ALEXANDRIA, VA – Good evening from my couch.
Tonight, we are going to get into one of my favorite topics: Sealift.
It’s not the sexiest topic. It doesn’t have missiles or big radars or torpedoes, but it is at the core of the United States’ ability to project power in great power conflict. And right now, we are failing. Badly.
This was the point of a series of articles I wrote last year, that I am immensely proud of.
Shameless plug, here:
The US Army is preparing to fight in Europe, but can it even get there?
‘You’re on your own’: US sealift can’t count on Navy escorts in the next big war
The US Navy will have to pony up and race the clock to avoid a sealift capacity collapse
US Army warns of crippling sealift shortfalls during wartime
Well, there was an interesting hearing in the House Armed Services Committee and the outlook is somehow even worse now. And that’s the subject of tonight’s Drift.
Thanks for joining me again!
The basic premise of my articles last year, if you didn’t drop everything you were doing to spend 30 minutes reading through them just now, was that the bulk of the ships that the Army and Marine Corps would need to ship their equipment to Europe or Asia are in appalling condition and will need to be retired soon.
The direst problems are in the Ready Reserve Force, which are a collection of 46 mostly roll-on/roll-off ships kept in surge-ready status that are hitting the end of their service lives. The Navy, which is on the hook for the funding, came up with a three-pronged plan to recapitalize the fleet: buying used ships off the open market; developing new classes of auxiliary ships to replace the current fleet of maritime prepositioning ships and move the current prepositioning ships into the reserve force; and finally to extend the service lives of the current RRF ships.
The consequences are pretty dire if they don’t get this done, stakes that Seapower and Projection Forces ranking member Rep. Rob Wittman laid out pretty clearly in the hearing:
The Quote: “With no recapitalization in place and only the distant hope that the Navy will find this a priority, I continue to be perplexed as to how the Army and the Marine Corps hopes to get to the future battlefield on these aged ships.”
So, let’s get to the news out of this hearing:
- A number of ships (waiting to hear back on how many) in the RRF cannot legally get underway because they lack a U.S. Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection. An additional 13 ships require additional unplanned maintenance to get underway.
- Transportation Command head Gen. Stephen Lyons said they need to move out faster on buying used ships, a recommendation that was echoed by the Seapower Subcommittee chairman, Rep. Joe Courtney, in his opening statement.
- Under current funding levels, the U.S. sealift capacity will begin collapsing in on itself in 2024.
- Both Lyons and Maritime Administrator Retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby said the Navy is struggling to find a way to pay for a recapitalized sealift fleet.
- Lyons gave the Navy credit for digging into the problem, but acknowledged that the Navy’s out-year recapitalization costs are crowding out what money they must spend on recapping the sealift fleet.
The Navy has programmed money into the service life extension program for the RRF, but according to Lyons and Buzby they have not made as much progress as they would like. Buzby said once they brought the ships into dry dock, the growth work costs have been eating the budget alive.
Furthermore, the ships that are not seaworthy (the ones without the Coast Guard inspection certificates), have been eating up a lot of the funding they need for SLEPs. “The pace of repair is outpacing the cost of the service life extensions,” Buzby said. Each SLEP costs between $850K to $3.5 million.
Even if everything was going great (which it is not), fully replacing the RRF fleet will take decades, Buzby said.
The Quote: “The Navy is doing a business case analysis on the right mix and timing, but at a minimum we are looking at a 25 to 30-year program to get this entire fleet turned over under current funding levels, on our current path.”
The solution that seems to be coalescing in the short term is to buy as many ships off the open market as possible. Congress has already authorized the Navy to buy seven used commercial ships, but the Navy estimates it will need to buy 26 ships to maintain the 15.3 million square feet of sealift TRANSCOM says the country needs to conduct a major operation overseas. The Maritime Administration believes that there are 64 ships on the market today that could fit the bill.
Wittman, however, has not been impressed with the speed at which the Navy has moved on buying the seven used ships already authorized.
The Quote: We’ve done the work on our end, now Navy need only lift a finger and procure these readily available vessels.
So, the big take-aways from the hearing are:
- The RRF ships going into SLEP are in much worse condition than MARAD thought.
- The money programmed for SLEP is getting consumed by repairing ships that have either been decertified for operation by the Coast Guard or that need unplanned maintenance to be able to get underway.
- Congress is displeased at the pace of the Navy’s acquiring used ships.
- The Navy is struggling to figure out how to pay this bill and doesn’t seem to have any good ideas, at least not ideas that MARAD and TRANSCOM testified to.
- Congress wants to accelerate the acquisition of used ships.
On that depressing note, lets move on to The Hotwash.