Military Sealift Command (MSC) is sailing in “contested waters” today and the military needs to consider changing the way it operates, such as relearning how to conduct armed escort missions as it did in World War II, the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command (TransCom) said Nov. 15.Okay, let's look at the issues:
TransCom also is in discussions with the Navy on how it could replace the badly aged ships in the sealift and prepositioning fleets, possibly by buying low-cost used merchant ships, Air Force Gen. Darren McDew said.
Damage to UAE operated vessel Swift after missile attack off Yemen
Speaking at an Air Force Association breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club, McDew was asked about the concerns of Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, commander of MSC — which is part of TransCom — that the growing threats from potential adversaries, such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, means that his ships will be sailing into “contested waters.”
“They doing that now,” McDew said, possibly referring to the missile attacks against two MSC ships operating off of Yemen earlier this year.
And the contested environment “doesn’t start when they get under way. It starts before they leave port,” he added, repeating his earlier warnings about the threat all of his command faces from cyber attacks and disruption of the space-based navigation systems.
McDew compared the potential threat to the MSC vessels to the horrific losses inflicted
by German submarines on the Merchant Mariners crossing the Atlantic in World War II. Those civilian seaman “died at the highest rate of any U.S. force” in the war he said.
"Armed Escort" FFGs in 1982
To help counter that threat, “in World War II, we had armed convoys,” he noted. “We haven’t had to worry about that since then. Maybe we have to look at what armed escort looks like.”
The general suggested that today’s cyber threats could equal the danger from World War II submarines.
The military will have to think differently because “those lines of communications will be contested.”
Asked about Mewbourne’s concerns about the advanced age of his sealift and prepositioning ships, McDew said he was in discussions with the Navy on how to modernize the sealift fleets.
He said the National Defense Authorization Act, which may be approved by Congress by the end of the month, has language that “would allow us to buy used vessels. There are ships on the market now that would cost one-half or one-third as much as new ships, and are available for pennies on the dollar.”
Those ships could be modernized and modified in U.S. shipyards, so “everyone wins,” he said.
McDew noted that he is “the largest owner of steam ships in the world,” but does not want that distinction, adding that virtually all the world’s commercial vessels have diesel engines, which are cheaper and require fewer Sailors.
- The threat environment has changed so that, at the very least, near shore sealift shipping is threatened by both state and non-state actors. This is true because of the proliferation of anti-shipping cruise missiles that can be transported by truck and operated with ease (see War Is Boring To Threaten Ships, the Houthis Improvised a Missile Strike Force ). While the most recent example is that of the cited missile attacks off Yemen, the issue has been very ripe since 2006 when Hezbollah, apparently aided by Iran, fired a C-802 missile at an Israeli warship. The threat of such missile attacks by state actors has, of course, been around much longer (also Iran: Silkworm on the Hormuz).
- The "sealift fleet" is old and too small. See Not Sexy But Important: "IG launches review of Military Sealift Command readiness problems".While it may be possible to modernize the sealift fleet by buying more modern used ships and refurbishing them for military use, there are issues in protecting those newer (and the current) ships both from cyber and sea-going threats. General McDew notes the need for "armed escorts." The U. S. Navy retired its last "designed to convoy" escort Perry-class FFG-7 frigates without replacements in 2015. Now the Navy is looking for a new FFX to fill the gap - and in seeming recognition that the Littoral Combat Ship is not a suitable vessel for the task - which it was never intended to perform.
- Underlying all of the above is the sound recognition that "sea control" in today's world is far more complex than it was in the time of a couple of near peer navies. With the land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, the safe haven of being "offshore" has moved much further from land than it used to be. Using a putative fisherman having a hand-held GPS and a radio, or using small drones flown from the beach, the targeting of shipping offshore does not really require expensive shore based or aerial targeting radars to launch missiles with their own target seeking capabilities.
- As a result, all those "chokepoints" so vital to sea lines of communication are threatened as never before. While the U. S. has long relied on "out-teching" adversaries, the speed with which technology changes to counter such tech is worrisome and requires both more hardware both of a counter-battery nature and defense to be spread to more vessels, including to those combat logistics force ships now operated by MSC as unarmed, mostly civilian manned units. It may be time, under the rules that govern arming such ships to return to the day when mnay such ships were manned by Navy officers and sailors, or at least to return to the days of "Navy Armed Guards" but with very modern weaponry to counter these threats.