An Allied convoy heads eastward across the Atlantic, bound for Casablanca, in November 1942. U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-474788), Post-Work: User:W.wolny – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 520948.
- We have too few ships
- The ships we have are old
- These old ships are in many cases steam powered
- These ships may not have been maintained as well as they should have been
- We have too few mariners to man the ships
- Too few of the mariners we do have know how to run steam ships
- Most of our mariners have no concept of how to contend with a wartime environment
- and, oh by the way the Navy does not have ships to protect the few ships we have as they make their way through contested waters.
After outlining the problem, I’ll talk about how the Coast Guard might mitigate the problem.
DefenseNews in a post, “The US Army is preparing to fight in Europe, but can it even get there?” reports,
The U.S. sealift capacity — the ships that would ultimately be used to transport Army equipment from the states to Europe or Asia — is orders of magnitude smaller than it was during World War II. Combine that with the fact that the commercial shipbuilding industry in the U.S. is all but gone, and the U.S. can’t launch the kind of massive buildup of logistics ships it undertook during wartime decades ago.
Among the ships the country has for sealift and logistics forces, the Government Accountability Office has found a steady increase in mission-limiting equipment failures, which raises questions about how many might actually be available if the balloon goes up.
The ships the U.S. counts among its ready stock available for a large-scale contingency are 46 ships in the Ready Reserve Force, 15 ships in the Military Sealift Command surge force, and roughly 60 U.S.-flagged commercial ships in the Maritime Security Program available to the military in a crisis,
The 46 Ready Reserve Force ships, overseen by the Maritime Administration, are old and rapidly approaching the end of their hull life, as are many of the senior engineers who are still qualified and able to work on the aging steam propulsion plants.
DefenseNews commentary, “The US armed forces have a mobility problem,” reports,
“Our Merchant Marine fleet’s wartime role is to move weapons, ammunition, troops, equipment, fuel and supplies. Our current fleet — simply put — does not have the capacity to meet today’s requirements.
“We don’t have enough ships, and even if we did we don’t currently have the crews to sail them. We’re short at least 1,800 merchant mariners.
“The human capital shortage may be worse than the shortage in ships. A report by the Maritime Administration to Congress highlighted the problem. The report “estimates that 11,768 qualified mariners … are available to crew the Ready Reserve Force … the estimated demand for mariners [in an emergency] is 13,607.” ”
There is a Navy Times report, “Pentagon investigators slam military’s oversight of supply ships,” based on an IG report that looked at 20 ships we have in the MSC’s Prepositioning Program. It seems to indicate that some of these ships, already loaded with critical equipment, may not be ready to sail.
Perhaps most troubling of all, “‘You’re on your own,’ US sealift can’t count on US navy escorts in the next big war,” that reports
“The Navy has been candid enough with Military Sealift Command and me that they will probably not have enough ships to escort us. It’s: ‘You’re on your own; go fast, stay quiet,’” Buzby told Defense News in an interview earlier this year.
The head of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Adm. James Foggo, tried to put a positive spin of the personnel shortage, “The tradition of the Merchant Marine is we go to sea no matter what, damn the torpedoes. Most of us believe that our people will not be dissuaded. But until they walk up the gangway, you never know.”
It does seem that the fleet obsolescence may be addressed, but the lack of personnel and escort ships remain.
A Modern Convoy:
I have real problems with the idea of independent sailing in the age of satellite reconnaissance, not only because the ships become easy pickings, but also because there would be no one to rescue the crews. This would certainly make mariners think twice before signing on. The answer is as old as naval warfare, convoy. Certainly we are not likely to ever see the likes of WWII convoys, with ships steaming only a few hundred yards apart. Ranges of both sensors and weapons have increased by an order of magnitude or more. We don’t want one sub to be able to simultaneously target several ships. A modern convoy would be spread over a much greater area, perhaps a moving grid 100 miles on a side. It might include escorting ships, but it would certainly include at least one escorting aircraft.
WHAT THE COAST GUARD CAN DO?:
A little Coast Guard History:
It might be worthwhile to look at what was done in the past. Before the start of WWII both the US Navy and Army had transports. The Navy transports were manned by regular Navy personnel. The Army transports were manned by civilians. During a large scale exercise before the war started, the civilian mariners refused to operate with darkened ships, considering it unsafe. This lead to the Coast Guard being assigned to crew these transports. Personnel were available because ten cutters had been lend leased to the British and their crews were available. These were the first of 351 Navy ships and craft manned by Coast Guard crews. While these included over 100 surface combatants, most of them convoy escorts, the rest were mostly transports and landing ships and craft. In addition the Coast Guard manned 288 Army vessels, mostly small inter-island freighters.
So what can we do now?
Encourage Coast Guard members to become credentialed mariners:
The first thing the Coast Guard might do is to encourage and facilitate the credentialing of personnel by the time they leave the service. The Coast Guard Cuttermen’s Association has provided guidance as to how coastguardsmen can become credentialed mariners, “”A Coasties Companion Guide to the Mariner Licensing Process” (PDF document).
A Navy program, Credentialing Opportunities On-line (COOL), in partnership with Military Sealift Command (MSC), provides training in a military to mariner program. that may be open, or if not already, could be opened, to the Coast Guard.
Money is the sincerest expression of appreciation, and if this is a national security issue, perhaps there should be a monetary incentive to obtain and maintain mariner’s credentials after a member separates from the service (Navy or Coast Guard). Apparently there is still on the books (46 U.S. Code 51701) provision for the Secretary of Transportation to set up a United States Maritime Service that could:
- Determine the number of individuals to be enrolled for training and reserve purposes in the Service:
- Fix the rates of pay and allowances of the individuals…
- Prescribe the course of study and the periods of training for the Service; and
- Prescribe the uniform of the Service and the rules on providing and wearing the uniform.
Add Reserve Units capable of manning US ships:
The Coast Guard Reserve could be expanded to include crewmembers for these ships, either as augmentees or as complete crews. Some of the MSC ships currently have mixed crews of military and civilians. Presumably if the ship had an all military crew, it would be a commissioned ship, rather than an MSC ship.
Provide Rescue Ships:
If we had a modern convoy, watched over by Maritime Patrol Aircraft, a Coast Guard cutter equipped with helicopter could act as rescue vessel. It would probably be positioned near the center of the convoy perhaps toward the rear. Its helicopter could remove the crew of a sinking ship and the cutter could provide damage control assistance.
Provide Administrative Escort:
The same ship that provides rescue and assistance might also serve as an administrative escort. The idea is to use the superior communications ability of the larger cutters including the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) on the National Security Cutters (and perhaps the Offshore Patrol Cutters) to route the convoy away from danger.
Bring Back the Coast Guard ASW program:
Perhaps it is time to revive the Coast Guard’s ASW capability. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Coast Guard dismantled its ASW capability as no longer relevant, but things have changed. China appears increasingly aggressive and is building a modern fleet at an alarming rate. Russia is also resurgent with their submarines now patrolling at levels similar to those seen during the cold war, while our own Navy has been drastically reduced. It appears, in ten to twenty years we will face a naval challenge greater than pre-WWII Japan. I don’t really think the 20 planned FFGs are going to be enough. Providing suitable weapons and sensors for the eleven NSCs and 25 OPCs, augmented by Navy Reserve ASW helicopters, could make a huge difference in our ability to move supplies and equipment safely across the Oceans.