McDew Notes Need for Change as MSC Operates in ‘Contested’ Environment
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Military Sealift Command (MSC) is sailing in “contested waters” today and the military needs to consider changing the way it operates, such as relearning how to conduct armed escort missions as it did in World War II, the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command (TransCom) said Nov. 15.
TransCom also is in discussions with the Navy on how it could replace the badly aged ships in the sealift and prepositioning fleets, possibly by buying low-cost used merchant ships, Air Force Gen. Darren McDew said.
Speaking at an Air Force Association breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club, McDew was asked about the concerns of Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, commander of MSC — which is part of TransCom — that the growing threats from potential adversaries, such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, means that his ships will be sailing into “contested waters.”
“They doing that now,” McDew said, possibly referring to the missile attacks against two MSC ships operating off of Yemen earlier this year.
And the contested environment “doesn’t start when they get under way. It starts before they leave port,” he added, repeating his earlier warnings about the threat all of his command faces from cyber attacks and disruption of the space-based navigation systems.
The threat of kinetic attacks is particularly troublesome for MSC because most of its ships are unarmed, built to commercial standards rather than more-survivable military qualities and crewed by civilian mariners.
McDew compared the potential threat to the MSC vessels to the horrific losses inflicted by German submarines on the Merchant Mariners crossing the Atlantic in World War II. Those civilian seaman “died at the highest rate of any U.S. force” in the war he said.
To help counter that threat, “in World War II, we had armed convoys,” he noted. “We haven’t had to worry about that since then. Maybe we have to look at what armed escort looks like.”
The general suggested that today’s cyber threats could equal the danger from World War II submarines.
The military will have to think differently because “those lines of communications will be contested.”
The nation also may have to think about how to operate in face of “attrition” of forces in a conflict against a peer adversary, McDew added.
Asked about Mewbourne’s concerns about the advanced age of his sealift and prepositioning ships, McDew said he was in discussions with the Navy on how to modernize the sealift fleets.
He said the National Defense Authorization Act, which may be approved by Congress by the end of the month, has language that “would allow us to buy used vessels. There are ships on the market now that would cost one-half or one-third as much as new ships, and are available for pennies on the dollar.”
Those ships could be modernized and modified in U.S. shipyards, so “everyone wins,” he said.
McDew noted that he is “the largest owner of steam ships in the world,” but does not want that distinction, adding that virtually all the world’s commercial vessels have diesel engines, which are cheaper and require fewer Sailors.