Pentagon Orders Large-Scale Test of U.S. Sealift Fleet

Image courtesy Military Sealift Command

Published Sep 17, 2019 6:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Defense Department's U.S. Transportation Command has ordered a large-scale activation to test the readiness of the Military Sealift Command fleet and the Maritime Administration's  Ready Reserve Force (RRF).

The no-notice exercise - called a "Turbo Activation" - gives the fleet's civilian management contractors and crews five days to make their ships ready to sail. It is the fourth such activation this year, but this one is an unusual event: these exercises typically involve only a few ships, but this event targets 28 vessels in order to provide more comprehensive readiness assessment, USTRANSCOM said. The activated ships have orders to transition from layup ("reduced operating status") to a fully crewed status, with quarters made habitable and cargo gear ready, within five days' time. Activations are usually followed by a sea trial. 

The RRF is a fleet of 46 ro/ros, cargo ships and special-purpose vessels maintained in layup for sudden, massive movements of military supplies and troops - for example, the Iraq War. Select vessels also participate in routine exercises and logistics missions with American and allied forces. The ships are managed by commercial companies, like Tote Services and Matson Navigation, and they are crewed by civilian merchant mariners. 

The RRF is rapidly aging, with most vessels well beyond their ordinary commercial lifespans. Maritime Administrator Adm. Mark "Buzz" Buzby and Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer have called on Congress to recapitalize the RRF in order to improve readiness, bring down maintenance costs and modernize the fleet. 

"Vessels in the RRF fleet are very old. In fact, the average age of RRF vessels is over 44 years, and for the past year the vessels have struggled to maintain an 85 percent readiness level across the fleet," Adm. Buzby told the House Seapower subcommittee last year. "With increasingly expensive, age-related repairs, parts unavailability, and the declining availability of the qualified steam-ship engineers needed to work on vessels from this era, we anticipate that programming sufficient resources will remain a challenge."