In September 2019 the U.S. Department of Defense conducted its largest rapid-mobilization test of wartime shipping since 2003. The September “no-notice activation” involved 28 of the 61 large transport ships in the reserve sealift fleet. These ships are essential for getting ground combat forces, especially their heavy equipment, to a distant combat zone as quickly as possible. The troops, with their personal gear and weapons, can be flown over but the vehicles and other bulky equipment need ships and need them fast.
The 2003 exercise involved 40 ships. This sort of exercise is also called a turbo-activation because the goal is to test the ability of these ships to be ready in days to move ground forces to a distant destination. The activation order was issued on September 16th and the ships had to be ready to depart by the 21st. The six MSC (Military Sealift Command) and 22 RRF (Ready Reserve Fleet) ships included four LMSRs (Large Medium Speed Roll-on/Roll-off) ships, eight FSS (Fast Sealift Ships), two former MPS (Maritime Prepositioning Ships), fifteen Ro/Ros (Roll-on/Roll-off ships), a barge carrier, two crane ships and an aviation logistics support ship. Six commercial operating companies have contracts to manage portions of this fleet, which involved ships based in Chesapeake Bay, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and California. The mobilization also involved the maritime unions which were under contract to provide crews of about 20 American officers and seamen to man each ship on ten day contracts. Before departing the ships receive some U.S. Navy personnel to handle some of the loading and unloading work and liaison with navy warships.
Five of the ships missed the deadline to be at sea by the 21st. These included an FSS that departed a day late. Four others were not fit to depart, including three in Texas that had suffered some damage from a recent hurricane. The ships that did make the deadline contained 306,000 square meters (3.3 million square feet) of cargo space for vehicles and other cargo plus four barges, 7,000 cargo containers and one ship that was a mobile repair base for an aviation wing.
Assembling the ships on time is one thing; another is how reliable those vessels will be on the long voyages they must undertake. Breakdowns at sea are more common for older ships and the age of many of the 28 assembled ships is a factor. There is also the fact that eleven of the assembled ships are steam-powered, a form of propulsion that is technically obsolete. Steam is still found in 30-40 year old ships and several days of moving about offshore provides an opportunity to see how reliable these older ships and their elderly propulsion systems are. The average age of the 61 ships in the reserve fleet is 44 years and this exercise also provides compelling evidence to upgrade the reserve fleet with more modern ships (new or used) or be convinced that the elderly reserve fleet ships are not up to the task.
This mobilization exercise was one of many things the most visible American military logistics organization, the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) or Transcom for short, carries out on a regular basis. The air force component is AMC (Air Mobility Command), the navy contribution is MSC. The army contributes its expertise in handling “the last mile” of using ground and river/canal transport to get material from ships to the end-user.
Since World War II military logistics has evolved from a largely army chore to one that depends much more on air freight. It was during World War II that the United States found it had a talent and capacity for truly massive and unprecedented logistical efforts on a global basis. Most of this was run by the army, which had more ships under its control than the navy. The army ships and coastal craft were mostly for logistics and that fleet of over 110,000 vessels contained very few warships. After World War II the navy got control of the army fleet while the Army Air Force became a separate service and developed a huge fleet of air freighters. The army developed several generations of trucks and innovations like rapidly built temporary pipelines and a global network of transportation contractors.
These days the largest component of Transcom is AMC, which contains 79 percent of the 180,000 Transcom personnel and nearly as much of the budget. Most of the Transcom personnel are reservists or civilians, and a lot of the actual cargo moving is done by aircraft, ships and trucks hired for the occasion.
MSC ships and the army move more tonnage, but if you want something moved anywhere real fast, a very common requirement in wartime, AMC gets it done. AMC does this with a fleet of 1,100 aircraft. Some 40 percent are aerial tankers, the rest freighters like the C-17 and C-130. In 2011, when there were still a lot of American troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan, AMC carried out 105,000 sorties, 20 percent of them were aerial refueling, with the rest moving personnel and freight. MSC moved 502,000 measurement tons (568,000 cubic meters of cargo) as well as 6.6 million tons of fuel. Most of everything moved is via contractors. That means about half the air freight, 64 percent of sea freight and about the same portion of land movement although in the U.S. it's 88 percent.
The 27,000 people (98 percent civilian) in the Defense Logistics Agency supervise the movement of all the supplies from manufacturer to consumer, and handle the logistics planning and administration while Transcom specializes in moving stuff. The United States spends about $1.5 billion a year and uses over 150,000 personnel to move military personnel and material. This does not include additional spending for war related logistics (as in places like Iraq and Afghanistan) that increase that spending by about five times. The level of activity, and length of time the U.S. has been at it make access to American logistics resources and specialists something much sought after by American allies. While the allies appreciate having American aircraft or ships move stuff for them, often it’s just the excellent and experienced advice from the Americans that is needed. What the army still needs is ships that can quickly and in large quantities land material somewhere that does not have a major port nearby. That’s what amphibious ships like LSVs, LCUs and LCMs are essential for. These ships are essential for getting the goods from ship to shore no matter where the shore is and when port facilities are inadequate.
On a day-to-day basis, Transcom relies on commercial shipping and AMC to move cargo and personnel to sustain troops stationed overseas. Military personnel based for a long time in overseas locations make arrangements with local firms to provide a lot of basic supplies like food, fuel and construction. AMC moves personnel in and out on a regular basis as troops are based overseas for fixed periods, which currently are three months to three years. Ships are used to move heavy equipment that is not needed in a hurry. What the reserve fleet is essential for is moving ground forces, like combat brigades and logistic support units, to an overseas location in the event of a major crises.
During the 1991 Gulf War, it took the Army 150 days to move five divisions, mostly by sea, to the Persian Gulf. It actually took 205 days to move all the combat and support units to the Gulf. There is another potential complication. In the past, the United States often got called on by its allies during military crises. The allies did not need much help with weapons or combat, but did with logistics. The U.S. has been, for nearly a century, the world leader in moving military personnel and cargo to where it is needed and doing so under the most trying conditions of nature or enemy interference. Unless there is a major naval threat, which requires a major military operation to protect shipping, the U.S. is still the most experienced at quickly organizing a major military logistics effort.
The expertise to carry out these rapid mobilizations is easier to maintain than the fleet of ships. The ships get old and eventually have to be replaced, which is expensive. In 2003 and 1990 the U.S. could rely on prepositioned equipment for combat brigades, aircraft and warships. Some of that is still available in Europe, Korea and the Middle East. The fact remains that in any foreign war the U.S. has to move a lot of heavy stuff a long distance quickly and no one has found a way to get around that. So these turbo-activation exercises measure how ready the reserve fleet is to actually do the job and how soon new ships are needed.
The only other nation with a fleet mobilization system like this is China, which needs dozens of commercial Ro/Ro, ferries and other ships to support an invasion of Taiwan or the movement of more forces to South China Sea islands. The Chinese requirements are much smaller than what the United States faces and the Chinese have a lot of more recently built ships for their reserve fleet.