WASHINGTON — The U.S. military in September ordered the largest stress test of its wartime sealift fleet in the command’s history, with 33 out of 61 government-owned ships being activated simultaneously. The results were bad, according to a new report.

In an unclassified U.S. Transportation Command report posted to its website, the so-called turbo activation revealed that less than half of the sealift fleet would be fully prepared to get underway for a major sealift operation in a crisis.

“The relatively low … Qualitative Mission Success Rate indicates the Organic Surge Fleet is challenged to be immediately available for a large-scale inter-theater force deployment without delays/impacts to force closure due to degraded readiness,” the report read.

The Dec. 16 report confirms what senior military and transportation officials have been saying for years now: that the sealift fleet is in urgent need of recapitalization if it is to be relied upon to support a large-scale operation overseas. In a crisis, nearly 90 percent of all Army and Marine Corps equipment would be carried by ship. The Navy is on the hook to pay for recapitalization, but it has so far failed to land on a strategy to do so.

Overall, 40.7 percent of the 61 ships operated by Military Sealift Command and the Maritime Administration were fully ready to support a major sealift operation. Sal Mercogliano, a merchant marine and current professor at Campbell University who closely follows these issues, said the major equipment casualties are the driving factor that is dragging down readiness.

“You had 22 out of the 61 ships in either C-5 or C-4 condition,” Mercogliano said. “C-5 means that you can’t even leave the dock; C-4 means you can leave the dock but you are not in any condition to sail any real distance. In my ballpark, that’s non-mission capable. So right off the bat you lose 22 of the 61 ships. Then of the 33 that they activated, nine of them had issues. Three of them were C-4 level.

“So when you add together the ones that had issues with the ones that couldn’t be activated, they’re saying you can only really count on about 40 percent of the fleet to active when they are aiming for 85 percent.”

Ultimately, the degraded status of the sealift fleet means that combatant commanders won’t be able to count on its capacity for logistics support, Mercogliano said.

“If you are Indo-Pacific Command, or you are Central Command, and you are counting on a certain amount of square footage available to you, that’s going to have huge ramifications,” he added.

In recent testimony, INDOPACOM Commander Adm. Phil Davidson said as much, saying his operational plans depend on logistics support.

“Clearly recapitalization of our sealift system is going to be critically important, as it’s aging out and really has propulsion plants that [are] expiring in capability and our ability to maintain them,” Davidson said. “It’s [a] 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.”

Ships assigned to the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force are moored in Alameda, Calif., on Sept. 28, 2016. These 40-year-old-plus steam ships are maintained to be ready for deployment in five days or less. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Ho/U.S. Navy)
Ships assigned to the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force are moored in Alameda, Calif., on Sept. 28, 2016. These 40-year-old-plus steam ships are maintained to be ready for deployment in five days or less. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Ho/U.S. Navy)

Manning concerns

In a November interview prior to the compilation of the final report, Maritime Administrator retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby told Defense News that the test validated the data they had on ship readiness and the Maritime Administration’s ability to crew the vessels, which he has long maintained is enough for initial activation but would suffer during a prolonged effort.

“I think given the scale of the test, as we’ve been saying, we are OK for doing initial manning for our ships when they are activated,” Buzby said. “Something that we couldn’t test in this fairly short-term activation was the follow-on aspect.

“We believe we have plenty of manning to man up the ships initially, get them past the sea buoy and get them on the mission. But the problem is going to manifest itself four to six months down the line when some of them want to rotate. Who is going to be standing on the pier ready to take their place? That’s where we have a problem. You just couldn’t show that in this activation.”

One of the primary issues has been, as Davidson intimated, that many of the plants in the Ready Reserve Force are steam-operated plants, which are all but nonexistent in the commercial world, so it is increasingly difficult to find qualified engineers.

Finding steam engineers went well for the turbo activation, Buzby said, but it proved difficult and will only become more so as fewer opportunities to retain updated certifications become available.

In a 2018 interview with Defense News, Buzby described a shortage of personnel that would affect the sealift fleet’s ability to operate for an extended period of time. 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 exceeds the needed total of 11,678 to operate both the reserve and commercial fleets at the same time. But that comes with a 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 read. “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 temporarily operate them. If the nation needed to sustain a large-scale 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.”