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LANSDALE, Pa. – Good Afternoon, Drifters

I trust everyone had a lovely holiday, or are continuing to enjoy their holiday, depending on your faith tradition.

So, this has certainly been an interesting Christmas for Navy news. We’ll get to it more in The Hotwash but, long story short, a December 16 memo from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget leaked late last week, first to Bloomberg, then Breaking Defense and then I managed to wrangle it.

The note essentially was feedback from OMB on the budget DoD sent over and it outlined a strategy that shrinks the Navy from today’s 293 ships to 287 ships, but it accomplishes it through some draconian cuts to destroyer construction, and accelerating the decommissioning of four cruisers, three dock landing ships and the first four littoral combat ships.

[Aside: The Navy’s been kicking the LCS idea around for a while, I’ve been hearing it for a few years now but this is the first time I’ve seen it written down. We’ll maybe talk about that another time.]

But the one that struck me as rather sadly predictable was another setback to recapitalizing the sealift fleet. The memo essentially tells the Navy to cancel CHAMP and figure out another way that’s more cost-effective. That’s not to say I think the Navy needs to pursue CHAMP, $1.3 billion for a submarine tender is a lot of money and perhaps OMB is right that it’s impractical. What’s sad is this looks like just another budget cycle wasted while the problem festers.

And that brings me to our very special edition of today’s Drift.

One of the smartest people in the whole country on the topic of Sealift is my friend Sal Mercogliano, a merchant mariner and Associate Prof of History, Campbell University. The guy knows a whole hell of a lot about logistics and about Sealift in general. And he’s got some good ideas for how the Navy can get its program back on track with the nation’s logistics.

So, take it away, Sal, and let’s Drift!


Sealift solutions are elusive…but not impossible

By: Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

David Larter has done yeoman work in highlighting the issues facing the nation’s aging sealift fleet – those ships held in reserve by the Maritime Administration and the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Numerous reports have demonstrated the ship’s age (the average is 44 years) and their condition (back in March 2019, 13 of the 61 were not mission capable) could impose severe restrictions on the ability of the military to transport military forces overseas. 

That same month, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations released its Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels. The last appendix in that report included a statement, “Recapitalization of the auxiliary and sealift fleet in support of DMO (Distributed Maritime Operations) has become a top priority.” It also identifies the underlying issue, “the commercial industry supporting our auxiliaries and sea-lift has atrophied due to the combined effect of increased foreign competition and U.S. legislation/policy.” 

The plan proposed by the Navy is to develop a Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform (CHAMPs) for five missions: sealift, aviation logistics support, hospital, repair tender, and command and control. The replacement for the 15 MSC and 46 Ready Reserve Force (RRF) sealift ships envisions two paths. The first involves the purchase of commercial ships, starting in Fiscal Year 2021, with a total buy of twenty-six ships through 2037. The new construction of sealift ships will begin in FY 2025, with the last of eighteen authorized in 2036. The aim is to maintain a surge sealift force comparable to the 61 ships today. 

This method has worked in the past. Following the Persian Gulf War, the Mobility Requirements Study identified the need for 10 million square feet of cargo space. It was decided to implement two programs. The first purchased fourteen additional ro/ros for the RRF, increasing the fleet to thirty-one. The second acquired twenty Large Medium-Speed Ro/Ros (LMSRs). The LMSR program alone cost the nation $6 billion. It appears as the Navy is recommending a repeat of the programs of the 1990s. While the past can provide some solutions to the nation’s sealift situation, this example may not be the best resolution. 

An idea worthy of consideration is the Maritime Security Program. Initially consisting of 47 ships, it today possesses 60 vessels in the U.S. merchant marine. MSP ships make up a third of commercial ships over 1,000 gross tons. For $5 million per ship/year, the nation has access to vessels on the world oceans. The ships are operated by commercial companies – APL, Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, ARC, Liberty Marine, US Ocean, and Seacor. They employ mariners that could be drawn upon to crew up reserve ships and they maintain an American presence on key trade routes, to supply military forces overseas. 

At $300 million a year, these ships provide over 3 million square feet of ro/ro capacity, 335,000 square feet of heavy lift, over 100,000 container slots, and two-thirds of a million barrels of petroleum. In comparison, the LMSRs provide 5 million square feet. Twenty years of the 60-ship MSP costs the government roughly the same as the procurement of twenty LMSRs and raises the question, would an expansion of the MSP be a better alternative to a new recapitalization of the sealift fleet? Yes and no.

No, because the US will still need a core fleet of surge ships. Currently the fleet is based along the US coast in a four-day reduced operating status. Ships in the MSP would not be immediately available to load equipment and therefore some surge vessels are still necessary. 

Yes, the expansion of the MSP can be accomplished by amending existing legislation and authorizing additional ships and funding. Doubling the MSP from 60 to 120 ships has the advantage of providing more mariners, generating work for shipping companies, enticing Americans to move goods via American ships, and place more work into domestic shipyards. 

There are many other sealift possibilities that exist. Concept such as creating an active Ready Reserve Force, where ships are leased to companies to be used in the coastal trade is currently being done with one of the former Hawaii Superferrys. The conversion of NASSCO’s Alaska-class tanker design into Expeditionary Support Bases and Docks is a prime example of military/commercial interoperability. Another such opportunity is the new class of training ships for the maritime academies. The National Security Multi-Mission Vessels (NSMV) design can be the basis for new hospital, aviation logistic support, repair, and command vessels. 

It appears that the CHAMP program and the Navy’s Auxiliary and Sealift Vessel Plan have as its objective to maintain the status quo. For these reasons, the solution to the sealift issue appears elusive. What is required is the military and merchant marine to work together to solve this dilemma. ▀

The Hotwash

The Drift would like to thank Dr. Mercogliano for the great ideas!

So, let’s go back through the memo. I have no doubt, especially give OMB’s reaction to the budget, that there will be some significant changes to the shipbuilding plan when we see the final budget. The Gold Watch strategy is likely in play with this memo: that is proposing cuts to programs so valuable – “gold watches” – you know Congress would not allow them to be cut. It punts the responsibility to lawmakers to come up with the cash. But lets just imagine that some of these come to pass.

First four LCS decommissioned, read that here:

US Navy proposes decommissioning first 4 LCS more than a decade early

Of all the cuts, this is the one I think will be most likely to stick. They’re first-of-class vessels that were buggy, had a lot of problems and there have been a lot of changes to the design since they were first introduced a decade ago and the ships are oddballs now. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go.

Now, DDGs have a powerful constituency. There are a lot of jobs in Maine and Mississippi riding on DDG construction. And the consequences for Bath if they were to lose DDGs would be significant, especially since the debacle with DDG-1000. The memo canceled five of the 12 Flight IIIs in the FYDP, and that’s a lot of work.

You can read about that here:

Pentagon proposes big cuts to US Navy destroyer construction, retiring 13 cruisers

They also comin’ for my cruisers, but after years of painful reflection, I’m ready to let them go. They’re just too big, too expensive and too out of line with where the Navy is headed. Although I’m not going to give up on BBGN(X).

Then there’s the slow-down of the FFG(X) and Virginia-class buying profile. I don’t think they’re going to stop two submarines per year. Injecting further uncertainty into a shaky submarine industrial base while the Navy is trying to get Columbia together and out the door as quick as possible strikes me as insane. But who knows?

You can read about that here:

Pentagon proposal cuts an FFG(X) and an attack submarine out of the budget

All right, let’s wrap this up with some links. Sorry for the long email. Til next time!

More Reading

Worth Watching:Amid a heated aircraft carrier debate, the US Navy sees funding slashed for a next-generation fighter

Navy To Slash 24 Ships in 2021 Plan, Bolster Unmanned Effort

By the Company You Keep: Iran to conduct naval drills with China and Russia

Rescue swimmer awarded Distinguished Flying Cross for swimming through hell to rescue 59 others

Not Good: Pearl Harbor shipyard jobs lost

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

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