A Recapitalizing Sealift Fleet Is the Nation’s Most Important Military Program

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The military services are investing tens of billions of dollars to address capability gaps that have emerged over the past several decades and otherwise enhance their capabilities to deter great power competitors. At the direction of former Defense Secretary Mattis, the Pentagon’s primary modernization objective is to create a more lethal force. The Army is radically reforming its acquisition system and upgrading or modernizing its armored combat vehicles, artillery and rocket systems, air and missile defenses, and tactical communications. The Air Force is ramping up procurements of the F-35 and the KC-46 while simultaneously developing a new bomber, an ICBM and several long-range air-to-ground missiles. The Navy is building to a 355 ship fleet with the Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the Columbia-class SSBN, advanced amphibious warfare ships, the Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyer, enhanced versions of the Virginia-class SSN and a new frigate.

While the U.S. may be on its way to restoring the erstwhile preeminence of the military, those forces are primarily located in the United States. In the event of a conflict with a major power or even rogue regional actor, it will have to project most of that power thousands of miles to Europe, the Middle East or Asia. While aircraft can self-deploy and some even carry critical supplies and personnel, the overwhelming majority of equipment and material will have to go forward by sea. Once deployed, those forces will need to be sustained by a steady flow of supplies. For that, there needs to be a sealift fleet of sufficient size and with a variety of capabilities.

The military sealift fleet, simply put, is about to go off a cliff. The U.S. government owns some 81 sealift ships, half of which are kept pier-side in the Ready Reserve fleet. Many of these are obsolescent; most are past their normal life expectancy. By the Navy’s own admission, as ships age out or otherwise become unserviceable, the military sealift fleet will only be able to deliver half the necessary volume of equipment and supplies by 2035. Our forces will arrive in the war zones and wither for lack of support and supplies.

The Army has joined the dark chorus warning of a crisis in U.S. capabilities to project and sustain power. According to an information paper submitted by the Army’s G-4 logistics directorate to the House Armed Services Committee last year: “Without proactive recapitalization of the Organic Surge Sealift Fleet, the Army will face unacceptable risk in force projection capability beginning in 2024.”

All the Nation’s investments in combat power may be for naught if the Pentagon does not fix the gaping hole in its sealift capability. To address this dire situation, the Navy will need to initiate a major effort to extend the life of existing hulls. But more importantly, it will need to build new ships.

The key to the Nation’s future sealift capability rests with the procurement of a common hull auxiliary multi-mission platform (CHAMP). According to an official spokesman, “the Navy is interested in evaluating the feasibility of a common hull auxiliary ship that can provide multi-mission functionality. Identified missions include: strategic sealift, aviation intermediate maintenance support, medical services, command and control, and submarine tending."

The use of a common, domestically-designed and built commercial hull for multiple missions has several advantages. It will allow for rapid serial production, the introduction of advanced ship systems, reduced unit costs, manageable life-cycle costs and general ease of integrating ship spaces with the components of Marine Corps and Army force packages. CHAMP could also take advantage of advances in modular adaptive ship technologies to reduce overall costs and allow increased flexibility in the mix of new auxiliary ships produced as demand changes.

The CHAMP approach will help support the domestic U.S. shipbuilding industrial base and aid in the revitalization of the U.S. Merchant Marine. The existing private shipbuilding industrial base has excess capacity and, hence, the potential to expand production relatively rapidly once the CHAMP design studies are completed.

According to published reports, the Navy plans to release the request for proposals in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019 and award multiple contracts for industry studies. A concept design option could then be initiated in late FY2019 and a full preliminary design study awarded in FY2020. This would allow construction of the first CHAMP hulls to begin by the mid-2020s.

Initially, the Navy thought that a single basic hull could support all the variants desired in the CHAMP program. However, it appears that a combination of deeper analyses and industry feedback caused the Navy to reconsider this position. A combination of two or more hull types could better serve the Navy’s interests.

Currently, the Navy is considering procuring two different hulls to cover the range of missions encompassed by CHAMP. According to Captain Scott Searle, the Navy’s strategic and theater sealift program manager:

“We started out thinking it was going to be one hull … but what we found from our own examination and from industry feedback is that these missions fall into two basic categories … One is a very volume-intensive category where you need large volume inside the ship — that’s the sealift mission where you are trying to carry a lot of Marine and Army cargo. The other bucket it falls into is the people-intensive mission. When you talk about a hospital ship or a submarine tender, those are people-intensive, and we found we didn’t need as much internal volume. It could be a smaller ship but needed more berthing capability.”

The CHAMP program is in many ways as important to the future of U.S. military power as any other major acquisition. If the U.S. is going to remain a global military power, it will require a properly sized and modernized sealift fleet.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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