One Lawmaker Wants To Force The Navy’s Hand On Emergency Sealift Capacity

Updated 10/14/2022 at 1:35 pm ET with comments from the US Navy.

AUSA 2022 — How do you break up a longstanding dispute between the US Army and US Navy? Call in the Maritime Administration, of course.

That’s effectively what one influential Navy-oriented lawmaker says it may take to finally break an impasse between the two services over who should lead a more aggressive recapitalization of the country’s surge sealift capabilities.

“We’ve seen that we’ve given the Navy the permission to buy these used roll-on/roll-off ships,” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told an Oct. 11 audience at the annual AUSA exposition in Washington, DC. “I think being able to use a [legislative] provision or the Maritime Administration is great way to go. They [MARAD] are in a position to be able… to purchase those ships.”

The impasse is one filled with Pentagon bureaucracy and intra-service fighting over who should foot the bill for assets all the services will use. It centers around the surge sealift fleet, the civilian-manned vessels responsible for moving ground supplies from the continental United States to anywhere in the world if a conflict breaks out. That fleet desperately requires aggressive recapitalization, and lawmakers such as Wittman have authorized and appropriated millions in recent years to allow the Navy to purchase new vessels.

The problem is that the Navy has failed to purchase or build ships at a rate that satisfies Congress. Service officials, for their part, have defended their record at congressional hearings by citing the ships that have been purchased and discussed the market surveys conducted by the Maritime Administration. But still, Wittman says, those efforts have been “incredibly delayed.”

Lt. Meagan Morrison, a Navy spokeswoman, on Friday told Breaking Defense, “The Navy is committed to sealift recapitalization in the most efficient and effective manner possible.”

“We are grateful for continued Congressional support for the ‘buy-used’ program and successfully purchased the first two ships in 2022, which will join the Ready Reserve Fleet before the end of the year. We are working hard to procure the next five appropriated by Congress,” she continued.

Some in Congress have argued the other branches of the Pentagon should help the Navy foot the bill for recapitalizing the fleet because all the services will ultimately want to load those ships up with materials if and when a fight happens.

The Army — which would likely be the biggest beneficiary of a scenario where the surge sealift is needed —  has been hesitant to get in front of the Navy on procuring those ships because it puts them at risk of footing much of the bill, Wittman said.

“What we have to do is to, I think, look at different mechanisms to execute that” recapitalization, Wittman said. “MARAD… is probably the direction to go because we’ve seen the Navy just isn’t interested in executing.”

The Maritime Administration, or MARAD, is the civilian shipping arm of the federal government and is officially part of the Transportation Department. The agency is also responsible for maintaining and operating the logistics vessels that the Navy would have to rely on in wartime to move vast amounts of ground supplies needed by both the Army and Marine Corps.

MARAD in conjunction with US Transportation Command have been assisting the Navy in planning and procuring the future surge sealift fleet. However, the money ultimately goes into the Navy’s coffers and must be spent accordingly.

But if Wittman, who alongside Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn. has long led the House panel officially charged with overseeing US Navy policy, has the last word, the civilian agency may have greater leverage in the process.

Although Courtney was not at the panel on Tuesday, he has expressed similar concerns publicly about the Navy’s pace of recapitalization and, at least on issues regarding the US Navy, is often in sync with Wittman.

“I understand the dynamic” between the Army and Navy when it comes to sealift, Wittman said. “I do think, though, it’s Congress’ role to say [these are] the resources that we’re going to put together and Congress decides how those allocations take place amongst the joint force. Remember, this is a joint responsibility.”