The Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) is the primary resource for short-term, immediate sealift requirements for both combat and humanitarian/relief missions by the U.S. military. MSC operates approximately 110 noncombatant, civilian-crewed ships that replenish U.S. Navy ships and conduct specialized missions, including strategically prepositioned combat cargo at sea around the world and moving military cargo and supplies used by deployed U.S. forces and coalition partners.
The Sealift fleet includes 49 government-owned, formerly commercial, vessels, kept in the Ready Reserve Force by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) to meet Department of Defense (DoD) surge shipping requirements to get warfighting equipment and other supplies to deployed U.S. forces in peacetime and war.
To conduct its primary operations, MSC is organized around four mission areas – the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, Special Mission, Prepositioning, and Sealift. It also has five Sealift Logistics Commands operating in the Atlantic, Pacific, Europe, Central, and Far East areas and has access to nearly 1,400 selected U.S. Naval reservists assigned to 39 Reserve units nationwide.
MSC traces its origins to the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), created in 1949 to consolidate all DoD ocean transportation needs. It was first called to duty 11 days after its official formation to move troops from Japan to Korea in response to the invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea. MSTS was renamed as the Military Sealift Command during the Vietnam War, which also marked the last use of MSC troop ships; American troops today are transported primarily by air.
MSC was the largest source of defense transport for any nation involved in the first Gulf War, using some 230 government-owned and chartered ships to deliver more than 12 million tons of wheeled and tracked vehicles, helicopters, ammunition, dry cargo, fuel, and other supplies and equipment. It has repeated that effort since 9/11, delivering more than 12 billion gallons of fuel and 100 million square feet of combat equipment and supplies to U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition, MSC has aided in the treatment of hundreds of thousands of patients during hospital ship deployments around the globe.
Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, who moved from U.S. Fleet Forces Command to take command of MSC in October 2009, recently spoke with Faircount senior writer J.R. Wilson about the state of sealift and MSC’s role in both combat and humanitarian missions.
Defense Logistics: How would you describe the current state of U.S. military sealift?
Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby: I think it’s very strong. We have our sealift capacity basically in new, modern ships that were built specifically to service military sealift needs. They lay out and break out very easily and provide the capacity that, in years past, we often had to rely on from ships that were not as purpose-built and so we had to adapt.
How does MSC relate to the liner program (military use of commercial shipping capacity)?
There is a great capacity in U.S. industry to handle a lot of sealift requirements through the use of the liner service. Obviously, we also have the use of charter vessels to perform a lot of sealift requirements, as well as our own sealift ships. Anything we lack in MSC, we have backed up with MARAD and commercial industry.
Right now, global requirements are such that the commercial liner services, contracted primarily through the Army SDDC [Surface Deployment and Distribution Command], handle most of that, which is a good thing for industry.
Is this the naval version of CRAF (U.S. Air Force Civil Reserve Air Fleet)?
Not directly. These ships are not called up to do this specific mission, as CRAF aircraft are. The liner service [vessels] are ships in trade already that are asked to carry military cargo alongside commercial cargo.
How important is sealift to the success of U.S. military logistics, in terms of initial entry into theater?
It’s really important in all phases. In initial, both military and commercial have shown the ability to respond very quickly. Most of our sealift assets are in a reduced operating status, but can be broken out to the port of debarkation very quickly.
In the last several years, commercial also has shown an ability to move very quickly. In Haiti, for example, we went out for several RFPs [requests for proposals] and got multiple responses to all those. So the tonnage is out there and they are willing to respond very quickly, which is a good sign of a healthy industry with depth and the response capability and diversity of ships to respond to the various needs we have.
Just by the way our fleet is composed, a lot of our RORO [roll-on/roll-off] is U.S.-flagged, but a lot of it depends on timing and the market at the time, so we charter all sorts of flags.
What about sustainment support?
Clearly, that is the strength and the real positive aspect of sealift. We can move the vast quantities required to sustain efforts far away from home. That is the true strength of the American military – our ability to sustain far away from our own shores. A lot of countries can get places or operate for a short period of time, but the ability to sustain a high level of impact at great distances is enabled by sealift.
You can fly C-17 and C-5 loads in – and those aircraft carry large loads and can get there quickly – but it takes more airlift than we have – and it’s costly – to sustain that. The per-ton mile you get with sealift and the large volumes we move at a fairly rapid clip make it a no-brainer in how to sustain a large footprint ashore far away from home. It allows us to do what we do around the world.
And when the time comes for withdrawal?
We work closely with TRANSCOM [U.S. Transportation Command] on their requirements and can respond very quickly. Right now, however, the liner capacity of the U.S. shipping industry is sufficient to carry retrograde out of Iraq. It’s flowing at a steady pace with capacity available to handle that, so we are not currently using any MSC large sealift ships, although we are carrying some specific equipment. But that will soon be finished and it will be entirely liner service.
How does MSC complement airlift and ground transport in those missions?
You could make an argument that airlift and ground complements sealift, from an MSC perspective. When you look at tons moved over distance, what we move far outpaces what is moved by other means. So sealift is the main effort, with airlift giving you the initial, enabling push. But you don’t do anything singly – it is a joint effort of all three that makes this work.
Does MSC use reservists?
Typically not as ship’s company, although in Haiti they formed part of our port-opening teams, going ahead into the port and helping run it, scheduling ships in and out, berths, vessel traffic control, working arm-in-arm with the Army. We sent down a unit made up of reservists and MSC personnel trained to do just that kind of mission, including communications.
What lessons have been learned from sealift support for operations in Southwest Asia?
The investments we made in our LMSR [large, medium-speed RORO] paid big dividends, as did the investments in our maritime prepositioning ships. Having ships purpose-built to move large military cargo rapidly, onload/offload easily, with large capacity inside to move equipment around has enabled us to streamline and shorten the time lines of sealift. These are newer ships, so the reliability is very high. And they can repeat that process time and time again.
In Gulf 1 [Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm], we had some of our old ships in operation that took awhile to break out, and some broke down. They were wonderfully competent ships, but had to be modified and the requirements for in-stream operations taxed our mariner base, so it was difficult to maintain that sealift. We didn’t have those issues in OIF/OEF and I have every confidence we will have the same results in the future.
How would you assess the capabilities of the Navy’s current sealift vessels to meet current operational demands?
I think we have the right mix of ships between MSC and the Maritime Ready Reserve Force. We recently broke out several ships for Haiti and that happened very cleanly with no issues and they operated beautifully. That is a wide variety of ship types, with great utility and very few single mission vessels, which gives us a wide flexibility to tailor a response from humanitarian and disaster relief all the way up to deployment in support of a war, carrying strictly heavy fighting equipment.
A lot of the MARAD ships were in lay-up and the crews were pulled off their other jobs and were ready to sail right away. And that was not an isolated case, but true across the board. And behind that we have the commercial industry, with lots of very capable RORO ships and others that can carry a lot of military cargo.
How does sealift for humanitarian missions differ from sealift in support of military operations?
The No. 1 thing is no one is shooting at you in a humanitarian situation, so it is typically a lot lower threat environment, enabling you to concentrate more on the cargo mission than expending hours and manpower and equipment to provide defense for the operation. The types of assets you are putting ashore also are different; you aren’t putting combat vehicles ashore, for example, except for some security-related vehicles. Mostly, you are carrying construction and earthmoving equipment and consumables – water, food, tentage, and other sustainment items – as opposed to kinetic items.
If you are talking about a buildup for an operation that will occur further downline or you are responding to an immediate incident requiring boots on the ground in a big hurry, that changes the time line on military operations. In the case of disaster relief, time is always of the essence and we are focused on trying to reduce the period and scope of suffering.
Which lessons learned from Haiti may be applicable to future military or humanitarian sealift operations?
When there is a need like this for humanitarian aid, the desire is for a very rapid response. The Comfort [hospital ship] is maintained in a five-day readiness-to-sea status, fully manned with civilian mariners and a Navy medical team and all supplies, including helicopters and boats. To deploy in five days of getting their orders is pretty demanding, considering it is the equivalent of an entire city hospital. For Haiti, we did it in 77 hours, which is a new record, sailing directly from Baltimore [Md.] to Haiti and taking her first patients on board before she went to anchor, the need was so great.
I’m sometimes asked why we couldn’t sail the Comfort the next day after the earthquake, but keeping that ship fully manned, with all doctors and supplies on board all the time, is not something we can afford to do. We would have liked to have had her down there sooner, but, all things being equal, she brought a lot of capability very quickly.
Something to look at in the future, though, is keeping one or more ships at a higher level of readiness, especially during hurricane season. But that does come with a price tag.
What is your overall assessment of the role sealift played in Haiti?
I don’t know who else could have done it any better. There is no other nation with the logistics capabilities we have to mount an initial response and sustain that response any faster or with the depth and range of response we made. Who else can move a city hospital 3,000 miles in three days and have it operating on arrival? Only the Comfort and Mercy offer that capability.
To be fair, there was a lot of international response to this, but mostly in ones and twos, with nothing matching the speed or level of response we made. Sure, we all would have liked to have done everything faster, but I don’t know of anyone who could have done it faster.
What is in the pipeline to replace, supplement, or enhance your current capability?
We have two things that are close in I have my eye on. One is the Joint High Speed Vessel [JHSV]. We saw a glimpse of its capabilities in the use of the Hawaiian superferry [in Haiti], which gave us a chance to see what running a high speed vessel is like. We plan to build at least five of those for the Navy and five for the Army in the current plan. That will be a great new flexible capability we will have before long.
The other is the Mobile Landing Platform, a new type of ship that will enable us to do faster in-stream offloads where required. It also will provide an interface with others going ashore, such as Navy LCUs [Landing Craft, Utility] or Army LSVs [Logistics Support Vessels]. Those also are coming soon to give us more flexibility and capability to move product ashore, especially when making a beach assault or going into a port, such as Haiti, where the infrastructure has been destroyed.
What do you see under development for future enhancements for sealift, in terms of vessels – either replacement ships or new types of platforms – or technologies to improve or speed up loading, unloading, and identification?
Not much that we are working on, although SDDC is working on a lot of those things because they handle the movement of cargo we haul.
One area we are focusing on in onload/offload is synchronized cranes, that synchronize with both the vessel being offloaded and loaded, to work in higher in-stream sea states. If you are swinging a heavy load on a crane where vessels are bouncing around, there is a high chance of damaging the cargo or the ships. This new technology can synchronize all that so you can soft land the cargo. We’re testing that right now and the reports I’ve gotten so far are very promising, so I can see that fielded in the next couple of years.
How did sealift fare in the latest DoD budget?
I don’t believe there was any significant change from my analysis of what is going forward.
And in the latest Quadrennial Defense Review?
Again, no significant language concerning sealift. I think the feeling is we have about what we need.
Any final thoughts?
We are in good shape today; the investments we have made in the past 10 to 15 years have given us some very useful and responsive tools. What just happened in Haiti is a great testament to the foresight of the planners who fought for the right kind of capabilities and ships, maintaining them at the right readiness levels to enable us to respond so quickly and decisively to what happened down there. We didn’t want for anything down there and had a lot of alternatives from which to choose, which speaks well for that mission as well as future missions that may involve moving large amounts of combat forces.
This article was first published in the 2010 Defense Logistics: Supporting the Warfighter supplement to The Year in Defense.