SS Jeremiah O'Brien, a World War II Liberty ship, in 2022. Photo: Wikipedia

Logistics is America’s Achilles heel in the Indo-Pacific region.  If the United States is to fight and win a Pacific War with China – a war that seems increasingly imaginable over the coming decade – then it must ensure its military sealift system is up to the challenge of great-power conflict. 

This demands a sealift industrial base that integrates advances in automation with a revitalized American shipbuilding industry. A new, modern series of WW2-era Liberty and Victory ships must sustain the US in a modern conflict. The lack of these vessels imperils the military’s ability to control the seas and assure the safety of the global commerce on which the US economy depends.

American combat power’s visible elements are a single, albeit important, element of its arsenal. The US military require a variety of combat instruments – the Abrams tanks nearing service in Ukraine, the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters that can combat hostile air defenses, and the US Navy’s 100,000-ton supercarriers are the most visible end of American military capabilities.

Yet the United States is a strategic island, at remove from the Eurasian landmass by the world’s two largest oceans. The great benefit of American victory in both World Wars and the Cold War is the United States’ access to the Eurasian littorals. 

In Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the US maintains a military network of allies and bases that provide it the ability to project decisive power into Eurasia more rapidly than any other insular power in history.

Sustaining these forces in the Eurasian rimland, thousands of kilometers from the locus of their power in the United States, requires an immense logistical effort. During both World Wars, the United States engaged in a major construction of its logistical capabilities through centrally directed government support. The Second World War’s effort, expressed through the Liberty and Victory ships, is illustrative. 

American shipyards produced more than 3,000 bespoke transports and logistical ships, on average putting two ships in the water every three days. These ships allowed the US to overcome Germany’s armed pressure in the Atlantic – absent the sheer volume of transports put into service during the war’s early years, the Battle of the Atlantic would have been lost.

These ships, along with long-range transport aircraft, formed the core of the United States’ logistical and repositioning capability, gathered under the US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) today. 

The combination of global bases, pre-positioned ships, oil tankers, cargo ships, and refuelers at sea, along with tanker and heavy lift aircraft, are the backbone of American power. They enable US forces to transition rapidly between theaters, surge to the most critical areas of the Eurasian rimland and sustain long-term combat operations.

Under-equipped, undermanned

But the US logistical force, particularly at sea, is a ghost of its former self. The US Merchant Marine has well under 200 militarily useful ships, while Military Sealift Command has a few dozen support ships across a variety of classes. 

Critically, these ships lack crews for scaled-up operations. The US Merchant Marine once comprised tens of thousands of trained mariners, produced primarily from the US Merchant Marine Academy. These Strategic Sealift Officers, in wartime, could be called on to fill out a logistical system. 

Today, the USMMA produces only a few hundred graduates each year, grossly insufficient for an actual reserve of manpower. Neither the ships nor the crews to sustain a US logistical system in long-term combat exist. This is the most glaring vulnerability the United States faces in the Indo-Pacific region.

The People’s Liberation Army is constructed with a single purpose: to defeat the United States and its allies in a war over Taiwan. 

PLA planners have made a fundamental bet – they can overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses during the opening period of a war, when the US has not degraded the PLA’s ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) network, and then push out into the Western Philippine Sea, confronting the US with the choice between a long, brutal war or capitulation. 

The indispensable portion of American force structure in this initial phase of combat is its logistical units, the sealift and airlift that sustain and reposition US forces during wartime. 

If American logistics is found wanting, then the US will be forced to operate from bases far removed from the Western Pacific, fighting at best a limited standoff war, and at worst simply accepting a new Indo-Pacific balance of power that is hostile to its interests, and disastrous for its allies.

Undersea threat

PLA submarines will undermine American logistics by attacking the US transports, refueling ships, and other critical elements of the US maritime logistical fleet. Chinese submarines are almost guaranteed to spill out into the Western Philippine Sea and beyond. 

The US Navy has two premier assets for tracking hostile submarines, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and surveillance towed array sensor system (SURTASS)-equipped tracking ships.  

Alternative assets are equally heavy and visible, like the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer. These are all effective anti-submarine platforms. But they are vulnerable during the initial phases of a conflict, when the Chinese missile arsenal is full, the Chinese ISR apparatus is robust, and Chinese aircraft are bold, aggressive, and willing to take casualties prior to the first weeks of bloodletting in a high-casualty air-sea war. 

US forces will not be able to restrict Chinese submarine movements, hemming them in the First Island Chain: US platforms – all high-value – that can be used to track enemy submarines cannot simply be fully expended during a conflict’s initial 48 hours, some must be held in reserve.

Because Chinese submarines can debouche into the Indo-Pacific region, the US merchant fleet and logistical force will take losses. Enough losses will be a body blow to the US military. 

More escorts would help, although the US military remains unwilling to fund a dedicated class of anti-submarine escort ships and aircraft, akin to the combination of destroyers, destroyer leaders, small carriers, and long-range patrol aircraft of the Second World War. 

The alternative solution – and the only solution in the long term given the immense requirements of American logistics during a great-power war – is to build a sustainment force that can absorb losses.

There is no royal road to that force, only congressional and administration support for a series of low-cost, automated logistical ships designed with relative simplicity. There should be dozens of these bulk cargo and tanker ships for the first phase of transport, from the continental United States to at least Pearl Harbor, the critical junction between US forces in the Western Pacific and the North American continent. 

A fleet of two to three dozen ships of this sort alone – mostly if not wholly automated Liberty-ship-style logistics ships – would reduce the burden on the manned fleet and provide the navy with a ready-made template for large-scale logistics. These ships would also serve a critical deterrence function by demonstrating that the US military can absorb punishment to its logistical elements and keep fighting.

In the first great work of Western literature, the Iliad, the great commanders exhort their soldiers to eat well before a great battle. Homer knew the importance of a well-supplied force. We Americans have forgotten it.

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a US naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the navy, and is the author of the books Mayday and Seablindness.