on many of the 46 Ready Reserve Force ships that represent a major portion of the U.S. military’s total sealift capacity, more than half the ships will be too old to be useful within 15 years.

“The National Fleet faces grave challenges that will likely exacerbate current gaps and hinder [the Defense Department’s] ability to meet sealift requirements,” the report found. “The Government sealift fleet, even with service-life extension funding for 22 ships, all 11 special capability ships and 30 of 65 roll-on/roll-off vessels could age out within the next 15 years.”

Tim Walton, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank and one of the report’s authors, said in a phone call that despite a growing recognition of the importance of a robust sealift fleet, senior leaders haven’t come up with much in the way of a fix.

A line of U.S. Army Humvees waits on a dock at the Port of Savannah, Ga., in 2003. The USNS Mendonca was being loaded with military hardware bound for the Arabian Gulf. (Stephen Morton/Getty Images)
A line of U.S. Army Humvees waits on a dock at the Port of Savannah, Ga., in 2003. The USNS Mendonca was being loaded with military hardware bound for the Arabian Gulf. (Stephen Morton/Getty Images)

“I do think that we’ve yet to get to the point where concrete, actionable initiatives to address gaps and propose new approaches to meeting logistics and war-fighting demands have been pursued,” Walton said. “There is a recognition, but we need to move out now.”

The most pressing issue is the aging steam engine plants that are hard to maintain and difficult to man, as civilian mariners needed to man the ships in the event of a crisis work almost exclusively on more modern, gas-powered systems in the commercial sector. Furthermore, the parts needed for many of the ships are not necessarily commercially available.

The Navy, in a bid to stem the tide of the eroding sealift capacity issues, appropriated funds to pay for service-life extensions. But Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby, a retired rear admiral, testified that emergency repairs are eating the funds available for modernization.

“We are being given money by the Navy to finance some of those service-life extensions; however, are a lot of that money we are having to put toward [fixing emergency deficiencies] that you’re seeing on the ships right now,” Buzby told lawmakers. “We are having to — the pace of repair is outpacing the pace of service-life extension.

Many of the issues causing critical deficiencies with the Ready Reserve Force boil down to rotting steel in old ships, Buzby told lawmakers, because there is no point in modernizing a ship that’s falling apart.

In the same testimony, U.S. Transportation Command head Gen. Steve Lyons told lawmakers that the Navy needed to accelerate the plan to buy used ships. The current 30-year shipbuilding plan tells of a naval force buying one used ship in 2021 and another in 2022, and then another two in 2026. Major acquisitions don’t really start until the late 2020s and the 2030s, with the service planning to buy between four and six ships per year between 2028 and 2036.

The first new sealift ship, which will likely be used as a maritime pre-positioning ship, is slated for 2025. But, Lyons said, the Navy is unsure how it will pay for the vessel.

“We’ve got to really work through the issues because we’ve got some fundamental issues financially to figure out: how they’re going to pay the bill,” he said.

‘Treading water’

Seeing the financial writing on the wall, both Buzby and Lyons have pushed for accelerating the program of buying used ships.

But that approach only gets you so far, said Bryan Clark, an analyst at the CSBA think tank and a former senior aide to retired Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.

“All 46 ships in the Ready Reserve Force are past their useful service life,” Clark said. “They have to replace all of them, and it’s going to take 20 years, and by the time they get to the end, the ones they started with will be at the end of their service lives.

“They’re buying these used ships that only have 20 years left in them, so the solution they have is not one that is designed to address the real problem. This is just a gap-filling, threading water exercise where they are going to replace some of the oldest, worst ships with these used ships but never really address the gaps in sealift and tanker capacity. And the solution is going to take so long that they are going to have to turn around and start again when they are done.”

In a presentation in August at CSBA, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer acknowledged that the logistics issue has been underfunded but noted that it has his utmost attention.

“This is an absolute critical issue for the United States naval enterprise,” Spencer said. “No, we have not funded this correctly because it’s portfolio management: I have to fund on a priority basis. This is a really hard balance, and it is being done painfully right now, but we have to get after it.”

Clark agreed that the issue was being given priority inside the Navy, but added that any progress is likely to be slow.

“We’re in that phase where they recognize the problem, and that’s the first step, right?” Clark said. “Then the second step is [to] analyze the problem to figure out a solution. So even though there have been lots of studies done already, the Navy is doing a bunch more studies and war gaming to figure out what exactly the logistics gaps are and what is the right solution for them.”