Moving U.S. Forces: Options for Strategic Mobility Section 5 of 12
February 1997

Chapter Three

Strategic Sealift Forces

During the Persian Gulf War, the Department of Defense transported 72 percent of its dry cargo on ships that steamed from the United States, and another 13 percent on ships that held prepositioned equipment nearer the region.(1) Although sealift ships travel much more slowly than transport planes, they are usually less expensive to purchase and operate, and a single large ship can carry literally hundreds of plane loads. For those reasons, defense planners anticipate that sealift will also deliver the vast majority of cargo and supplies to future major conflicts.

The Current Strategic Sealift Fleet

Military analysts characterize sealift's role in a future war as one of either surge or sustainment. In a surge role, ships would carry the equipment for combat and support units, including a large number of vehicles such as tanks and trucks, from their peacetime garrisons. Once that equipment was delivered, sealift ships would focus on sustaining operations--that is, delivering supplies of spare parts, food, water, petroleum, ammunition, and other items to support the operation.

Today, DoD's surge sealift fleet includes about 95 ships and has the capacity to carry more than 7 million square feet of cargo (see Box 4 and Figure 4). As recently as the Persian Gulf War, DoD relied on commercial ships to deliver both surge and sustainment cargo. For the future, however, defense officials contend that commercial ships will not be available at a moment's notice to transport initial combat forces, and thus military ships must fill that role. However, DoD planners intend to use commercial shipping extensively to sustain military operations.

 Box 4.
 Basic Units of Measure in Sealift Analysis
Square feet:  Sealift loads and the capacity of individual ships are usually described in terms of the amount of their deck space as measured in square feet.  Although the physical dimensions of a piece of cargo may not fit on certain ships, that problem occurs much less frequently than with airlift.  

Stowage area:  The amount of usable square feet for storing cargo on board a ship.  Transportation specialists typically plan to load only about 75 percent of a ship's available deck space with cargo.  That figure takes into account obstructions in the cargo hold, space required for lashing down pieces of equipment, fire lanes, and the like. 

Millions of square feet:  Total sealift capacity is the sum of all stowage space in a single sailing of all available sealift ships, typically measured in millions of square feet. 


Figure 4.
Sealift Capacity Under the Administration's Plan, 1996-2001

SOURCE: Congressional Budget Office based on data from the Department of Defense.

NOTES: LMSRs = large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships; ROROs = roll-on/roll-off ships.

The Department of Defense relies on commercial ships to provide additional sealift capacity in times of need.

In 1996 and 1997, the Administration requested funding for five used, foreign-built ROROs that it would reflag and then add to the Ready Reserve Force, for a total of 36 such ships. In both of those years, however, the Congress denied funding for the request. The above figure reflects additional purchases that would provide capacity equivalent to five ROROs in order to reach DoD's goal of 10 million square feet of storage space.

DoD's Surge Sealift Ships

Only those ships that can be readied most quickly--in 20 days or less--are considered part of DoD's surge sealift fleet (see Figure 5). The Navy operates the largest of those military vessels, but many are part of the Ready Reserve Force (RRF), a fleet of inactive cargo ships maintained by the Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration.

The type of vessel best suited for carrying military combat units is the roll-on/roll-off ship, or RORO. Army and Marine Corps combat units include large numbers of wheeled and tracked vehicles (for example, one armored division contains more than 3,700 self-propelled vehicles and 2,500 towed pieces). ROROs are ideal for carrying such units because they contain a system of external and internal ramps and open storage bays, which allows stevedores to drive the vehicles on the ship and then park and secure them quickly.

Just prior to the Persian Gulf War, however, the most common type of military ship available was the breakbulk. Those are general cargo ships that have their own system of booms, cranes, and winches to load equipment into cargo holds. They are usually powered by steam engines rather than more modern diesel engines. Because breakbulks carry their own cranes, they can be used in a variety of ports, including ones that lack modern facilities. However, ROROs are easier to load and unload than breakbulk ships, particularly when transporting military vehicles. Generally, breakbulks are much smaller and take two to three days longer to load and unload than RORO vessels.(2) For that reason, DoD chartered commercial ROROs early in Operation Desert Shield to supplement the ones it activated from the RRF.

Today, U.S.-flag commercial carriers use few ROROs, with the exception of vessels that transport cars. Instead, most of the world's commercial ships are designed to hold a large number of containers, usually 20 feet or 40 feet in length. Those containers fit into cellular storage areas that are stacked tightly on the ship's decks to maximize its load. (For some loads, ship operators can fit racks over the containership's cells to create deck space for transporting a limited number of vehicles.) In order to keep transportation costs low, containerships do not carry their own crane system, relying instead on shore-side cranes at ports or on auxiliary crane ships to load and unload their cargo.

Beginning in the 1980s, DoD began purchasing its own fleet with RORO capacity rather than relying on commercial shipping, which was increasingly turning to containerships. For example, to support DoD's plans for a rapid deployment force, the Navy bought eight

Figure 5.
DoD's Surge Sealift Ships

SL-7 Fast Sealift Ships

The Department of Defense (DoD) owns eight SL-7s, 950-foot ships that hold both containers and roll-on/roll-off cargo. They steam at an average speed of 27 knots and a maximum of 33 knots. One of the largest ships in the surge fleet, SL-7s can hold about 150,000 square feet of cargo plus 188 20-foot-equivalent containers.

Large, Medium-Speed Roll-On/Roll-Off Ships

Through 1997, the Congress appropriated funds for 16 of these ships, called LMSRs. DoD received the first two in 1996. Each 950-foot vessel will carry 225,000 to 300,000 square feet of cargo and will be equipped with its own set of cranes. LMSRs also contain systems to control the ships' humidity and suppress fires. Their maximum speed is 24 knots.

Roll-On/Roll-Off Ships in the Ready Reserve Force

Today's Ready Reserve Force includes 31 roll-on/roll-off ships (ROROs), but some are being used to preposition equipment for the Army in the Indian Ocean until DoD receives more LMSRs. Since 1993, the United States has purchased and reflagged 14 used ROROs. Each ship holds about 100,000 square feet of cargo; maximum speeds vary between 17 knots and 25 knots.

Breakbulks and Barge Carriers

The Ready Reserve Force (RRF) includes 35 break-bulks--vessels that carry their own cranes and have open bays for stowing cargo. Each ship holds about 50,000 square feet of cargo and maintains a speed of

17 knots to 20 knots. The RRF also includes four lighter-aboard ships and three sea barges--both types of ships that carry barges loaded with cargo.

Special-Purpose Ships

The RRF includes 10 auxiliary crane ships, which are used to unload cargo from other ships that lack their own system of cranes. The Ready Reserve Force

also has seven tanker vessels that carry petroleum, oil, and lubricants and two ships devoted solely to carrying troops.

SOURCE: Congressional Budget Office.

SL-7 containerships from Sea-Land Services in the early 1980s and converted most of their holds into roll-on/roll-off compartments. It also added cranes and helicopter landing pads. Although the SL-7s were used as containerships before they were converted for the military, a Navy study concluded that they will not need to be replaced until 2020. Today, they make up almost 20 percent of DoD's surge sealift capacity and can be activated within four days.

Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were the first instance in which all eight SL-7s were activated together.(3) As a whole, they performed well: in a total of 32 voyages, seven of the ships transported over 13 percent of all unit equipment for the operations.(4)

Box 5.
 Readiness Categories for Surge Sealift
 The Department of Defense (DoD) gives its sealift ships a readiness designation—a description of how quickly they could be activated when needed.  For example, the SL-7 fast sealift ships are maintained in a four-day status; in other words, DoD expects that under normal circumstances they would be activated and en route to their loading port in four days. 

 Before the Persian Gulf War, most ships in the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) were kept in a five-, 10-, or 20-day readiness status (known as RRF-5, RRF-10, or RRF-20).  During that deployment, however, many RRF ships took longer to activate than DoD had planned—on average, they were nine days late.  Since then, the Departments of Defense and Transportation have established a new readiness category for vessels that would transport equipment with the highest priority.  Known as reduced operating status (ROS), ships kept in ROS-4 and ROS-5 have a 10- or nine-member crew on board, respectively, who perform routine maintenance on the vessel and get to know its idiosyncrasies so they can activate it with minimal outside assistance.  Rather than planning to tow the vessel to a shipyard for activation, this strategy permits DoD to keep the ship closer to the port at which it would load its cargo.  Ships designated as ROS-4 also undergo annual sea trials, whereas those that are ROS-5 alternate each year between sea trials and dockside trials.  Twenty-four Ready Reserve Force roll-on/roll-off ships are now kept in ROS-4 status, and 10 break-bulks, nine auxiliary crane ships, two sea barges, and two tanker ships from the RRF are kept in ROS-5.  DoD also plans to keep the new large, medi-um-speed roll-on/roll-off ships (LMSRs) it is procuring and its eight SL-7s in a reduced operating status. 

 DoD preserved the RRF-10, RRF-20, and RRF-30 designation for ships that do not keep equipment operating or have any crew assigned.  If activated, those vessels would be towed to a shipyard, where personnel would remove dehumidification equipment, bring engineering systems on-line, and perform general repairs.  Ships kept in RRF-10 or RRF-20 status also undergo sea or dockside trials to test their readiness but on a less frequent basis.  Out of today's RRF fleet, 21 breakbulks, four lighter-aboard ships, one sea barge, one tanker, and two troop ships are kept in RRF-10 status, and four breakbulks and two tankers are kept in RRF-20.  RRF-30 status would apply to ships that receive limited preventive maintenance, do not undergo sea or dockside trials, and are not considered part of DoD's surge sealift fleet.  No ships are kept in RRF-30 today, but DoD plans to move 21 breakbulks to that status and ultimately remove them from the Ready Reserve Force after all its LMSRs are delivered.

The SL-7s were not without problems, however. Three ships took longer than four days to activate, and one, the Antares, suffered a boiler failure during her first voyage and was lost for the remainder of the operations.(5) Since then, the Navy has activated the fast sealift ships on several occasions to conduct readiness exercises or to support humanitarian missions and other operations.

Since 1993, the Congress has been buying large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships (LMSRs) to add to DoD's surge sealift capacity. Each LMSR has one and a half to two times the capacity of an SL-7. As of 1997, the Congress has appropriated funding for 16 LMSRs at an average cost of about $314 million. Newport News Shipbuilding and the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) are converting five containerships purchased from commercial shippers into LMSRs. Avondale Industries and NASSCO are designing and building the remaining ships from scratch. The Navy plans to keep all LMSRs used for surge sealift in four-day reduced operating status (see Box 5).

Today, DoD expects smaller ships from the Ready Reserve Force to transport much of the cargo for combat. The RRF includes 31 ROROs, which make up over 40 percent of DoD's surge sealift capacity.(6) Fourteen of those vessels were added since the end of the Persian Gulf War: the Maritime Administration and the Navy bought them from commercial sources and then modified and reflagged them at U.S. shipyards for military use. Because few U.S. companies use ROROs in their fleets, all of those purchases have been ships that were built and operated in foreign countries. To date, the United States has spent more than $450 million to buy and modify those ships. Navy and Army officials believe that at an average cost of about $32 million per vessel, converting used ROROs acquired from foreign owners is a more cost-effective way to add ships to the RRF than having domestic shipyards build new vessels of similar size, which might cost $100 million to $200 million apiece.

The remainder of the Ready Reserve Force is made up of breakbulks and barge-carrying ships, which provide 37 percent of DoD's current surge sealift capacity. Breakbulks are vessels that have open bays for stowing cargo and their own system of cranes; they can carry about half the load of an average RORO. Barge carriers are designed to carry a number of smaller barges, each loaded with cargo. After reaching a port, the carriers unload their barges using either a system of gantry cranes (in the case of lighter-aboard ships) or elevators (on so-called sea barges). Shore-side cranes then unload cargo from the barges. The RRF uses lighter-aboard ships and sea barges to carry ammunition. Other special-purpose ships in the RRF include auxiliary crane ships, tankers for transporting aviation and diesel fuel, and troop carriers.

In the past, the RRF has faced tight budgets for maintaining ships and conducting readiness exercises. Although the force is intended for use in military operations, the cost of maintaining its ships was until recently funded through the Department of Transportation and was often subject to budget cuts.(7) As a result, the Maritime Administration reduced the readiness status of many ships; some were placed in a 30-day readiness category, effectively removing them from the surge fleet. Beginning in 1996, however, funding for the RRF was shifted to DoD's budget.

Commercial Sealift for Sustaining Military Operations

Cargo to resupply U.S. forces--such as food, construction materials, spare parts, medical supplies, ammunition, and the like--can fit more easily in standard-size containers than military vehicles can. Since containerships are more common than ROROs among U.S.-flag shippers, DoD might rely on commercial carriers to transport most types of sustainment cargo.

But are there adequate numbers of U.S.-flag ships? Since 1936, the federal government has protected the U.S. shipping industry on the premise that, in the event of war, it would need U.S.-manned ships to move military cargo. In the past, the Department of Transportation has paid the difference between the costs of U.S. ship operators--including the higher wages of crews made up of U.S. citizens--and the costs of foreign shippers.(8) Yet even with those subsidies, U.S. ship operators have not held on to market share. By one estimate, U.S. carriers had about 4 percent of the world market for ocean shipping trade in 1995, compared with nearly 43 percent in 1950.(9) Because of the higher wages that U.S. crews demand, operators have a strong incentive to reflag their ships in foreign countries. As a result, the number of U.S.-flag vessels has dropped precipitously--from more than 2,000 in the 1940s and 850 in 1970 to about 320 in 1996.(10)

Nonetheless, recent analysis by DoD suggests that sufficient numbers of U.S.-flag, effectively U.S.-controlled (EUSC), and allied containerships are available in the commercial market to support most military requirements for delivering sustainment supplies.(11) In a national emergency, the President could technically requisition U.S.-flag and EUSC ships to transport military cargo. But unless the United States faced two major regional contingencies at the same time, it would probably not need to requisition ships because the Navy has set up contractual agreements with U.S.-flag carriers (similar to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet) so DoD can use commercial ships for national emergencies. And DoD might also approach allies for additional shipping capacity or charter foreign-flag vessels.

During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, for example, the Navy activated RRF ships and chartered U.S.-flag and foreign vessels to move unit equipment and sustainment supplies. DoD did not even need to activate the Sealift Readiness Program (SRP), a shipping agreement in which U.S.-flag carriers committed half of their cargo capacity to the program during wartime in return for operating subsidies and the opportunity to bid on military shipping contracts during peacetime.

The SRP was never activated because of concerns that the program's participants would lose market share to foreign shipping lines.(12) DoD officials also found that many commercial ships were available for charter. DoD set up the Special Middle East Sealift Agreement, which contracted for about 30 percent of the container capacity aboard commercial liners to transport military supplies. That plan minimized disruption to business because it allowed commercial ships to continue their regular schedule of deliveries. About 55 percent of the dry-cargo ships enrolled in the SRP moved U.S. military cargo under the terms of the special agreement.

More recently, the Departments of Defense and Transportation have drawn up a successor to the SRP known as the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). VISA is a three-stage program that has been incorporated into the Maritime Security Program, a federal government plan to help U.S.-flag merchant vessels remain economically viable. As part of the Maritime Security Program, the Department of Transportation is providing operators of 47 U.S.-flag ships with roughly $2 million per vessel in 1997. But in order to be eligible for those subsidies, domestic carriers must enroll in Stage III of VISA.

Stage III is structured in a similar way to the SRP: U.S.-flag shippers commit 50 percent of their capacity to moving military supplies during wartime in exchange for federal operating subsidies. However, unlike the SRP, which made carriers designate specific ships that they would make available to DoD in wartime, VISA enrollees simply commit to transporting a certain amount of cargo using their entire intermodal systems. That arrangement allows U.S. shippers to substitute among ships during an activation, or even use their foreign-flag vessels if those are more readily accessible. Under VISA, ship owners can also carry commercial cargo back to the United States.

Although DoD is still working out the details, Stages I and II of VISA will be analogous to the lower stages of CRAF: they would allow DoD to call up smaller numbers of civil carriers more quickly in a national emergency. Shipping companies would be provided with incentives for participating in early stages, such as preferences when bidding on DoD's peacetime shipping contracts. The arrangement will also give commercial carriers a better idea of what DoD's shipping requirements would be during a war, which might help them devise strategies to protect their market share.(13)

Although commercial sealift can transport most sustainment cargo, there may be one exception: ammunition. DoD planners believe few shippers would be willing to risk the safety of their commercial cargo by carrying ammunition in the same load. Thus, in the event of a major conflict, DoD plans to either charter ships that would be dedicated solely to transporting ammunition or keep some breakbulks and lighter-aboard ships within the RRF that it might otherwise retire. According to military officials, the ships that participate in the Maritime Security Program may provide sufficient capacity for that purpose.

Plans for Modernizing Surge Sealift

Ultimately, the Defense Department plans to have a military surge fleet capable of transporting 10 million square feet of equipment in each load. According to DoD, that level would allow the United States to deploy an offensive force large enough to handle any situation until reinforcements arrived. Defense officials define that force as two armored divisions plus the assault follow-on echelon for a Marine amphibious task force, which DoD would need to deliver in about 30 days. The Administration's plan to buy LMSRs for the Navy and smaller ROROs for the Ready Reserve Force would provide that 10 million square feet of surge sealift capacity by 2001 (see Figure 4 on page 24).

Large, Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off Ships

The core of the Administration's plan for expanding its surge sealift fleet is the purchase of three more LMSRs, for a total of 19. Eleven of those ships will be used to move cargo quickly from the United States; they will ultimately provide nearly 30 percent of DoD's surge capacity. The remaining eight will preposition Army equipment.

When it began procuring LMSRs, the Navy decided to transform five large containerships into ROROs because military officials believed that converting the ships would take less time and money than constructing LMSRs from scratch. During the 1980s, modifying DoD's eight SL-7s with some RORO capacity took roughly 24 months. In 1992, officials predicted that by using modular production technologies, shipyards could convert existing hulls into the LMSR configuration in about 18 months, compared with at least four years to build a new ship. However, converting existing hulls has taken more time and money than expected. All five conversion LMSRs have been 15 to 24 months behind schedule. The first two were delivered to the Navy in the fall of 1996, and under current plans, the last will arrive in November 1997 (see Table 4). If schedules do not slip further, those conversions will have taken well over three years to complete.

What explains the delays? Initially, the shipyards had to remove and replace substantially more of the existing structure than anticipated. They also had to revise their designs for fire-fighting systems to meet Coast Guard standards for certification. Two firms that bid for the conversion contract protested the Navy's award--a dispute that required four months to resolve. And contracts for government-furnished cranes fell behind schedule, which held back work on the LMSRs.

Current estimates suggest that deliveries of newly constructed LMSRs will fall behind schedule as well. Defense officials now expect delivery about three to six months later than originally proposed. Thus, the cost of those ships could rise too.

ROROs for the Ready Reserve Force

Over the past two years, the Navy planned to continue modernizing the RRF by purchasing five more smaller ROROs for a total of 36 in the fleet. But with the exception of ships for Marine Corps prepositioning, the Congress has forbidden the Navy to buy used, foreign-built ROROs. In order to meet its requirement for five more ROROs in the RRF, the Defense Department is examining ways to add capacity to its existing fleet or buy new ships from U.S. shipyards.

Each RORO can only hold about 35 percent to 50 percent as much cargo as an LMSR. But at an average cost of $30 million to $35 million each to purchase and reflag, they are only about one-tenth as expensive to acquire. Per square foot of cargo space, a fully equipped new-construction LMSR costs about $800, compared with about $230 to buy and reflag a foreign-built RORO.

Table 4.
Expected Delivery Schedule for LMSRs, 1996-2001
1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2001
Ships 2 2 1 a 0 0 0 5
New Con-
structions 0 0 2 3 4 5 14
Total 2 2 3 3 4 5 19
SOURCE: Congressional Budget Office based on data from the Department of Defense.
NOTE: LMSR = large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ship.
a. This ship is expected to be delivered in November 1997 (fiscal year 1998).

Are large ROROs (LMSRs) preferable to smaller ones? Large vessels have the virtue of holding more cargo and can travel somewhat faster, but they may need special accommodations and could congest port operations. Since LMSRs are up to 950 feet long, they require large berths when unloading cargo from their side ramps.(14) And when they are fully loaded, their drafts require deep ports.

Today, DoD's major planning scenarios--conflicts on the Korean Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf--are located in regions that can easily accommodate large ships. Both Saudi Arabia and South Korea have modern port facilities with berths that are long and deep enough for LMSRs. But less well equipped facilities could pose problems. During Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, for example, the port at Mogadishu had only one berth capable of handling 950-foot ships. For that reason, the six SL-7s that carried Army cargo to Somalia had to unload one at a time, whereas smaller ships probably could have unloaded more quickly.(15)

Could DoD Rely More on Commercial Shipping?

Military officials base their numerical requirements for sealift primarily on the ability to deploy cargo, particularly to major regional contingencies. But over the past several years, defense officials and the Congress have been at odds about whether DoD needs its own fleet of ships to meet those requirements or can rely to a greater degree on commercial shipping.

In particular, the Congress has taken issue with at least one aspect of the Administration's sealift plan: buying foreign-built ROROs for the Ready Reserve Force. In recent years it has turned down DoD's request to buy and reflag foreign-built ROROs, instead authorizing and appropriating funds to establish a national defense features program.

The Congress's Preference: A National Defense Features Program

Under such a program, DoD would pay for the cost of building, installing, and maintaining national defense features on commercial ships.(16) For example, DoD might cover the cost of strengthening ramps and decks on ships that carry automobiles so they could also bear the weight of tanks. Representatives of shipping companies have met with Navy officials to discuss which features would be most useful to the military but would not leave the ships commercially uncompetitive.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for a national defense features program is its relatively low cost. Commercial carriers would bear most of the expense of procuring the ships and operating them during peacetime, allowing the military to avoid those costs. DoD's own analysis suggests that over a 40-year period, the cost per square foot of cargo capacity on a commercial ship with special features would be one-half to two-thirds that on a reflagged RORO in the RRF.(17) That calculation includes the cost not only of installing and maintaining the features but also of paying the annual operating subsidies that the Congress historically has provided to U.S. ship operators.

Another argument by proponents is that a national defense features program would ensure that trained and fully staffed crews were available when needed. In recent years, supporters of U.S. merchant mariners have warned that DoD might not have adequate crews of U.S. citizens if it needed to activate the Ready Reserve Force. The number of licensed and unlicensed U.S. mariners is projected to fall by 2001, which might leave just enough to crew ships for a major conflict.(18) Under a national defense features program, DoD would not need to find as many crews for RRF ships because it would rely more on commercial vessels, which would already have U.S. crews aboard.

That issue is a contentious one, however. In an exercise conducted in 1996, the Maritime Administration found that more than 8,200 mariners were available to fill about 2,300 positions if the RRF had been activated. And DoD's manpower requirements will fall if it retires breakbulk ships from the RRF as it plans.

A national defense features program could also benefit the U.S. shipbuilding industry, which has fared poorly in recent years. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. shipyards built few commercial vessels; instead, they focused on DoD orders. That attention to the military market resulted from two factors: significant growth in Navy spending for hull construction, and a 1981 decision by the Reagan Administration to cancel subsidies that underwrote the difference in construction costs between U.S. and foreign ships. Without that support, U.S. shipbuilders lost commercial orders to foreign shipyards that built vessels at a lower cost. Although some foreign governments have subsidized the cost of building ships, U.S. shipbuilders have until recently been slower to invest in more modern facilities and equipment than their foreign competitors. By raising the demand for military characteristics on new commercial ships, a national defense features program might bring new business to U.S. shipbuilders.

DoD's Preference: Purchase a Military Fleet

Before the 1980s, DoD relied on the U.S. merchant fleet and commercial ship operators from NATO countries to deliver not only sustainment cargo for military operations but also unit equipment. With the growing popularity of containerships among U.S.-flag carriers, however, defense officials argue that DoD needs its own fleet of ROROs. Although ship operators can fit special racks on containerships to help them accommodate a limited number of military vehicles, ROROs can be loaded and unloaded more quickly and are better suited for the large number of vehicles that DoD would need to transport to a major conflict. Indeed, some analysts argue that it is simply impossible to modify containerships enough to make them as useful to the Army as ROROs within the time constraints of a major regional conflict.(19)

Although defense officials are interested in the capability that a national defense features program could provide, they believe the best method to add to DoD's surge sealift capacity would be to buy and reflag used, foreign-built ROROs. According to DoD documents, commercial ships with national defense features might replace ships that will be retired after 2000. But for the near term, officials believe that buying foreign-built ROROs would allow DoD to reach its requirement for surge sealift more quickly than would constructing new commercial ships with national defense features, which might take two or three years.

A dedicated fleet of military ships might also be ready to depart more quickly than privately owned vessels, which could be far from the United States at the start of a conflict. Under a national defense features program, operators of commercial ships would immediately steam their vessels at top speed back to U.S. seaports when notified. How long might that take? In a study requested by the Congress, DoD found that in 1991 and 1992, about 50 percent of commercial 20-knot ROROs would have needed 15 days to steam to a designated port, and about 90 percent could have steamed where needed within 25 days.(20) With those time frames, commercial ROROs probably could not deliver the initial surge of cargo for major contingencies. However, they might help transport unit equipment to reinforce combat operations.

Some analysts contend that a national defense features program and arguments about the declining number of merchant mariners are thinly veiled appeals to subsidize U.S. shipyards and shipping companies.(21) Others argue that the federal government's policy of protecting shipbuilders and the merchant fleet is even contributing to its demise.(22) DoD's recent investments in its own fleet of ROROs suggest there is less national security justification for subsidizing U.S.-flag ships than in earlier times. The Navy has also begun employing more civilian crews on auxiliary and prepositioning ships during peacetime--a trend that may help ensure that crews of U.S. citizens are available for war. And there are alternative ways to make sure adequate manpower is available, such as establishing a reserve crew program or leasing RRF ships back to commercial operators during peacetime.(23) For those reasons, military officials have been reluctant to include the cost of operating subsidies for U.S. carriers in DoD's budget.

A Third Approach: Charter U.S.- and Foreign-Flag Ships When Needed

Critics of both the Administration's plan and a national defense features program might argue that neither is critical for ensuring adequate surge sealift. Instead, the United States could simply charter U.S. and foreign vessels to supplement the Ready Reserve Force when needed for major contingencies. But for such an approach to work, DoD would need to count on foreign crews and ships during time of war.

The U.S. military has relied extensively on chartered ships as recently as in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm: it contracted for 29 U.S.-flag and 162 foreign-flag dry-cargo vessels that ultimately delivered 12.3 million square feet of unit equipment and support cargo.(24) The first of those U.S.-flag ROROs was ready to depart just 12 days after the start of the deployment, and the first foreign-flag charter was ready in 19 days. Chartered ships moved 30 percent of combat and support equipment during the first phase of the deployment and more than 50 percent during the second phase.

Why were charters used so extensively? At the time of the Gulf War, the Ready Reserve Force contained just 17 ROROs, the preferred vessel for transporting military vehicles. Thus, DoD looked to the commercial market to supplement those ships. The RRF was also slow to activate; only 20 out of 62 dry-cargo ships were activated on schedule.(25) By comparison, chartered vessels were readily available and came with full crews on board.

Charters were also less expensive than RRF ships. According to a study by the Center for Naval Analyses, the average daily cost for chartered ROROs was $23,000, compared with a daily operating cost for RRF ships of about $40,000.(26) Charters compared favorably because DoD bore the expense of only a one-way trip, and it did not have to pay for activating and deactivating those ships as it would with the Ready Reserve Force.

Yet DoD officials contend that in the future the United States may not have the same degree of cooperation from the international community, and thus foreign charters may not be available. If the United States had faced a foe more capable of interdicting sea lanes than Iraq, commercial charters might have found the task too risky to undertake.

1. James K. Matthews and Cora J. Holt, So Many, So Much, So Far, So Fast: United States Transportation Command and Strategic Deployment for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Research Center, U.S. Transportation Command, 1995), pp. 13, 116.

2. Department of Defense, Final Report to Congress: Conduct of the Persian Gulf War (April 1992), p. 378.

3. Navy League of the United States, The Almanac of Seapower, 1996 (Arlington, Va.: Navy League of the United States, 1996), p. 166.

4. Matthews and Holt, So Many, So Much, So Far, So Fast, p. 116.

5. However, the Antares had just completed six months of exercises prior to Operation Desert Shield and was scheduled to undergo major repairs before returning to service. Thus, DoD assumed the risk that the Antares might suffer a maintenance problem when it activated the ship. See Matthews and Holt, So Many, So Much, So Far, So Fast, p. 120.

6. A few of the 31 ROROs are being used temporarily to preposition Army equipment in the Indian Ocean. Those ships are not considered part of DoD's sealift capacity that would surge from the United States.

7. DoD officials blame chronic underfunding for the slow activation of RRF ships during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. More recent experience, when DoD activated ships for operations in Haiti, suggests that the RRF is in better shape today. See Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mobility Requirements Study Bottom-Up Review Update (February 13, 1995), p. IV-B-11.

8. Over the past 60 years, the federal government has paid a total of $10 billion in operating-differential subsidies through the Maritime Administration. The last of those contracts with commercial shippers has expired, but the Congress recently replaced that arrangement with the Maritime Security Program, which will provide operators of 47 U.S.-flag ships with nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years.

9. Bill McAllister, "End of Merchant Marine May Be on the Horizon," Washington Post, September 18, 1995, pp. A1, A10.

10. Eric Schmitt, "The Senate Clears $1 Billion in Subsidies to Shipping Lines," New York Times, September 25, 1996, p. D1.

11. EUSC refers to ships owned by U.S. citizens that are registered under the flags of Panama, Honduras, Liberia, the Bahamas, or the Marshall Islands. If the President requisitioned U.S.-flag commercial ships during a national emergency, EUSC vessels would be available as well.

12. Department of Defense, Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict: An Interim Report to Congress (1991), p. 3-3.

13. Sean Naylor, "VISA Buys Access to Sealift Resources," Army Times, September 4, 1995.

14. That problem may be mitigated somewhat because LMSRs will be equipped with stern ramps so they can sit perpendicular to a dock to unload.

15. David Kassing, Transporting the Army for Operation Restore Hope, MR-384-A (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1994), p. xiv.

16. In order to comply with the recent shipbuilding agreement among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, federal funds could not be spent on features that are typically found on commercial ships.

17. Department of Defense, Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, National Defense Features (February 8, 1995), p. 6.

18. Robert Kestelroot, "For Whom the Bell Tolls: The U.S. Merchant Marine," in Navy League of the United States, The Almanac of Seapower (Arlington, Va.: Navy League of the United States, 1996), p. 78.

19. Owen Cote Jr., "Enhancing Surge Sealift Capabilities: The Case for the Ready Reserve Fleet" (unpublished paper, Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, 1995), p. 4.

20. Department of Defense, National Defense Features, Appendix F.

21. Cote, "Enhancing Surge Sealift Capabilities," p. 4.

22. Rob Quartel, "America's Welfare Queen Fleet: The Need for Maritime Policy Reform," Regulation: The Cato Review of Business & Government (Summer 1991), pp. 58-67.

23. Michael Blaney, "Ready Reserve Ships Require Ready Reserve Crews," Naval Institute Proceedings (January 1995), pp. 50-51.

24. Ronald Rost, John Addams, and John Nelson, Sealift in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm: 7 August 1990 to 17 February 1991, CRM91-109 (Alexandria, Va.: Center for Naval Analyses, May 1991), pp. 30-31.

25. Matthews and Holt, So Many, So Much, So Far, So Fast, p. 122.

26. Rost, Addams, and Nelson, Sealift in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, p. 31.

Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page