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Monday, April 03, 2023

Protecting Sealift Ships in Transit

Back in 2018, there appeared this article in Defense News: ‘You’re on your own’: US sealift can’t count on Navy escorts in the next big war

In the event of a major war with China or Russia, the U.S. Navy, almost half the size it was during the height of the Cold War, is going to be busy with combat operations. It may be too busy, in fact, to always escort the massive sealift effort it would take to transport what the Navy estimates will be roughly 90 percent of the Marine Corps and Army gear the force would need to sustain a major conflict.

That’s the message Mark Buzby, the retired rear admiral who now leads the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, has gotten from the Navy, and it’s one that has instilled a sense of urgency around a major cultural shift inside the force of civilian mariners that would be needed to support a large war effort.

“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.

A great deal of gnashing of teeth and wailing followed this report.

Stinger missile launch

More recently, there has been a proposal of how to provide some sort of escort for such ships, Stinger Missile-Toting Drone Boats Could Protect Navy Logistics Ships:

The U.S. Navy wants to explore the idea of using small uncrewed surface vessels, or USVs, armed with Stinger missiles as a relatively low-cost additional layer of defense against various threats in the air and on the surface of the water. The service says it is particularly interested in the possibility of using the drone boats to help protect critical, but ever-more-vulnerable logistics vessels, as well as Marine contingents during future expeditionary and distributed operations.

This latter article goes on to note that the budget item is for experimenting with this concept, which is fine, as a "walk before run" development is a good idea. It also notes that the Stinger missile is an anti-air weapon and might require some modification before taking on the role of anti-surface weapon (although it appears the French already have dual-use weapon, the Mistral, which makes one wonder why we have to re-invent the wheel if we could just acquire an existing system).

All of which is fine and dandy, depending on what the potential threats are and where they might appear.

Most this begs the question of why we aren't simply arming the sealift ships with proven weapon systems that are already in our inventory. Weapons like Phalanx CIWS, SeaRAM, and armed helicopters exist. They can be installed on ships with a minimum of work and a small military detachment can maintain and operate them as required. The Military Sealfit replenishment ships (T-AOs, T-AKEs, T-AOEs) either have hanger or flight decks - the latter two classes usually carry a helicopter detachment already. The MH-60R/S helicopters are exceptionally versatile and can carry out protection against both surface and subsurface threats (MH-60R only) and perform vertical replenishment.

Further, updating the old ARAPAHO Sustainment Maintenance Facility concept would allow for spread helo assets to other types of sustainment shipping:

In the Arapaho program, the Naval Air Systems Command developed a portable, modularized aviation facility intended for installation aboard container ships. It can be installed in less than twenty-four hours and included all components necessary for V/STOL aircraft operations: flight deck, hangar, fuel, and crew accommodations. It was estimated to cost less than $20 million per set.


To provide nondivisional Aviation Intermediate Maintenance (AVIM) and limited depot support in an operational area, the Army established its Pre-positioned Sustainment Maintenance Facility (ARAPAHO) program. Operating as either a sea-based or land-based facility, ARAPAHO consisted of a designated nondivisional AVIM unit's personnel with equipment installed in shelters. Logisticians designed the unit for loading on board a C-5 Seawitch class or larger container ship within twenty-four to thirty-six hours of receiving movement orders, and they envisioned deployment at sea within six days. The unit can use on-board Operational Ready Float (ORF) and Forward Repair Activities (FRA) and will use extended prescribed load list/authorized stockage list (PLL/ASL). ARAPAHO's ability to deploy rapidly would hopefully save forces from waiting sixty days for a ground-based AVIM unit. As a self-transportable unit, ARAPAHO can also quickly redeploy after completing its initial mission.

Pictured nearby is HMS Reliant which tested the Arapaho concept for the UK after the Falklands War, though "The project was not found to be a particular success." However, my feeling is that it remains a good idea with the proper execution.

In addition to placing assets on the sealift ships, there is nothing barring the use of maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) to cover long transits across the Pacific or Atlantic as air escorts for them. Unlike in WWII, today's MPA have the ability to range ahead of the transit lanes and detect threats. In addition, long endurance maritime drones should also be used.

As set out above, these assets already exist, they just need a doctrine to be applied effectively in the face of any known threat.


  1. Anonymous3:28 PM

    That's what Frigate's and Corvette's are for. They are designed to escort and protect our Sealift fleet. It's why the US Navy and USCG should ramp up building Frigates and corvettes.

    1. Anonymous5:30 PM

      Too few ships, and the frigates and corvettes don't exist yet. My intent in the post is to point out we can protect these ships immediately using gear we already have. R/Mark

  2. Perhaps tag Navy Reserve MH-60R and personnel to augment Coast Guard cutters for an ASW capability, and as rescue vessels when inevitably there is a sinking.

  3. As I've commented before over on CDR Salamander's blog, why oh why can't we have ARAPAHO and containerized ESSM on the merchant ships (with appropriate reserve crews). We know we'll be lucky to build a dozen FFG by the end of the decade. Need something NOW.