The conventional defense of Western Europe depends on prompt reinforcement by combat units from the United States. Within ten days of a decision to mobilize, the US is committed to raise its strength in Europe to ten Army divisions, sixty tactical fighter squadrons, and one Marine amphibious brigade.
The United States cannot meet that commitment. It does not have enough airlift and sealift to deploy the forces and the support they would require.
According to the Pentagon, US force-projection capability—an aggregate measure that includes airlift, sealift, and prepositioned equipment, munitions, and supplies—has roughly doubled since 1980. That’s true. But that progress is still insufficient, which gives some indication of how bad the situation had been.
In October 1978, the federal government conducted its first full-scale simulated mobilization exercise in thirty years. Twenty-four military organizations and thirty civilian agencies took part. The exercise was called “Nifty Nugget,” and the scenario sent 400,000 troops to Europe in response to a fast-breaking conventional attack.
The results of the simulation were horrifying. The 400,000 troops were killed in the first few weeks. They ran out of artillery shells, tank rounds, and other ammunition. Their supplies were still floating in the Atlantic or waiting at US ports when the exercise ended after twenty-one days.
Mobilization plans fell apart under pressure. There were huge gaps in understanding among the players. They could not even agree on a definition of “mobilization.” Military Airlift Command got twenty-seven validated requests to move the same unit to twenty-seven different places. Airlift fell short, despite augmentation by the reserves and commercial airliners. MAC could handle only about a tenth of the outsize cargo it was called on to take to the battlefront. Coordination among the services was haphazard.
Nifty Nugget set the stage for the gains in force-projection capability that came in the 1980s. It also led to the creation of US Transportation Command. TRANSCOM, activated last October, places critical components of MAC, the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, and the Army’s Military Traffic Management Command under unified control. This arrangement promises to improve efficiency and coordination, but it does not resolve the basic shortage of resources.
Gen. Duane H. Cassidy, Commander in Chief of TRANSCOM, told the Senate last April that “we simply do not have enough airlift or sealift, nor are we closing the gap. Although we have made progress in increasing airlift capacity, we still face shortfalls. Strategic sealift is encountering a steep, rapid decline.”
In his new role, General Cassidy also keeps his old command, MAC, whose airlifters are the healthiest element in force projection. The C-141 StarLifters have been stretched by twenty-three feet, giving them thirty percent more capacity. They have further been retrofitted for aerial refueling. A rewinging of the big C-5s, using stronger materials, has added 30,000 hours to the service life of each of those aircraft. The Air Force is buying fifty C-513s for MAC and sixty KC-10s—combination tanker-airlifters—for Strategic Air Command. There have been significant improvements in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, modified commercial airliners that in wartime would perform nearly all troop movement and carry twenty-five percent of the air cargo.
Work begins this month on the C-17 intertheater-intratheater airlifter (see “The First C-17,” p. 54). The Air Force can presently provide 45,400,000 ton-miles per day of airlift. That is well short of the established requirement for 66,000,000, but at least the trend is in the right direction.
The Sealift Shortfall
Not so with sealift. In any major overseas deployment, about ninety-five percent of the dry cargo and ninety-nine percent of the petroleum products would go by sea. Since 1980, the Navy has acquired eight Fast Sealift Ships, container vessels that move at speeds above thirty knots and that have been converted to a roll-on/roll-off configuration for combat unit equipment.
But strategic sealift still depends heavily on the merchant marine fleet. The number of merchant ships the Navy could activate from its Ready Reserve Force increased from zero in 1980 to ninety-six today. These measures have been helpful, but the overall outlook is grim. The merchant marine and the maritime industry are in trouble.
“Today we cannot meet the national commitment of ten divisions to Europe in ten days for several reasons, including the lack of immediately available shipping,” General Cassidy says. “Dollars alone will not cure the extensive problems that this industry faces. The Departments of Defense and Transportation, in conjunction with the civil sector, including both unions and ship owners if necessary, must spearhead a national effort to revitalize our commercial maritime industry.”
The President’s Commission on the Merchant Marine and Defense reported recently that “the current inventory of ships suitable for strategic sealift is inadequate to meet the requirements of even a single-theater conflict” and that by the turn of the century it will be impossible for the United States to fulfill its national strategy with its own sealift resources.
Estimates of the shortfall in sealift vary, but General Cassidy says that “at this point, defining the exact number of ships sufficient to do the job is not as critical as recognizing the continuing downward trend in ships available.” He told Congress that the state of the maritime industry is “the most disturbing situation I have encountered since assuming command of USTRANSCOM.”
Since 1980, the US flag commercial fleet has declined from 843 active ships to 369. By the year 2000, there will be only 220. Domestic shipyards have not begun work on an American flag vessel since 1985, and no merchant ships are presently under construction in US shipyards. The merchant marine work force has declined sixty percent since 1970 and is still dropping. Seventy-six US shipyards or ship repair facilities have closed since 1982, and thirty-eight major drydocking facilities have shut down. This, of course, would make it harder for the Navy to reactivate reserve ships quickly or to repair battle damage.
The Next Big Step
Much of TRANSCOM’s activity in its first year of existence has been in the areas of organizing and planning. The next big step comes October 1, when it assumes operational command of the “common user” forces of the component commands. Resources for service-unique missions will stay under control of the individual military departments.
MAC, for example, will be keeping as service-unique its tactical and special airlift, aeromedical evacuation, rescue, special operations, weather, and audiovisual missions. Assets moving under the purview of TRANSCOM include eighty-five C-5s and 234 C-141s from MAC, 387 Civil Reserve Air Fleet aircraft, fifty-two Navy ships, ninety-four reserve vessels, thirty-one ocean terminals now operated by the Army, and the 2,600 railcars of the Defense Freight Railway Interchange Fleet.
TRANSCOM officials say that before they can develop an effective transportation system, they must solve their automated data-processing problems. Their objective is a single ADP system that integrates the present proliferation of existing ones.
A major initiative is building a command control communications and computer system (C4S) to manage TRANSCOM’s diverse missions and assets.
“Our most pressing C4S concern is the lack of a communications and computer network for global mobility planning and execution,” General Cassidy says. “Fielding programs such as the Worldwide Military Command and Control System [WWMCCS] Information System [WIS] and the Joint Operational Planning and Execution System [JOPES] will provide state-of-the-art decision-making capability in response to crisis or contingency.
“Our long-term objectives in efficient mobilization are dependent on WIS and JOPES, which represent the most critical communications and computer program in USTRANSCOM’s wartime mobility planning. We cannot meet our chartered wartime mission without this capability. This program is what USTRANSCOM is all about. Realistically, we will never have enough lift. We must put what lift we do possess to the best possible use. This program is the means to that end.”
TRANSCOM reports significant progress in joint and combined communications capability. The current C4S system works well when operations are planned and deliberate, but its limitations show up in fast-moving deployments. The command seems determined to establish global mobility management and is trying to steer these programs safely through the firestorm of budget reductions.
Running Out of People
General Cassidy’s concerns do not stop with aircraft, ships, and the industrial base. “We could run out of people before running out of equipment,” he says. “There has been much uncertainty introduced into the lives of our personnel. The service member is not sure of the ground he stands on. The spouses are less sure.
“For example, MAC’s pilot-retention rates [cumulative retention for pilots with six to eleven years of service] have declined from seventy-nine percent in FY ’83 to thirty-nine percent in FY ’87. So far, FY ’88 rates appear to be heading even lower. This pilot-retention decline, coupled with the current merchant manner shortfall, severely impacts USTRANSCOM’s wartime capability.”
In some MAC units, as many as half of the pilots have given notice that they are leaving service. Reasons include the instability of duty and assignments, the decline of benefits, objections to various Air Force personnel policies, and the lure of other opportunities, mainly from the pilot-hungry airlines. Genera! Cassidy, along with other military leaders, argues hard for better pay and benefits when he testifies to Congress, but MAC is taking some initiatives of its own. One of these is disciplining the airlift system to reduce turbulence for the crews.
“We have instituted a significant reduction in last-minute Channel [regularly scheduled] add-on missions,” he says. “We will no longer chase the cargo levels in our aerial ports, but will match our cargo movement to a reasonable capability—one that takes into account our aircrew situation.
“We will discipline the airlift system by prescheduling SAAM [Special Assignment Airlift Mission] missions. MAC can no longer afford to be a ‘You call, we haul’ outfit . . . . We will strictly manage scheduled return times for active as well as for Reserve crews and will take every action possible to return our crews on time.”
The numerical strength of the merchant marine work force has been dropping like a rock. It stands at only 28,000 people today and is projected to decrease further to 12,000 by the end of the century.
“Should we have to mobilize, our initial projected merchant mariner shortfall would be 6,170 seamen,” General Cassidy says. “The shortfall would escalate to 8,126 seamen during sustained operations and peak at approximately 20,000 seamen when considering economic shipping and the shipping of critical materials. As you can see, the maritime industry’s ability to crew reserve ships and partially replace foreign crews on US flag-of-convenience ships is in jeopardy.”
Transition to operational control of TRANSCOM should not be a severe jolt for the component commands. They are accustomed to working together. During last year’s Reforger ’87, for example, 3,900 pieces of equipment and 15,016 tons of freight, originating at twenty-seven Stateside bases, moved by rail, truck, and ship to Germany, where it linked up with 35,000 troops flown to the exercise area by MAC.
The services perform smoothly in such scheduled exercises as Re-forger, which has become something of a showpiece. The deployment of 3,600 soldiers and 1,800 tons of equipment to Honduras in March—conducted on notice of only a few hours, nominally for training but also to show the flag in Central America—also went very well.
For many people, though, the real test for TRANSCOM will be whether or not it can untangle the snarls during a grand-scale mobilization of the Nifty Nugget class.
The answer may not be too long in coming. There’s a very good chance that Nifty Nugget II will be staged in 1990.