The current US consumer goods crisis portends the effects of a militarized Sino-US confrontation.
Indeed, the confrontation is more and more imaginable, as indicated by the recent violation of Taiwanese airspace by 150 aircraft. A cross-strait conflict would necessarily involve the United States and its Pacific allies, and potentially regional rivals, including Vietnam and India. Given the sheer volume of world trade that passes through the Indo-Pacific, a conflict would trigger a global depression that should not end until a systemic political realignment, much like the Great Depression of the 1930s.
However, nations fight if need be, and the time may have passed to avoid a confrontation. However, for the attentive observer, the current maritime crisis demonstrates the manifest inadequacy of the American merchant fleet to American strategic needs.
Ships, planes and land vehicles need sailors, airmen and soldiers to maneuver them. Soldiers need ammunition, fuel, spare parts, repair materials and food, usually in much larger quantities than planners estimate before the conflict.
The United States is modifying its combat forces to counter China’s strategy and likely force structure. Long-range missiles distributed to all branches of the military; smaller, heavily armed warships; and unmanned aerial, surface and underground vehicles are each part of this solution. But in any conflict that lasts longer than a few hours to a few days, American forces will need to be resupplied with, once again, the materiel necessary to wage a high-powered war.
In turn, this requires a fleet capable of resupplying. The most efficient way to move any bulk – cargo, military or otherwise – is by boat. Thus, the United States needs an additional fleet to its current combat fleet, made up of high-volume civilian freighters reassigned to military service and specially designed warships for operational resupply and combat resupply.
The US Navy’s Military Sealift Command operates around 130 ships, grouped together in combat logistics: fleet tankers and supplies; support for fleet, submarine, special warfare, radar and other vessels; and combatant command support – large merchant-style ships designed to carry large amounts of ammunition to combat theaters. Yet this fleet alone is insufficient to support US forces in a high-end conflict. It will suffer combat casualties against enemy missiles and submarines, and even in their absence, it is too weak to meet military needs without civilian assistance.
Civil assistance is far from certain. In 2019, the US merchant fleet consisted of 182 vessels, or less than half a percent of the world’s merchant hulls. The overwhelming majority of American cargo uses foreign-flagged vessels whose reliability for military purposes is uncertain. The United States encountered this situation during World War II, building 5,777 freighters in response.
Even ships flying the United States flag may not be available for combat use. Federal law requires intra-American trade to be conducted on American-flagged vessels, which means that part of the United States merchant fleet will be needed for traditional civilian tasks.
The military would look to the Ready Reserve Force, a component of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, to fill this gap. The 46 RRF vessels, spread across the United States, could theoretically be activated within five to 10 days. The National Maritime Administration maintains these ships in peacetime with an average crew of 10 sailors per hull. Official policy states that RRF crews will be “supplemented by additional sailors … once activated”.
However, there are approximately 13,500 U.S. professional sailors. The government, through Military Sealift Command, already employs 6,000, which means the civilian total is 7,500. Once again, some of these sailors will have to operate national merchant ships, which will reduce manpower. .
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments predicted that the crew of all US-flagged MSC and commercial shipping vessels would require approximately 10,000 qualified seafarers to account for shore leave and crew turnover.
Adding the RRF ships, the total rises to just under 12,000. So it is only if nearly all sailors serve that the US logistics fleet can be sustained in combat. In addition, an operation of more than six months would require 4,000 additional seafarers. Simply put, this is beyond the ability of current US shipping capabilities, even if supplemented by the merchant navy, to resupply US forces in a protracted great power conflict.
Worse still, the merchant fleet will continue to shrink. The average age of a merchant seaman is 46. Given the static size of the US merchant fleet, this will increase over time – trained young sailors will not join the merchant navy without an incentive that a static or declining merchant fleet does not provide. The pool of trained sailors will stabilize at around 5,700, barely sufficient for daily operations and largely insufficient for military purposes.
The only reasonable remedy is for the government to fund more merchant ships. The bureaucratic infrastructure for this already exists through the Maritime Administration’s Maritime Safety Program, which currently provides restraint to 60 merchant vessels. In return, they fly under the American flag and are available for requisition in wartime. This number must be increased by at least a third to provide ships and crews for US combat needs and avoid reducing domestic shipping.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as assistant undersecretary of the navy.
Harry Halem is a research assistant at Hudson and a graduate student at the London School of Economics.