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Suppose They Gave a War and the Merchant Marine Did Not Come?

Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

(Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright C (2020) U.S. Naval Institute/

In July 2002, USNS Watson departed its usual anchorage in Chagos Archipelago to Ash Shuaybah in the State of Kuwait. Once pier side, she discharged 999 pieces of rolling stock and 437 containers from her 950-foot hull, under the auspices of Exercise Vigilant Hammer. Watson was the lead ship of an eight-ship class of new large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (LMSR) type vessels built after the 1991 war to liberate the nation she was now docked in. Late in January 2003, USNS Yano, one of five ships converted into LMSRs, arrived at the same seaport of debarkation and discharged over eight thousand tons of equipment after sailing from Charleston, South Carolina via the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. From that same East Coast port, MV Maersk Missouri loaded containers for an Army field hospital. Using Maersk’s network, the cargo was shifted to Maersk Antwerp for delivery to Ash Shuaybah.

These ships marked the beginning of a fleet that, from 2002 to 2011, delivered nearly 52 million tons of cargo for operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Government-owned ships, crewed by civilian merchant mariners, such as Watson and Yano were responsible for nearly half (47.4 percent) of the cargo delivered. The remaining (52.6 percent) went on board commercial merchant vessels, such as Maersk Missouri and Maersk Antwerp.1 As it has done in every conflict in America’s history, the United States Merchant Marine, sailed and manned the ships loaded with the beans, bombs, and black oil needed for the United States to fight. But what if the United States had a war and the American merchant marine did not come?

Behind Every Great Leader There Was an Even Greater Logistician

The U.S. Merchant Marine has demonstrated its resolve in numerous wars and conflicts since its inception, and particularly in the period of modern shipping─steel hulls and mechanical propulsion. In 1898, in the war against Spain, eleven of the most modern mail steamers were taken into the U.S. Navy as auxiliary cruisers. From the East Coast, forty-three merchantmen from the protected coastal trade–today, it is known as the Jones Act fleet─were chartered to transport the V Corps; while on the West Coast, seventeen larger international steamers hauled the VIII Corps to the Philippines. To maintain forces overseas, the services each operated their own merchant fleets─the Army Transport Service (ATS) and the Naval Collier Service, renamed the Naval Auxiliary Service.

In the First World War, attacks on American merchant ships led to the nation’s entry into the conflict. Dependence of foreign shipping for most of the trade left the United States without the necessary ships and mariners to transport over the American Expeditionary Force, and only 45 percent went by domestic shipping. A building program, instituted by the Shipping Act of 1916, and the subsequent Merchant Marine Act of 1920, ensured a larger merchant marine, protected in the domestic trade, and operating on key overseas routes.2 In the Second World War, the hindsight of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 ensured that the nation possessed a large enough merchant fleet and mariners to support the United Nation’s armed forces and transport the Arsenal of Democracy overseas.

In the era of the Cold War, during conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Kuwait, the United States was able to call upon the once greatest commercial merchant fleet in the world to support military operations. In all three conflicts, the nation could charter American vessels to transport cargo to the areas of conflict. What the market could not provide, the nucleus fleet of merchant ships operated by the Military Sea Transportation Service (renamed the Military Sealift Command) and the reserve fleet, operated by the Maritime Administration, was accessed.

As the years progressed, the age of the war-built fleet increased, while numbers decreased. The introduction of new flags of registry, with ships cheaper to build, operate, and document, the advent of the interstate highway and pipeline systems, the end of differential payments in the late 1980s, and domestic shipyards shifting over to naval vice commercial construction, witnessed a decline in the American merchant marine. From a peak of 1,288 ships in 1951, today only 180 ships over 1,000 gross tons remain active in the U.S. Merchant Marine.3 By 1990, the decline in the commercial fleet and the hurried nature of that conflict resulted in the chartering of foreign ships to partially fulfill the hurried military requirements to deploy forces to Saudi Arabia.

Following the Gulf War, several programs aimed to rectify this shortfall by upgrading the reserve fleet, while also ensuring the commercial aspect was sustained. A total of twenty large medium-speed roll-on/roll-off (ro/ros) ships were converted or constructed. In the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, seventeen ro/ros were purchased on the open market.4 Additionally, two programs─the Maritime Security Program and the Voluntary Intermodal Shipping Agreement─provided monetary incentives and contracts to shipping companies to ensure they maintain their fleet of U.S.-flagged merchant ships in the international trade.5

The Line Between Disorder and Order Lies in Logistics

A recent editorial by John Konrad, the founder and CEO of gCaptain entitled “Admiral, I Am NOT Ready For War,” aimed to shed light on the critical state of the American merchant marine. This work, along with a host of other reporting, including testimony by Admiral Mark Buzby, the Maritime Administrator, and General Steve Lyons, the commander United States Transportation Command, and reports by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Government Accounting Office and even the Navy’s own Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels all highlight the precarious position of America’s sealift assets.6

Based on how the military has utilized the merchant marine in the past, and the current state of the American merchant marine and the reserve sealift fleet; how capable is the domestic merchant marine? If there was a conflict in the Far East, Middle East, or Eastern Europe, could the merchant marine respond?

America’s maritime transportation strategy, as demonstrated in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is based on the sealift trident. First, there are the government-owned and commercially-chartered ships of the Afloat Prepositioning Force. The second prong is the surge force of available American merchant ships and those drawn from the reserve sealift fleets of MARAD and MSC deploying units from the continental United States. Finally, there is the sustainment phase, where the U.S. Merchant Marine, through its commercial fleet, and corporate networks, provide the necessary supplies to maintain American forces in the field.

In 1979, MSC stood up the Near Term Prepositioning Force. A group of seven chartered ships with the equipment for a light Marine Brigade. The ships sailed to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and awaited a potential call for action. In the mid-1980s, they were replaced by thirteen Maritime Prepositioning Ships and stationed in three squadrons around the world. After their success in the Gulf War, the Army added their own squadron. In 2012, following the failure to implement the MPF (Future) force, the European squadron was eliminated. Today, Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron (MPSRON) Two of seven ships is based at Diego Garcia and MPSRON Three of seven ships is in the western Pacific. The Army squadron of seven vessels and two ammunition-laden containerships for the U.S. Air Force are spread among the two sites.7 Should the call come, how will they respond?

First, not all the ships will be available due to routine maintenance.8 While the two squadrons can rapidly sortie, their transit to areas could be difficult. The ships, a mix of government-owned and chartered vessels, are crewed by merchant mariners with only a few naval personnel embarked on designated flagships. These staffs are there for mainly planning and communication and the ships lack any self-defense measures, meaning that they will require escorts. According to Maritime Administrator Buzby, “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.’”9

The current deployment of the Abraham Lincoln battlegroup and the Kearsarge amphibious ready group highlight this situation with only one cruiser and three destroyers for their protection. A potential escort for the squadron sorting out of Diego Garcia could have been provided by the Spanish frigate Méndez Núñez, but their government pulled the vessel due to U.S. posture toward Iran; meaning Allied escorts are not assured.10

Whether the MPS squadrons sail toward China, Iran, or Russia, the units will have to traverse several key chokepoints. In the east, it is the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits. Any potential confrontation would mean that a MPSRON would have to sail by Chinese artificial bases, within potential surface-to-surface or air-to-surface missile range. Without escorts, the ships would be easy targets in a large formation. The alternative would be to disperse and disguise themselves into the hundreds of other ships that sail through that area daily. The Marine Corps-loaded ships are all painted in commercial colors, while those supporting the Army are haze gray and would not blend in well.

If the ships avoid the Malacca and East China Sea chokepoints than they would have to sail thousands of extra miles. Similarly, a transit though the Straits of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf will expose the ships to additional dangers, as demonstrated by the May 13, 2019, attacks on four vessels off Fujairah. American merchant ships were exposed to such threats during the Tanker War in the late 1980s. When MV Bridgeton, a reflagged Kuwaiti tanker participated in the first escorted convoy she struck an Iranian laid mine. The naval escorts lacked any minesweeping equipment, so they continued the transit, following in the wake of the damaged Bridgeton as she negotiated the perilous waters.11

 It is even more difficult if both squadrons sail to Europe. The ships would have to traverse both the Bab al-Mandab, the site of numerous attacks on shipping from shore sites in Yemen, such as on the former HSV Swift on October 1, 2016, past numerous new Chinese bases as part of their One Belt, One Road Initiative, and then through the Suez Canal. The closing or danger of either of the two latter points would necessitate a voyage around Africa.12 Additionally, a passage to the Baltic states necessitates passing near the Russian territory of Kaliningrad.

While the prepositioning ships represent America’s first line of defense to land large-scale equipment into a trouble spot, it requires a benign environment to traverse and offload in and it is not clear that a potential adversary will allow this to happen.

The second prong of the sealift trident is the surge shipping. In their testimony in March 2019, Admiral Buzby and General Lyons graphically demonstrated the dire state of the reserve fleet. Of the 61 ships that make up the combined MSC and MARAD sealift fleet, the average age of them is 44 years. More ominous was the statement that 13 of the vessels were “not mission capable.” A loss rate of over 20 percent before hostilities even begins.

These ships are homeported along the East, Gulf, and West coasts of America, and are maintained in a reduced operating status with a cadre crew on board with the goal to activate in five days. Ships along the west coast would be the first to respond to a contingency in the Far East. But, of the 19 ships in the Pacific, only 13 could respond, and one of these is currently conducting an exercise in the western Pacific and out of position. Of the 11 along the Gulf Coast and 31 on the East Coast, seven would not be able to deploy, one other is currently in a shipyard, and six are awaiting required U.S. Coast Guard inspections.

Fortunately, the Panama Canal provides the nation with the ability to swing assets from either coast into operation, but its access is not guaranteed. A recent editorial, “While America slept, China gained a stranglehold on the Panama Canal,” raises the specter of China exerting influence over Panama and potentially denying the United States its use. Chinese economic investment and commercial leverage could pressure the Panamanians into refusing the U.S. access to the canal.13 If this is too far fetched to contemplate, what about nature and poor water management prohibiting its use.14

The final element in the trident is that of sustainment shipping. A look at the vessels used to support operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom shows that it was the U.S. Merchant Marine that provided the majority in sustaining the effort. Over 31 million tons of the nearly 52 million tons of cargo, equal to 60 percent went on commercial ships, the overwhelming majority on ships enrolled in the Maritime Security Program.

The U.S. commercial fleet as of April 15, 2019, consists of 180 ships, with 100 in the coastal Jones Act trade and the remainder in international commerce.15 A conflict in Europe or the Middle East would have access to most of the MSP fleet, the 26 ships of the Maersk Lines, five in Hapag-Lloyd, the eight ro/ros of ARC Shipping, the ro/ros of Seacor and Liberty, and heavy lift freighters of US Ocean. A Pacific scenario is more difficult as only the nine containerships of APL currently serve the Far East. The military could charter and divert ships from the coastal trade, such as containerships operated by Matson and Pasha to Hawaii or by TOTE to Alaska. Additionally, coastal tankers from Overseas Shipping Group and Crowley, along with the larger crude carriers of Alaska Transport Company and Polar Tankers would be required to provide the fuel necessary for not only ground forces but also naval units as only one tanker is in the surge sealift fleet.

It is a War of Logistics

The recent CSBA report, Sustaining the Fight, highlights the logistic shortfall that the U.S. Navy can expect in the future, but does not fully develop that issue with the U.S. merchant marine. Current plans to replace the prepositioning ships and surge sealift are only a small fix to the larger systemic issue that is the declining number of ships and mariners in the U.S. Merchant Marine, the threat of a peer-to-peer to conflict, and our own neglect on the logistic pipeline.

The decline of the merchant marine has been long in coming, but as in many disasters, people refuse to see the issue until it is upon them. In Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq, maritime logistics appeared in the way of underway replenishment for the Navy, preposition and surge shipping for the armed forces, and the necessary sustainment to maintain them in theater. In the last peer-to-peer confrontation, the Second World War, the American merchant marine lost one in ten ships and one in twenty-six of its personnel.16

Should another call go out for the merchant marine, it may not be as John Konrad mentioned, “Admiral I am not ready for war.” Instead, it might be the merchant marine is UNABLE to go to war. Shortages in ships, lack of a shipbuilding and repair infrastructure, and the decline in the mariner labor base could play greater havoc to American logistics than any outside threat. Then, the nation may find itself with military forces deployed overseas with no means to feed, arm, or sustain them. It is time to put maritime logistics front and center. The merchant marine should be included in any new joint strategies. The military should ensure that the Jones Act is maintained, that cargo preference is increased, and that the Maritime Security Program, funds and numbers are augmented to meet the needs identified in Sustaining the Fleet. Can a nation with the number one Navy in the world, and a merchant fleet in twenty-second place, be comparable to China with a navy and merchant marine, both in second place?



[1] See A. J. Herberger, Kenneth C. Gaulden, Rolf Marshall, Global Reach: Revolutionizing the Use of Commercial Vessels and Intermodal Systems for Military Sealift, 1990-2012. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015).

[2] See Salvatore R. Mercogliano, “The Shipping Act of 1916 and Emergency Fleet Corporation: America Builds, Requisitions, and Seizes a Merchant Fleet Second to None,” Northern Mariner XXVI, No. 4 (Oct. 2016), 407-424.

[3] Tim Colton, “The Decline of U.S. Shipping,” (January 21, 2016).

[4] Maritime Administration, “The Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force,” (May 31, 2019).

[5] Maritime Administration, “Maritime Security Program,” and “Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement,” (May 31, 2019).

[6] John Konrad, “Admiral, I am NOT Ready for War,” (May 8, 2019); John Grady, “TRANSCOM, MARAD Want to Speed Up Purchase of Used Ships for Reserve Fleet,” (March 7, 2019); Timothy A. Walton, Harrison Schramm, and Ryan Boone, Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era, (April 23, 2019); United States Government Accountability Office, Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Maintain Viable Surge Sealift and Combat Logistics Fleets, (August 2017); Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020, (March 2019); and David B. Larter, “US Army warns of crippling sealift shortfalls during wartime,” (November 11, 2018).

[7] Military Sealift Command, 2018 in Review,, 14-15; and Salvatore R. Mercogliano, “Semper Sealift: The Partnership between the U.S. Marine Corps and Merchant Marine”, Naval History (April 2016).

[8] In both 1990 Operation Desert Shield, and 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom, two ships from MPSRON Two were out of position and unable to immediately respond.

[9] David B. Larter, “’You’re on your own’: US sealift can’t count on Navy escorts in the next big war,” (October 10, 2018).

[10] Sam LaGrone, “Spanish Frigate Drops Out of Lincoln Strike Group Over U.S. Iran Stance,” (May 14, 2019).

[11] Scott C. Truver, “Mine the Gap: Iranians and the Strait of Hormuz,” (June 17, 2012).

[12] Sam LaGrone, “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missile Attack,” (October 11, 2016).

[13] “While America slept, China gained a stranglehold on the Panama Canal,” (January 6, 2019).

[14] Henry Fountain, “What Panama’s Worst Drought Means for Its Canal’s Future,” (May 17, 2019).

[15] Maritime Administration, “U.S. Flag Privately-Owned Fleet,” (April 15, 2019).

[16] “U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II,” (May 31, 2019).


Dr. Mercogliano is an associate professor of history at Campbell University in North Carolina and adjunct professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He holds a bachelor of science in marine transportation from the State University of New York Maritime College, along with a merchant marine deck officer license (unlimited tonnage 2nd mate), a master’s in maritime history and nautical archaeology from East Carolina University, and a Ph.D. in military and naval history from the University of Alabama.

Published: Fri Feb 21 16:38:09 EST 2020