House Committee Sounds Alarm on Inadequate Sealift Fleet for Potential Indo-Pacific Conflict

‘Now, in the middle of a new Cold War, the United States finds itself with neither the sufficient military nor civil resources to meet our sealift objective.’
House Committee Sounds Alarm on Inadequate Sealift Fleet for Potential Indo-Pacific Conflict
Chairman of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), speaks during a press conference unveiling the results of the committee’s investigation into the biolab discovered in Reedley, Calif., in Washington on Nov. 15, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Frank Fang

The U.S. military sealift fleet is “woefully inadequate” for a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific, according to Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Mr. Gallagher expressed concerns about the aging and underfunded U.S. sealift fleet in a Feb. 6 letter to Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, and Rear Adm. Ann Phillips, administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration.

In the event of a crisis in the Indo-Pacific, he said U.S. sealift vessels must transport nearly 90 percent of Army and Marine Corps equipment to support U.S. military operations.

“Now, in the middle of a new Cold War, the United States finds itself with neither the sufficient military nor civil resources to meet our sealift objective,” Mr. Gallagher wrote in his letter.

The Wisconsin congressman has been characterizing the competition between the United States and China’s communist regime as the new cold war, at least since September 2020. That month, House Republicans on the China Task Force released a “comprehensive blueprint” to counter a range of threats posed by the regime—including how it has the largest navy in the world—while dubbing the CCP as a “generational threat.”

“While China has undertaken a historic buildup of both military and commercial ships, the United States’ sealift fleet has continued to age and go underfunded, appearing woefully inadequate for the daunting task of providing logistical support to troops thousands of miles away from the homeland,” Mr. Gallagher wrote.

Quoting an unnamed senior official responsible for American sealift capability, Mr. Gallagher wrote that the situation is a “screaming national security vulnerability.”

In a conflict, the Pentagon would rely on mobilizing 45 ships of the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force and 15 ships of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command, according to the letter. However, the 60 ships from the two agencies are not new vessels, Mr. Gallagher noted, with the ships from the Ready Reserve Force having an average age of 45 years old.

To support the military’s sealift needs, the Secretary of Defense can call upon commercial ships participating in the Maritime Security Program. Currently, there are 60 ships in the program, according to the Maritime Administration.

Sealift Capacity

The small number of available commercial ships “is an extension of the diminutive size of our overall commercial merchant fleet,” Mr. Gallagher said, adding that the United States had 177 merchant vessels as of May 2023, down from more than 600 in 1990.

“A 2019 readiness exercise revealed an uncomfortable reality that the small and aging U.S. sealift fleet, crewed by a shrinking workforce of mariners, may not be ready to respond to a crisis in the Indo-Pacific,” the congressman wrote.

According to the letter, Mark H. Buzby, who served as the head of the Maritime Administration during the Trump administration, once said the United States was short of 1,800 mariners to “sustain sealift in a crisis beyond six months.”

“The combined effect of an underfunded and undersized fleet, crewed by an insufficient workforce of mariners, has led to a perfect storm in which the United States appears unprepared to carry out major sealift operations during a crisis,” Mr. Gallagher wrote.

“Even if the United States has the weapons and equipment to fight, it faces the alarming risk that it may lack the sealift capabilities to sustain the fight,” he added. “The potential impact of such a logistical deficiency on our deterrence posture at this perilous moment cannot be understated.”

The United States could potentially go to war against China over Taiwan if the CCP decides to invade the self-ruled island. Consequently, Mr. Gallagher said the United States needs a “comprehensive plan” to deter the Chinese invasion, including improved military logistics, particularly sealift capacity.

“We must prioritize our attention and resources to restoring our deterrence against China and ensuring that we can succeed in any future conflict,” he wrote.

“How much will we need to rely on foreign-flag, foreign-crewed vessels to meet shortfalls in our sealift capability? What do you assess are the risks of doing so? From which countries will such foreign-flag, foreign-crewed vessels come?” the congressman also asked in the letter.

Mr. Gallagher ended his letter by asking Gen. Van Ovost and Rear Adm. Phillips about their plans to expand sealift capacity, including acquiring U.S., China, or foreign merchant ships and increasing the number of mariners. He requested written responses before Feb. 28.