Turbo Activation – A Sealift Surge, or just a Trickle?

Military Sealift Command large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (LMSR) vessel USNS Benavidez (T-AKR 306), departs Lambert’s Point Shipyard alongside USNS Mendonca (T-AKR 303) for Turbo Activation, September 21, 2019.  U.S. Navy Photo

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.  – In September, gCaptain reported on Turbo Activation 19-Plus, US Transportation Command’s largest peacetime exercise of the 61-ship surge sealift fleet. Initial assessments, gathered from unclassified sources reported that 23 out of the 28 ships activated on Monday, September 16, 2019, were able to get underway to meet their readiness benchmark. Further orders were issued on September 18 for three ships and another two on September 21, for a total of 33 vessels. This represented an 82 percent success rate. All told, 32 ships plus 4 others on scheduled exercises, or more than half of the surge sealift fleet, were underway; the most since the deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The exercise raises the question, is the U.S. ready to meet the next contingency?

The surge sealift fleet, with 15 ships maintained by the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and 46 by the Maritime Administration’s (MarAd) Ready Reserve Force (RRF), provides a key ingredient in the nation’s military strategy. The United States relies on merchant shipping to provide four essential missions in the execution of national defense.

The first are those ships that provide direct fleet support to the U.S. Navy, such as oilers and supply ships. Out of the 293 ships in the U.S. Navy battle force, 20 percent utilize civilian merchant mariners as their crews. The second element are ships loaded and forward based in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with materiel and equipment, known as the Afloat Prepositioning Force. To transport forces from the Continental United States, that is the role of the surge sealift fleet. Finally, to provide the necessary sustainment is the commercial U.S. merchant marine.

A disruption of any of these four elements could have a detrimental impact on the ability of the armed forces to execute its mission. Admiral Mark Buzby, the head of the Maritime Administration (MarAd), and General Steven Lyons, the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, testified before Congress in March 2019 that the surge sealift fleet was in a precarious condition due to its age (the ships are on average 44 years old), the difficulty in obtaining qualified crews, and the fleet’s overall reliability.

On December 16, 2019, Vice Admiral Dee Mewbourne, former commander of Military Sealift Command (MSC), and currently Deputy Commander of US Transportation Command, released an after-action report on the exercise. The purpose of the report was: “to objectively evaluate the ability of as many Organic Surge Fleet vessels as possible to transition from Reduced Operating Status (ROS) to Full Operating Status (FOS) within 120 hours; and to assess the vessel’s performance.” The executive summary ominously notes, “The findings indicate that the surge sealift fleet has many issues that can negatively impact the nation’s ability to surge forces from the continental United States overseas.”

The report’s first issue is perhaps the most troubling. During their testimony earlier this year, Admiral Buzby and General Lyons provided a graphic that showed 13 out of the 61 ships were “Not Mission Capable,” meaning they were unable to be used due to mechanical issues. Ships are assigned a C-rating from fully mission capable C-1, to not prepared for mission, C-5. When the orders were issued for Turbo Activation 19-Plus six months later, 22 ships were identified with casualties that placed them non-mission capable; either in a C-4 (12 ships) or C-5 (10 ships) category. These 22 vessels reduced the overall total of 10.5 million square feet of cargo space by 3.7 million. This equates to a ready for tasking rate of 63.9 % (39 out of 61 ships).

Second, the report confirmed what gCaptain earlier reported with 27 out of 33 (81.8%) being Ready for Sea. The six ships that did not meet this objective experienced a myriad of issues. In Beaumont, Texas, two ships (Cape Texas and Cape Trinity) were delayed due to rain and high water as a result of Tropical Storm Imelda. Another vessel (Regulus) was unable to sail due to air clearance under the Martin Luther King Bridge in Port Arthur. Fisher was delayed by two days due to a malfunctioning Simplified Voyage Data Recorder (the ship’s black box). Gilliland was delayed only a few hours due to a sounding tube’s self-closing valve. The last ship, Capella, experienced a stateroom fire that required an additional US Coast Guard inspection.

The third finding evaluated the Qualitative Mission Success Rate, which examined nearly all ship operations from full power test, to the anchor windlass, to steering gear, to crew training, and water distilling capacity. The report breaks down 17 categories and whether the ship experienced any mechanical casualties while a sea. A total of three ships – Cape Mohican, Fisher, and Mendonca – experienced issues that placed the ships into a C-4 category. A total of 9 ships had discrepancies that could have impacted their ability to perform, equating to a 77.8% success.

A major concern was that of the four Large Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off ships (LMSRs) – which are the newest and prime cargo movers in the surge sealift fleet, capable of transporting 350,000 square feet of cargo apiece, and designed with a service speed of 24 knots. None of the LMSRs successfully completed their Operational Speed Run. USNS Fisher was limited to 18 knots due to sheared turbocharger foundation bolts. Benavidez experienced a high jacket water temperature condition that limited her to 16.4 knots. Mendonca experienced a load sharing failure with two of its main engines and were grounds to limit its ability to even sail on an oceanic voyage.

The last finding is perhaps the most damning as it takes the 63.9% Ready for Tasking level, the 81.8% Ready for Sea rating, and the 77.8% Qualitative Mission Success Rate and develops an overall score for the surge sealift fleet. The readiness goal is to have an 85% availability rate to support large-scale force deployments. Based on the performance results from Turbo Activation 19-Plus, the report identifies, “The low Cumulative Fleet Success Rate of 40.7% suggests the Organic Surge Fleet is challenged to meet these objectives.” With a capacity of 10.5 million square feet of cargo space in the surge fleet, this means that combatant commanders can count on a little over 4.2 million square feet.

There are twenty specific conclusions and ten recommendations, all of which aim to address these, and other issues identified in the context of the report. The ability of the US Transportation Command, MSC, MarAd, the shipping companies, and the unions involved to achieve the activation of 33 ships is an impressive undertaken, but there are some questions that should also be raised by the exercise.

The two government agencies – MarAd and MSC – operated and tested their vessels in different manners. A RAND Corporation report earlier this year, Approaches to Strategic Sealift Readiness, discussed the different operating philosophies of the two organizations and questioned if it should be centralized. MSC embarked tactical advisors from the Strategic Sealift Officers program on board to provide secure communication and to practice convoying operations. Noticeably missing from these convoy exercises were any warships from the U.S. Navy. This was not an oversight as David Larter reported last October in Defense News, the Navy has informed MarAd and MSC that “You’re on your own,” when it comes to escorts.

One of the underlying issues in the report was the impact of outside factors. The 61 ships are sited around the nation with 19 on the West Coast, 11 along the Gulf of Mexico, and 31 on the East Coast. Tropical Storm Imelda caused two ships to sail late and one not to sortie due to air draft clearances; plans are to lower the mast on the vessel. The impact of weather and storms, along with geopolitics may have a serious impact on the ability of the surge fleet to respond. Falling water levels in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal, along with rising Chinese interests in the Canal could hinder transits. Add to this, uncertainty in the Middle East and the situation in the South China Sea, could mean that the reduced number of ships available along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico may have extended sea voyages to reach areas such as the Persian Gulf or East Asia.

While mentioned in the body of the report but missing from its key findings is the concern with the crewing of the ships. Except for weather delays getting crews into Texas, there were no significant issues with obtaining personnel. The 33 ships possessed 333 mariners on board at the start of the exercise as part of their reduced operating status cadres. A total of 683 additional mariners were needed to complete the crewing. USTRANSCOM reported that “overall, the sufficiency and proficiency of the mariner fleet proved to be satisfactory for the Organic Surge Fleet mission set.”

Not extrapolated in the report are several important aspects of crewing. The number of Unlimited Tonnage United States credentialed merchant mariners is declining due to the availability of shipping jobs. As of December 15, 2019, only 185 unlimited tonnage ships remained under U.S. flag. This is down from a total of 246 in 2003 and nearly 400 in 1990. Missing was data concerning where the 683 mariners came from, specifically, are they commonly employed in international trade or on Jones Act vessels – those in the protected coastwise trade. The unions posted these jobs as 10-day voyages, so some mariners may have taken these jobs between their permanent duties, or they may have come from other assignments. Steam propulsion was used in 16 of the ships activated. With the implementation of IMO 2020, the number of licensed, and experienced steam engineers will plummet as these vessels are phased out from commercial operations.

Finally, the last question, that goes beyond the parameters of Turbo Activation 19-Plus, is what impact this will have on the plans to recapitalize the surge sealift fleet. The White House recently rejected the Navy’s initial plan, entitled CHAMP (Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform) as too expensive. There are other alternatives to the simple concept of building a new version of the LMSRs and procuring used vessels on the foreign market to restock the RRF. What is apparent to all involved is the critical state of the surge sealift fleet should a contingency arise tomorrow. The upcoming Defender 2020 exercises will further test the viability of these assets.

Based on the results of Turbo Activation 19-Plus, without the immediate enacting of the recommendations and findings in the report, and an entire overhaul of the nation’s sealift forces, the combatant commands may not be able to rely on the merchant marine as it has in the past. A position foretold by gCaptain’s own John Konrad in an editorial earlier this year entitled, “Admiral, I Am NOT Ready for War.”

As political attacks are mounted against the Jones Act fleet by well-funded think tanks such as CATO and AEI, and efforts to curtail fleet support assets and Maritime Security Program (MSP) funding are debated, the ability to supply the bombs, beans, and bullets to American military forces, should they be able to deploy overseas in the first place, may be in jeopardy. Not since the First World War has the United States faced a situation where its ability to be an expeditionary force may be in question due to its lack of a viable merchant marine to maintain its seaborne logistic bridge and the nation’s position as a major maritime power may be in doubt.