Sea Transportation: The U.S. Army Fleet


August 15, 2019: Since late 2018 the U.S. Department of Defense has been studying the practicality of eliminating U.S. Army ships. The army has always had some ships of its own, for moving troops and equipment and for managing amphibious operations or a major port operation overseas that needs to happen very quickly. This is a tradition, and a necessity, that goes back to the American Revolution. In early July it appeared that decisions had been made as the U.S. government announced that one of the larger army ships, a 6,000 ton LSV (Logistics Support Vessel) was to be auctioned. This ships, LSV-7, was completed in 2006 at a cost of $26 million. The LSV is similar to the famous World War II era LST (Landing Ship Tank). The LSVs are the largest transport ships the army operates and the government auction site also announced that more army ships would be auctioned. These would include 18 LCU and 36 LCM landing craft, twenty tugs and two floating cranes. After a few weeks, the LSV auction was halted and withdrawn without a sale. Apparently, there were disagreements in the Department of Defense and Congress over the wisdom of eliminating the army sea transportation fleet.

What to do with these army ships was a contentious issue even before 2001. Back then it was pointed out that the U.S. Army has always owned ships, usually tugs and coastal craft for assisting in moving supplies. During World War II, the U.S. Army actually had more ships than the U.S. Navy. But by 2000 the Army had only about 295 ships. Nearly 20 years later that number has fallen to 130. Back then the decision was to buy more, mainly to speed up the deployment of units to overseas hot spots. 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. In 2000 the army plan was to buy three LSVs. These are actually LSTs and can carry 24 M-1 tanks, and deliver them right to a beach. At that time the Army already had six LSVs. The Army also went on to buy high speed (80 kilometers an hour catamaran) ferries that can move twenty tanks some 2,000 kilometers. The LSVs and 20 larger Roll On/Roll Off transports would be used to pre-position armored brigades worth of equipment off potential hot spots. Just add the troops, get the equipment ashore, and you're ready for war. All these army ships were needed after September 11, 2001, and still are, so it’s a mystery as to why the sudden urge to eliminate this army logistics capability. In part, the reason may be the greater availability of needed shipping that can be quickly chartered (rented). That worked after 2000 because the enemy was unable to threaten ships and charters, with their civilian crews, were willing to do the work.

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 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 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 where LSVs, LCUs and LCMs are essential. These ships are essential for getting the goods from ship to shore no matter where the shore is and when port facilities are inadequate.

The most visible American military logistics organization is the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) or Transcom for short. The air force component is AMC (Air Mobility Command), the navy contribution is MSC (Military Sealift Command). 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 and 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.

AMC and the army move more tonnage, but if you want something moved anywhere real fast (very common in wartime), AMC gets it done. AMC does this with a fleet of 1,100 aircraft (40 percent 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 aerial refueling, 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 (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 army transport type shipping is still needed as a reserve capability. Many of the army ships are operated by reserve units, where these part-time soldiers maintain skills that are needed in an emergency when time is at a premium. That has been the experience of the army in every conflict the United States has been involved with for over a century.




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