Activation Exercise Reveals Challenges Facing U.S. Sealift Fleet

The LMSR USNS Fisher did not pass an operational speed test due to a pre-existing propulsion casualty (file image)

Published Dec 31, 2019 11:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

U.S. Transportation Command has released its after-action report for the large-scale "turbo activation" sealift exercise conducted in September, and the results confirm longstanding warnings from the U.S. Maritime Administration about the challenges facing U.S. force projection capabilities in time of war. 

The no-notice exercise tested the ability of the MARAD Ready Reserve Force (RRF) and the Military Sealift Command surge fleet to crew up large numbers of ships, break them out of layup and deploy them. According to TRANSCOM, 27 out of the 33 ships activated for the exercise were ready for sea within five days, just barely clearing the target of 80 percent. Out of the 27 vessels which activated on time, six experienced "mission impacting discrepancies that would delay an immediate mission tasking," bringing the ready-for-mission count down to 21.

The casualties under way included both propulsion systems and auxiliary machinery. Notably, due to propulsion casualties, none of the four Large, Medium-Speed Roll-on/Roll-off ships (LMSRs) in the test completed their operational speed runs at the target speed of 24 knots. One heavy lift vessel, the Cape Mohican, also failed her operational speed run due to a control automation casualty.

Other notable discrepancies (both at the dock and under way) revealed by the activation included:

- Aboard three Cape-class vessels, a "complete absence of the ability to communicate securely" due to comms equipment failures 

- Distilling plant failures on three Cape-class vessels, which could not be repaired while underway and would require a return to port

- Engine issues requiring in-port repairs for one Cape-class ship and one LMSR

"The relatively low Qualitative Mission Success Rate will challenge the immediate output of the Organic Surge Fleet in executing the initial voyages of a large-scale inter-theater force deployment without delays," TRANSCOM concluded. 

In addition to the challenges encountered by 11 of the vessels selected for activation, 12 more ships in the 61-vessel sealift fleet were excluded from initial exercise planning and selection due to pre-existing breakdowns. One other could not leave port due to air draft restrictions, and 10 were unavailable due to planned maintenance, bringing the number of vessels capable of immediate mission tasking down to less than half of the total fleet.