4 May 2017

** Commercial Logistics Critical to U.S. Global Power Projection

When government officials and defense experts speak of the ability of the U.S. to project military power globally they usually make reference to this nation’s dominance in warfighting capabilities, such as aircraft carriers, amphibious warfare ships, strategic bombers, advanced fighters, mobile air and missile defenses or military space systems. Without question, all of these capabilities, along with forward deployed and rapidly deployable Army and Marine Corps units, are important constituent elements of a superpower military. However, it takes logistics for these U.S. fleets, systems and capabilities to go anywhere, fight anyone and stay there, for years and decades.

One area where this country has a significant advantage over any putative adversary is in logistics. Over the past several decades, even as the bulk of forward deployed U.S. forces came home from their overseas bases, the military not only retained but improved its ability to conduct overseas operations, deploy and sustain joint forces worldwide. No other nation on Earth has this ability. It is particularly significant to the operations of a military that is largely continental-U.S. (CONUS)-based but tasked with multiple security responsibilities around the globe.

A significant fraction of the U.S. military’s Table of Organization and Equipment is devoted to providing logistics and sustainment support to expeditionary forces. The U.S. Air Force operates some 600 aerial refueling tankers and about the same number of transport aircraft. In view of the spread of threats and expanded global basing, U.S. military operations today are largely tanker driven. Military Sealift Command (MSC) routinely employs around 50 ships, a combination of government owned/contractor operated vessels and commercial transports to meet its worldwide responsibilities.

But the real secret to the Department of Defense’s (DoD) ability to move, supply and support modern military forces, both its own and those of allies and friends, in multiple theaters on the other side of the world simultaneously, rests in the support it receives from private sector companies. Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of private contractors in theater exceeded that of all foreign uniformed personnel. In collaboration with key defense logistics entities - U.S. Transportation Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and Army Materiel Command - private logistics providers such as Maersk Line Limited, Hapag-Lloyd, APL, United Parcel Service (UPS) and DHL created and sustained global supply chains that stretched almost literally from factory to foxhole. Starting from nothing, commercial companies such as KBR, Parsons, DynCorp, and Fluor built and sustained hundreds of military installations.

The private sector does not just provide critical logistics and sustainment support to the military in times of war. A military in peacetime requires enormous logistical support. The Navy relies on private contractors to maintain both prepositioned logistics ships loaded with equipment and stored at several locations around the world and the Ready Reserve Fleet for mobilization. For example, Crowley Maritime Corporation and its subsidiaries manage some 24 prepositioned and Ready Reserve ships. 

Private companies also provide routine transportation and logistics services both within CONUS and globally. UPS and Fed-Ex recently won five-year, multi-billion dollar contracts to provide the Department of Defense with express package delivery services both domestically and internationally. AAR, one of the world’s premier commercial aviation services companies, is the largest provider of airlift service to DoD.

A major concern for the Navy is the lack of sufficient U.S. flagged ships and a robust merchant marine to meet future demand. According to the man in charge of MSC, Rear Admiral Thomas Shannon:

Three decades ago, when I came into the U.S. Navy, we had around 400 ships in the merchant marine. Today that number is down to 77 in the international trade. Just a few months ago, that number was around 80. That is a drop from the beginning of 2015.

We are getting close to that magic number where we clearly will not have enough U.S. flagged merchant ships to generate the mariners, which MSC will need to operate, notably when we mobilize. And it is not just a question of mariners; it is about the availability of the shipbuilding base and ship repair facilities in the United States.

A robust U.S. merchant fleet and cadre of merchant mariners are vital to U.S. national security as well as protection of the homeland. This is why special initiatives such as the Jones Act and the Maritime Security Program are necessary. But they are insufficient by themselves. In addition, DoD must be permitted to maintain its current practice, supported by law, on cargo preference that requires shippers to use U.S.-flag vessels to transport any government cargoes.

The Pentagon is currently fixated on the idea of Multi-Domain Battle (MDB), an operating concept which envisions breaking down service-based stovepipes and allowing commanders to employ all capabilities available to the Joint Force. But MDB will never be viable unless it also integrates logistics and sustainment capabilities, both organic and commercial.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a Vice President of the Lexington Institute. He served in the Pentagon during the George H.W. Administration and has taught at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities and the National War College. You can follow him on twitter @dgoure and you can follow the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC

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