By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. –
Two years ago, the United States Transportation Command, in conjunction with the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) undertook Exercise Turbo Activation 19+. This endeavor, from 18 to 29 September 2019, activated 33 of the 61 ships in the nation’s sealift fleet. At the end of August 2021, these agencies repeated this exercise, albeit on a smaller scale. A total of 18 out of 54 ships were scheduled to activate, one from MSC and seventeen from MARAD. In the backdrop of a global pandemic, a massive hurricane coming ashore in Louisiana, and the evacuation of Afghanistan that diverted much of the world’s attention, this second test aimed to highlight if things have improved with the nation’s strategic sealift fleet.
Two years ago, there were 46 ships in MARAD’s Ready Reserve Force and 15 held by MSC in a reduced operating status. Their goal is to be able to sail five days after activation is given and head to a port of embarkation to load military cargo for a potential contingency. These ships were used in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and again in 2003 for the invasion of Iraq. The vessels have a nucleus crew but insufficient to fully operate the ships. Since the exercise two years ago, five ships have been removed from the Ready Reserve Force – two crane ships, two barge ships, and the sole tanker. MSC has also reduced their fleet by two ships, with plans to phase out some converted vessels.
The genesis for these large peacetime exercises were testimonies by the heads of U.S. Transportation Command, General Stephen Lyons, and the then head of the Maritime Administration, Mark Buzby, in March 2019. They both highlighted the critical shortfalls and potential issues with an activation of the strategic sealift force, designed to transport nearly 10 million square feet of cargo from the continental United States to military commands overseas. The goal is that force would be at 85% operational readiness, with some ships down for periodic maintenance and repairs. The result of the test in 2019 netted a 40.7% cumulative fleet success rate. While only one out of 33 vessels failed to sortie, there were numerous operational and mechanical issues with those that did put to sea.
Perhaps more troubling, was the short duration of the exercise and the fact that the fleet was not even put to a full stress test. The exercise did not involve loading any cargo. There were attempts to convoy some of the ships, but there was a lack of U.S. Navy escorts to provide any protection. Since not all ships in the fleet were activated and the advertisement for crews were for a set period, many mariners shifted over from other vessels or took the jobs in between their full-time posts. This meant that the personnel aspect of crewing the strategic sealift force was never fully tested. The 2021 exercise repeated these errors and went a step further.
Turbo Activation 21 called for one MSC Large Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off carrier – USNS Gordon – to be activated. It called for seventeen ships from the RRF. These included five Fast Sealift Ships (SS Antares, Bellatrix, Capella, Pollux, and Regulus), a crane ship (SS Cornhusker State), and eleven ro/ros (GTS Adm Wm M Callaghan, SS Cape Island, MV Cape Douglas, Cape Domingo, Cape Kennedy, Cape Race, Cape Rise, Cape Taylor, Cape Trinity, Cape Vincent and Cape Washington). The ships were located on the East, West, and Gulf coasts. Since the emergence of the Delta variant of COVID and due to local regulations, along with that of MSC and MARAD, crews who signed on board for the exercise initially had to undergo quarantine and testing before being allowed on board. This prolonged the activation of the vessels beyond the normal five days.
Added to this, Hurricane Ida coming ashore in Louisiana prevented the sortie of MV Cape Kennedy and SS Bellatrix. In Charleston, MV Cape Douglas did not sail with the other ships, and it is unclear why. Of the rest, USNS Gordon, SS Antares, Cornhusker State, MV Cape Domingo, Cape Race, Cape Rise, and Cape Washington sailed from the East Coast. Along the Texas coast, to the west of Ida, SS Pollux, Regulus, MV Cape Taylor, Cape Trinity and Cape Vincent headed into the Gulf of Mexico. On the West Coast, SS Cape Island, Capella, and GTS Adm Wm M Callaghan all stretched their legs.
As in Turbo Activation 19+, this exercise has its limitations. Once again, the ships did not load but tested their capabilities. While the ships sailed, we do not yet know the results of their tests and whether the ships were fully operational. As in the past, the prolonged activation due to COVID and the finite activation period did not stress test the crewing concerns of the strategic sealift force. One other observation concerns the fact that not all the ships of any one class were activated, meaning that a sistership of all those sailing was available for parts and potential crews if needed. It should also be noted that three other ships, USNS Fisher, Gilliland and MV Cape Henry were on exercises during this test but were not included in the Turbo Activation.
At the conclusion of Turbo Activation 19+, U.S. Transportation Command released a substantial after-action report and hopefully the same will be done with this operation. In many ways, this test continues to highlight concerns with the strategic sealift fleet. First, the ships are continuing to age, with Adm Wm M Callaghan at the oldest, having been placed in service in 1967 and possesses the first two LM2500 gas turbine engines. Second, with the focus on potential issues in the Far East and recent blockage of the Suez Canal in March, is the current basing program for the sealift fleet appropriate? Only three out of eighteen ships were on the West Coast. Third, the long lead time in crewing and the short testing period does not place a stress test on the personnel of the merchant marine. Many of the crews were pulled from Jones Act vessels or from personnel in between voyages. What would happen in a prolonged – greater than six month – emergency?
Fourth, with the end of construction differential subsidies in the 1980s, there are no longer ships being retired into the Ready Reserve Force. Instead, the Maritime Administration purchases vessels on the open market. They did this after the Persian Gulf War, but this has a detrimental impact on the nation’s shipyards and maritime infrastructure, inflating costs for those few ships built for the protected cabotage trade. Crowley was recently contracted to procure commercial ships on the open market, reflag, convert, and incorporate the ships into the surge sealift fleet, but the timing could not be worse due to enhanced demand for tonnage in the commercial trade. Finally, the split manning of the surge sealift force between Military Sealift Command and the Maritime Administration needs to be addressed.
When the Ready Reserve Force was created in 1977, it was a subset of the National Defense Reserve Fleet of ships remaining from the Maritime Commission building program of World War Two, and ships under the construction differential subsidies. Today, both MSC and MARAD contract with companies to operate the ships. The RAND Corporation did a study comparing the operating concepts of the two entities, but the larger question that should be asked, is which of the two is the better to bear this responsibility? The Maritime Administration’s mission is America’s waterborne transportation system, whereas Military Sealift Command is to provide the Department of Defense with sealift through the U.S. Transportation Command. Since the RRF has a purely military focus – although ships have been used for natural disasters – it seems that a realignment of surge sealift may be necessary.
The results from Turbo Activation 21 will hopefully indicate improvements in the readiness of the surge sealift fleet to support military commands overseas. However, the continue aging of the fleet, lack of replacements, and the decline in the commercial American merchant marine all need to be addressed. While US flag ships have supported Operation Atlantic Resolve and Defender Europe, there are questions if the ships in the 60-ship Maritime Security Program and the 54-vessel surge sealift force could handle a potential full-scale conflict. The test in 2019, and now this one two years later, should be the wake-up call for nation’s sealift capability.
Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an associate professor of History at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina and teaches courses in World Maritime History and Maritime Security.
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