Across the Expanse: The Sealift Dilemma in a War With China

The carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the destroyer USS Halsey conduct a replenishment-at-sea with the fleet oiler USNS Rappahannock (USN)

Published Jun 22, 2021 4:30 PM by CIMSEC

[By Major John Bowser, U.S. Army]

The U.S. Department of Defense has shifted its focus away from fighting insurgents in the Middle East to prepare for large-scale combat operations. The shift in focus requires that DoD reassess its critical vulnerabilities, especially against its principal great power rival, China. China’s growing navy and increasingly hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific have the potential to disrupt alliances and create a unique logistical problem for expeditionary U.S. military operations. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one of the key U.S. alliance disruptors as China expands its reach in the Indo-Pacific and across the globe. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the largest navy in the world, outnumbering the United States by approximately 60 ships in 2020. The BRI and growing navy are part of President Xi Jinping’s strategy to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, and they both will contribute to the U.S. military’s logistical challenges.

A conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific will require the U.S. military to support expeditionary forces with extremely robust logistics. The DoD sustains expeditionary forces with both military and commercial contracted shipping assets. The United States’ Maritime Administration (MARAD) uses tools such as the Maritime Security Program (MSP), Voluntary Tanker Agreement (VTA), and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) to supplement the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) grey hull fleet. While the MSC and MARAD aim to ensure the U.S. military is prepared to win expeditionary warfare, they feature critical vulnerabilities with respect to competition with China. The DoD’s critical sealift vulnerabilities against China include fuel distribution capacity, operational security, and vulnerability to partnerships to establish seaports of debarkation and fleet logistics centers. By focusing on these areas DoD will become more able to prosecute expeditionary conflict against China should the need arise. Failing to address these critical sealift shortfalls could degrade deterrence and invite defeat in conflict.

The Road to the Current Situation

The past two decades of focus on the counterinsurgency fight have stymied U.S. sealift readiness in the Indo-Pacific. To understand why refocusing on sealift to prepare for potential great power conflict is so important, look no further than the Pacific theater in WWII. To get to the South Pacific, the U.S. had to move land and maritime forces thousands of miles from Hawaii to Australia to the landing sites. Oilers were a critical shortfall. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. only had four oilers on the west coast capable of at-sea refueling. Fortunately, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) did not deliberately target U.S. oilers at Pearl Harbor or throughout the war like Germany did in the Atlantic. German submarines effectively took out 141 tankers in the Atlantic, sinking a quarter of the U.S. tanker fleet in 1942. One of the greatest enablers of U.S. success in the Pacific was that the U.S. Navy’s fleet remained in the AOR on a constant basis, supplied by an entire military and commercial logistics fleet.

To win a Sino-U.S. war today, the U.S. military would still rely on a combination of military and commercial vessels to sustain maritime and land forces. Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have nearly the same sealift capacity it did pre-WWII, nor the shipyards to generate ships as it did with the 1941 Shipbuilding Act. Today the Navy’s grey hull fleet is 296 strong, with only 37 logistic vessels. Of those logistic vessels, 12 move dry cargo, and 25 move petroleum. While a Geographic Combatant Command has the authority to direct a single service to provide “common item” logistics to other services within the joint force, the Navy fleet cannot support the full spectrum of operations across all services. The Navy’s logistics fleet primarily supports Navy and Marine assets. In a large-scale combat operation, U.S. land forces, especially mechanized units, require significant fuel and dry cargo tonnage. Since the Navy does not sustain a robust logistics grey hull fleet due to funding, maintenance, and manpower shortfalls, the DoD relies on commercial shipping to fill the gap through the congressionally approved Maritime Security Program (MSP).

The Maritime Security Act of 1996 established the MSP as the commercial solution for DoD’s wartime logistics requirement. The MSP is a fleet of merchant ships that can provide sealift capacity during a time of war. The MSP fleet works off contractual agreements between U.S.-registered vessels and the U.S. government for an annual retainer so that, if needed, the vessels in the MSP will become available to support wartime sustainment. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act allows 60 congressionally-funded agreements under the MSP of various vessel sizes to support dry cargo transport. The MSP relies on independent companies to commit vessels, but no ships are tankers.

In addition to the MSP is the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). The Defense Production Act of 1950 and the Maritime Security Act of 2003 authorized the VISA program. VISA is MARAD’s official voluntary partnership umbrella between the U.S. government and the maritime industry. The program includes qualified U.S.-flagged merchant vessels that agree to volunteer their “intermodal capacity during wartime in exchange for priority access to DoD cargoes during peacetime.” This program also includes the Voluntary Tanker Agreement (VTA). MARAD’S U.S.-flagged Privately-Owned Merchant Fleet report as of March 16, 2021 shows 60 militarily useful ships in the MSP, an additional 38 in the VISA, and zero tankers in the VTA. The MARAD report does list 52 U.S.-flagged military useful tankers, but none are contractually bound. While the mechanisms are in place to support an expeditionary force in the Indo-Pacific through a military and commercial solution, the number of available ships shows a vulnerability in sealift capacity.


A large-scale combat operation against China will require sealift capacity that the U.S. military’s grey hull fleet and MARAD’s MSP and VISA programs cannot adequately address. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) estimated that in an expeditionary high-tempo conflict with China, a forward-deployed U.S. Navy fleet would consume 150,000 barrels (bbl) of E-76 naval and JP-5 aviation fuel per day, or over 4.5 million bbl per month. This is the equivalent of 14 tanker loads per month to support one fleet, which is over half the Navy’s fuel distribution capacity. This fuel requirement poses a significant limiting factor and operational risk to U.S. Navy fleets and is critically vulnerable to attrition. The CSBA estimate does not account for ground or land-based air forces. An Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) maneuvering on the offensive can consume up to 56,255 gallons of fuel every 12 to 24 hours. One mechanized division with a full complement of enabler brigades creates a fuel requirement of over 450,000 bbl per month. Including all the services, DoD can conservatively expect a 7-8 million bbls per month fuel requirement in a Sino-U.S. large scale conflict.

Moving equipment and petroleum across the Indo-Pacific is the ultimate time-space-force factor problem. The Navy has between 21-25 available tankers in the inventory. Navy fleet replenishment oilers travel at an anticipated speed of 20 knots. The Navy’s slow tankers have vast ocean to cover, have more requirements than they can support, and are vulnerable, high-value targets that require escorts. The 98 militarily useful vessels in the MSP and VISA do not address fuel, and the 52 militarily useful tankers are not contracted and are currently employed elsewhere in the global economy.

RADM Mark Buzby (ret.), the former Maritime Administrator, told Seapower Magazine in November 2020 that the combined government-owned and commercial sealift assets could move the 19.2 million square footage estimated for large-scale combat operations requirements. However, this assumes all ships on the MSP and VISA fulfill their obligations and that there are no major readiness setbacks or attrition from the enemy. RADM Buzby also expressed concern that the MARADs Ready Reserve Force (RRF) is only funded to maintain 85 percent readiness. CSBA gave a less optimistic view in a 2019 report on sustaining the fight with maritime logistics, writing, “the current and programmed defense maritime logistics force of the United States is inadequate to support the current US National Defense Strategy and major military operations against China or Russia.” The best-case scenario is that the U.S. can manage the beginning of a conflict with China if all Navy logistics and U.S.-flagged commercial vessels activate and surge without attrition. Assuming attrition, the concerns from CSBA and MARAD provide a stark warning - that the U.S. military must address inadequate sealift capacity prior to a Sino-U.S. war.

DoD joint doctrine recognizes the need to establish logistical support before a conflict. Maritime theorist Milan Vego addressed this pre-war requirement by writing, “some key parts of operational (theater) support [logistics] needs to be done in peacetime.” The U.S. military does not have the resources, space, or authority to build robust in-theater stocks to negate a shipping capacity issue, in addition to the risk China’s long-range missiles pose to pre-positioned stockpiles. The challenge with solving the capacity problem at the strategic and operational level is that no single service or organization owns the whole problem. Strategic logistics includes industrial base capacity managed through the services and DoD-level agencies. Not even the functional combatant command TRANSCOM owns all sealift. The Navy’s fleet supports the Navy first, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is contract-bound, and the Army only focuses on Army Watercraft Systems. This hodgepodge of ownership and authorities could lend itself to a confused situation at the outbreak of conflict.

Operational Security (OPSEC)

In a Sino-U.S. conflict the U.S. would likely have to rely on foreign-flagged vessels to make up for the capacity gaps and hope for support from partners and allies. But relying on foreign-flagged vessels presents operational security vulnerabilities and dependencies on partnerships.

At the operational level, the goal of OPSEC is to deny the “enemy operational commander information concerning one’s capabilities, vulnerabilities, and intentions.” Relying on commercial ships for sealift capacity creates an enormous OPSEC challenge that threatens U.S. success against China in the Indo-Pacific. Since the U.S. does not have enough U.S.-flagged vessels to meet demand, it will have to rely on foreign-flagged vessels. Foreign-flagged ships present an even greater OPSEC concern than U.S.-flagged ships because foreign companies are unlikely to give up ships without their crews and or Global Positioning System (GPS). China could easily track foreign-flagged vessels through either GPS or insider threats among the crews. Many foreign-flagged vessels were built in China or are owned by Chinese companies.

RADM Buzby stated that that the issue “truly is the cybersecurity threat.” Cellphones, social media, and commercial-grade vessel systems present cybersecurity risks and avenues for subversion and intelligence gathering. Even if the crews and companies only know which vessels have military supplies, this gives the PLAN tremendous opportunity to gain insight into potential interdiction targets and DoD operational plans. Whether China acquires the location of commercial vessels through nefarious means or accidental leaks, the PLAN will most likely know the location of at least some contracted DoD sealift vessels, their loads, and destinations. Sealift OPSEC failures could even provide the PLA with valuable targeting data and turn out to be a critical vulnerability for the joint force.

The OPSEC concern with commercial vessels really equates to survivability. The concern over maritime survivability grows as China’s regional influence and potential to commerce raid requires the Navy to use more warships to secure Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). A significant tenant of the PLA’s strategy is to deny maritime powers access, and it will not likely repeat the Imperial Japanese Navy’s WWII strategic failure to not target U.S. tankers. The U.S. Navy does not have the grey hull fleet to adequately escort logistics ships around the Pacific, control SLOCs, and find first to attack effectively first. DoD must address the critical OPSEC risk that could be posed by commercial logistics vessels in the event of conflict with China.

Partnerships and Alliances

The U.S. should not mistake the BRI as only China’s attempt to peddle influence to become the world’s largest economy. China’s growing hegemony is a direct threat to the partnerships and alliances that the DoD relies on to establish seaports of debarkation and fleet logistics centers. These centers and seaports are critical to sustaining expeditionary forces. Partnerships and alliances give the DoD port access, safe SLOCs, as well as wartime resources and commodities. As China disrupts U.S. partnerships in the region, the U.S. staging base situation in the Indo-Pacific starts to resemble the British situation in the 1982 Falklands War.

In the Falklands campaign Britain had to rely on a single staging base on Ascension Island located 3,300 nautical miles away from the scene of conflict. The difference between the 1982 Falklands War and a Sino-U.S. conflict is that Britain had superior weapons, platforms, sensors, alliances, and industrial base capacity over Argentina. A Sino-U.S. war would be more evenly matched regarding forces, and one major staging base for U.S. forces in Hawaii and possibly one fleet logistics center in Japan will not suffice. In WWII, Australia was the staging area for the arrival of much of the U.S. military’s manpower and materiel. Despite strong U.S. relations in the past, Southeast Asian countries, including Australia, do not want to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China. Many states may well remain neutral in a Sino-U.S. war, and neutrality could be more than enough for China to achieve its desired ends.

A critical policy consideration is the non-binding partnerships and dwindling alliance structures that suggest regional “allies” and “partners” may not open ports, share resources, or allow domestic companies to support expeditionary U.S. military forces. If partner nations block the U.S. from opening logistics hubs, or block their companies and resources from use in a Sino-U.S. war, then China will have a distinct advantage over the U.S. military across the first and second island chains. China’s economic policies aim to achieve this advantage over the long term, and the PRC is already experiencing success with the BRI. Some may point to the strategic theater ports China has gained in the region, such as the Hambantota in Sri Lanka where the PRC negotiated a 99- year lease over a key port with 15,000 surrounding acres. Every port the U.S. military cannot use to establish a logistics hub limits freedom of maneuver and is another potential port for the PLAN to exploit. The U.S. military requires reliable Indo-Pacific port access to win an expeditionary Sino-U.S. war, and U.S. policymakers need to contractually codify alliances to stave growing Chinese influence and ensure that U.S. forces are sustainable.

Some could argue that a Sino-U.S. conflict will escalate quickly and a more pressing requirement for the DoD to address is increasing number of frontline combatant platforms. The PLA’s growing navy, space, and long-range precision strike capabilities might suggest that a Sino-U.S. conflict has the potential to be quickly resolved before robust sustainment is required. The PLAN is larger in quantity than the U.S. Navy, especially with respect to local overmatch in the region, and has modernized numerous platforms to carry advanced anti-ship cruise missiles. The PLA’s significantly greater volume of offensive anti-ship firepower and numbers could quickly overwhelm and destroy naval assets through missile salvo combat. More frontline warships prepare the DoD for increased PLA capabilities and could ensure U.S. and foreign-flagged commercial vessels will become available because companies and nation states want confidence in U.S. victory and to know their assets will be protected.

But the argument that the DoD’s immediate need is for more frontline combatant platforms as opposed to sealift capacity is faulty because the sustainment of full spectrum operations starts immediately with the onset of conflict. Relying on foreign-flagged ships contains risks, and the seat of purpose (and the origin of sealift cargoes) is on land. The petroleum requirement in a large-scale conflict will require a robust oiler fleet moving to and from the strike groups and surface action groups, to the logistics hubs and back again, to sustain the extraordinary consumption rates during initial phases of conflict. In a full conflict scenario, foreign-flagged vessels will become less reliable and present unacceptable security risks to forward-deployed forces.

More frontline warships assigned to a carrier strike group or surface action group in the AOR only increases the requirement for high-value logistics vessels on trans-oceanic voyages into the theater. But if protecting supply ships and SLOCs was a key lesson from WWII, increasing frontline warships that stress already inadequate sealift capabilities the Navy cannot effectively escort is counterproductive.

Lastly, the notion that a Sino-U.S. conflict will end quickly does not account for the duration of land operations. If WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the past two decades in the Middle East are any indication, a Sino-U.S. conflict could become a protracted affair, especially in a Taiwan invasion scenario.


The U.S. military must address its critical sealift vulnerabilities in fuel capacity, operational security, and vulnerability to uncommitted partners to win an expeditionary Sino-U.S. war. The U.S. military cannot sustain itself with military logistics assets and the commercial solution is not currently viable to fill the gap. China’s efforts to limit U.S. access to potential logistics hubs by targeting vulnerable nations and partners through BRI is working, and while the PLAN builds capabilities that can disrupt SLOCs and target logistics vessels.

China well knows the U.S. military’s sealift shortfall and understands that sealift is ultimately how the U.S. military projects its power. The U.S. military’s ability to credibly deter or win large-scale conflict against the PRC will ride on its ability to sustain expeditionary combat operations across the vast Pacific expanse on the back of sealift.

Major John Bowser is a Finance and Comptroller officer in the United States Army. He commissioned in 2010 with a BS in Accounting from the University of Pittsburgh. He served as a Field Artillery Officer in the 1st Cavalry Division, as a Comptroller in the 25th Infantry Division, as a Detachment Commander in the 82nd Sustainment Brigade, and most recently graduated ILE/ILC from the U.S. Naval War College where he earned an MA in Defense and Strategic Studies. Major Bowser additionally holds MBA and MPA degrees from Syracuse University and is a Certified Defense Financial Manager.

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.