Defense Media Network

The State of U.S. Sealift

Since the first ship put to sea thousands of years ago, sealift has been the primary method used to move large amounts of materiel and large numbers of warfighters into a combat theater. Only in the last few decades has airlift become the principal mode of transport for troops, as well as the supplies required for initial insertion.

But sealift remains the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)’s main method of moving the bulk of supplies and equipment required for military operations, both combat and humanitarian/disaster relief. The overall coordination of military transport assets for all services is handled by the joint U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), while sealift is a shared responsibility of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the Army’s Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC).

Headquartered at the Washington Navy Yard, in Washington, D.C., MSC is tasked with supporting the nation by delivering supplies and conducting specialized missions across the world’s oceans. To conduct its primary operations, the Command 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, each serving as primary point of contact for MSC customers and numbered fleet commanders in that area. They also provide direct links from the MSC commander to MSC ships for maintenance oversight, logistics coordination, and other services.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57), right, pulls alongside the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS John Ericsson (T-AO 194) in the western Pacific Ocean. MSC ships support every logistical need of U.S. Navy underway deployments. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Barker.

Most Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force (NFAF) ships replenish the Navy fleet at sea with food, fuel, spare parts, and ammunition. However, the NFAF also includes MSC’s two hospital ships, each with 12 operating rooms and 1,000 beds, which are maintained at a readiness state enabling them to deploy within five days of receiving orders.

Special Mission ships cover a wide range of operations, including oceanographic and coastal surveys, ocean surveillance, missile tracking, cable laying and repair, and deep submergence recovery. Their crews typically include military and civilian scientists and technicians, alongside MSC employees and contract mariners.

The Afloat Prepositioning Force comprises ships strategically positioned around the world to provide rapid support to the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, and the Defense Logistics Agency to meet fast-breaking requirements.

Sealift ships include both government-owned and short- and long-term charter tankers and dry cargo vessels to move DoD materiel in both combat and peacetime operations. They are the heart of MSC’s surge sealift capability to rapidly load and deliver equipment and supplies wherever needed.

The Ready Reserve Force consists of ships owned and maintained in a reduced operating status by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) until called into action and transferred to MSC control for deployment.

SDDC’s sealift role involves contracting for commercial liner services – civilian ships paid to carry military cargo alongside commercial already going to ports from which the DoD assets can be moved into theater by air or convoy. Presently, liner services are handling virtually all sea traffic into and out of theaters of operation in Southwest Asia.

In a new operation, however, MSC is brought into play to meet the first response transport requirements, employing its own fleet of some 110 noncombatant, civilian-crewed ships and MARAD’s 49 government-owned, formerly commercial, Ready Reserve Force vessels. The MSC inventory includes 31 prepositioning ships around the world, carrying military supplies typically needed first and fast in any new operation; 41 Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force vessels; 19 roll-on/roll-off (RORO) ships; and 27 Special Mission ships.

 A helicopter is loaded aboard LMSR USNS Bob Hope in Antwerp, Belgium, for redeployment to the United States. Photo by Bram de Jong.

While more than 90 percent of U.S. combat equipment and supplies travel by sea, government policy requires MSC to look first to the U.S.-flagged liner fleet to meet long-term requirements, turning to its own government-owned ships only when suitable commercial vessels are unavailable. The goal of that policy is to help support and maintain a robust U.S. commercial fleet – some 95 percent of all commercial cargo travels by sea – as well as expand DoD’s sealift capability without the expense of maintaining a significantly larger MSC fleet.

“We rely on ships from the global marketplace, but always provide a preference to U.S.-flagged vessels,” noted Chris Thayer, senior executive and director of strategic sealift and prepositioning for MSC. “So if a U.S.-flagged vessel is available and responds to the RFP [request for proposal], we will charter those first. If there are none available in the time or location, then we go to the rest of the global marketplace.

“The preponderance of U.S.-flagged ships operate in commercial charter, so when we are seeking an expansion of capability in regions that do not have scheduled commercial liner service with vessels with military RORO capability, we often rely on the global market because there are not a lot of U.S.-flagged ships in those trades.”

Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, who took command of MSC in October 2009, said he is satisfied with the current MSC fleet’s ability to meet DoD sealift requirements, especially the large, medium-speed, RORO (LMSR) ships added to MSC’s fleet since the first Gulf War in 1991.

“I think we have the right mix of ships between MSC and the Maritime Ready Reserve Force. 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,” he said.

“The investments we made in our LMSR [ships] 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.”

MSC’s transport capabilities are growing significantly in 2010, with delivery of the ninth of the Navy’s newest class of logistics vessels, the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo/ammunition (T-AKE) ships, and launch of the 10th.

MSC took delivery of the USNS Matthew Perry on Feb. 24, following six months of tests and sea trials. Three days later, the USNS Charles Drew was christened and launched at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego, Calif. The Perry is scheduled to begin MSC missions this fall in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, with the Drew being delivered to the fleet about the same time.

USNS Richard E. Byrd (T-AKE 4) sits pier side during Pacific Partnership 2009. The Richard E. Byrd serves as the enabling platform for U.S. and partner nation military and non-governmental organizations to coordinate humanitarian civic assistance efforts. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Valcarcel.

“The T-AKEs are an incredibly important asset to the Navy and we are proud to see the class continue to grow,” said Capt. Jerome Hamel, commander of Sealift Logistics Command-Pacific. “Not only do the T-AKEs support Navy warfighters by delivering stores, ammunition, fuel, and spare parts, but the ships are also capable of fulfilling non-traditional missions, such as the 2009 Pacific Partnership humanitarian assistance mission of USNS Richard E. Byrd.”

Manned by 124 civil service mariners and 11 Navy sailors, who provide supply coordination, the T-AKEs allow Navy ships to remain at sea, on station, and combat ready for extended periods of time.

Buzby also is looking forward to the addition of two new ship types to the fleet – the Navy/Army Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), a shallow-draft (less than 15 feet) ship intended for rapid intra-theater transport of medium-sized cargo payloads. With speeds up to 45 knots, it will be able to move personnel, equipment, and supplies rapidly over operational distances to support conventional and special forces maneuver and sustainment operations. The JHSV also will have a flight deck for helicopter operations and an off-load ramp enabling vehicles to quickly drive off the ship.

“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,” he said. “That will be a great new flexible capability we will have before long.”

The second new vessel is the Mobile Landing Platform, (MLP) a heavy-lift ship also known as a float-on/float-off (FLO/FLO) design to transport causeway sections, berthing barges, containers, and landing craft, air cushioned (LCAC).

“[The MLP is] 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],” Buzby said. “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.”

Imagery of the Joint High-Speed Vessel (JHSV). MSC is looking forward to the addition of the JHSV, and the capabilities it will bring, to the fleet. Image courtesy of Austal.

MSC’s existing fleet amply demonstrated its capabilities at the beginning of 2010, utilizing nearly every aspect of its organization to rapidly respond to the Haitian earthquake relief effort. Because the earthquake devastated both the airport and port at Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital and transport center, the MSC ships provided vital immediate support.

“When the full scope of the disaster became understood, the MSC response was swift. MSC hospital ship USNS Comfort was ready to sail in just three days. Normally the activation process takes five, but Comfort got under way just 76.5 hours after notification with a crew of 67 civil service mariners, 560 medical personnel, and an approximately 110-person contingent of support personnel,” Buzby said.

During its seven weeks in Haiti, Comfort’s military and civilian medical staff treated 871 patients – 540 of those in the first 10 days, with one new patient arriving every 6 to 9 minutes at the height of the recovery effort – and performed 843 surgeries aboard ship. Ten operating rooms were run at full capacity to provide surgical care for earthquake victims in the first full operational-capacity employment of the hospital ship since it was delivered to the Navy in 1987.

“Overall, we put 21 ships into motion as part of the response effort,” Buzby said. “Of MSC’s total force of more than 8,900 people, more than 2,600 mariners, sailors, control element personnel, and other support people – 29 percent of our total personnel – have been directly involved in Operation Unified Response.”

The first MSC ships set sail for Haiti within 24 hours of the earthquake – even before official orders came down the chain of command, following a “lean forward” procedure put in place two years ago by TRANSCOM for each of its service components to respond accordingly and immediately to any emergency requirement.

Drawing from each of its mission units, MSC worked to open the port; provide fuel and other supplies to forces arriving at the island; survey and clear the harbor; evaluate damage to the piers and docks; deliver the first major heavy equipment and over-the-beach delivery capability; assist in the offloading of ships unable to use the devastated port; move hundreds of military personnel to the island; evacuate American citizens, refugees, and children; provide hospital ship care in place of destroyed island hospitals; and provide extensive assistance to ships of all nations moving in and out of the disaster area.

Military Sealift Command large, medium-speed, roll-on, roll-off ship USNS Watkins (rear) and heavy-lift ship MV Mighty Servant I moor side by side off San Diego, Calif., during a Mobile Landing Platform demonstration. Cargo from Watkins was transferred to Mighty Servant I and then to hovercraft for delivery to shore during a test of the seabasing concept. Photo courtesy of Navy Program Executive Office.

“In the initial entry phase, if you look at Haiti or any scenario where one airfield can quickly become overwhelmed, along with devastation in the port area, the ability to bring in ships that can offload off-port shows the unique capability sealift can bring to bear, not only in delivering goods but also opening up a port,” Thayer said, noting both Haiti and the war in Southwest Asia also have demonstrated the value of military-civilian cooperation at sea.

“In the past decade, the value of the maritime security program in assuring we have a reasonably robust U.S.-flagged fleet of ships to support military requirements has proven its value as a complement to the ships the Navy and the Maritime Administration maintain in reduced operating status to support military requirements. That program is good for commerce and the military and supports a base of U.S. mariners we need to crew those ships we activate from reduced operating status.”

Thayer estimates the ratio of mariners to seagoing jobs in the private sector is roughly 2-to-2.5 to 1, an overage needed to meet labor agreements saying mariners will work for three or four months at sea, followed by three or four months off.

“For every billet on the ship, there are two or three ashore available to augment any contingency requirements,” he said. “So it is a strong base, not only for ocean-going ships, but also inland waterways.”

MSC’s prepositioning ships also have added significantly to the U.S. military’s ability to respond quickly to almost any point on the globe, providing supplies needed by all the services only a few days’ sail away rather than far longer times it might take supplies to reach theater from the United States.

Three Haitian men observe the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USS Comfort, Maritime Prepositioning Ship PFC Dewayne T. Williams, and other U.S. vessels off the coast of Haiti. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Todd Frantom.

“From the first Gulf war through today, we have had large quantities afloat on ships prepositioned in key spots around the world to respond rapidly with the right mix of heavy combat forces or civil assistance,” Thayer said. “That has become a hallmark of the triad of strategic sealift, along with surged sealift from reduced operating status and sustainment from the ocean transportation providers.”

The ships used to reach a combat theater or relief site where standard port facilities are not available are not MSC’s only concern for future capabilities, however. Being able to safely transfer cargo from large transports to smaller vessels capable of moving them to shore also is being addressed under a new program to develop synchronized cranes.

“[Those will] synchronize with both the vessels being offloaded and loaded, to work in higher in-stream seastates. 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,” Buzby said. “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.”

On any given day, MSC estimates it has about 110 ships in operation around the globe and offers overall contingency support for 15.4 billion gallons of fuel and 109.4 million square feet of dry cargo.

With the coming new additions to the fleet, adding to capability already in place, Buzby believes the United States stands alone in the ability to deliver both military cargo and humanitarian relief quickly and efficiently by sea to any coastal point on Earth. Given seas and oceans cover some 65 percent of the planet and the vast majority of the population lives within 100 miles of a coast, that is a significant advantage.

“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 in Haiti,” he said. “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.”


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-221">

    as a former mariner I hope the us is adding new american bottoms faster than the shipowners can run to foreign flag operations to duck american taxes like they did in the sixties and seventys..

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-2655">
    Jeffrey Smidt

    Why would shipowners build ships here? Only a few shipping companies left in the US, and they’re only here because of the Jones Act forces them to. The high cost of construction, manning and operation of an American ship makes it uncompetative in the world market. Throw huge fees and taxes on top, and goodbye US maritime forces.