The Navy is reviewing how to increase the readiness of supply ships called on if war breaks out, an admiral says.
Rear Adm. John A. Schommer, 51, a Dayton native who serves as Navy Reserve deputy commander of the Norfolk, Va. -headquartered Military Sealift Command, returned to his hometown this week to tell the Navy’s message and the challenges the nation’s crucial sea lift forces confront.
“We want to let the public know about their Navy, and it is their Navy,” the one-star admiral said in an interview with this news outlet. “We want people to know that we’re there to defend (against) and deter aggression and if deterrence fails then to win our nation’s wars.”
Schommer’s itinerary included tours at the University of Dayton Research Institute, the Naval Medical Research Unit at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and Sinclair Community College to address the Dayton Rotary Club among several locations this week in the Miami Valley. The Kettering Fairmont High School graduate is a retired Tucson Police Department officer and lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Military Sealift Command has about 120 ships that carry the load overseas on day-to-day operations refueling, feeding and arming the ocean-going fleet and 46 additional cargo ships available to activate in the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force if needed.
“You see the video of the planes landing and the troops getting off, but over 90 percent of the military equipment in any engagement is going to be taken by sea,” the one-star admiral said. “… We’re constantly in need of ensuring that they’re ready to go when called.”
Ready Reserve Force sea lift vessels put into use during a wartime surge or emergency such as a natural disaster sail perhaps twice a year, not as often as MSC’s combat logistics ships that keep the fleet at sea supplied day to day, he said. The program started with six ships in 1977 and reached a peak of 102 in 1994, according to the military.
The Army and Marine Corps depend heavily on the ships to haul equipment overseas in wartime. During Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, 79 reserve force ships carried 25 percent of equipment and nearly half of the ammunition in the first Persian Gulf war to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
The reserve ships also were activated in disaster relief efforts when after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the U.S. gulf coast region in 2005, and a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010.
“Ships need to be sailed,” Schommer said. “… Crews need to be trained. We’re looking at ways of how we can increase the readiness of those (wartime reserve) ships by providing better maintenance, by getting them underway more often, by getting the crews trained on a more regular basis.”
While the maritime industry faces competitive pressures, finding civil service mariners to crew the vessels isn’t an issue yet, he said.
“Right now, there is not a shortage, but if we go to a full-scale war where we are activating all of our surge sea lift capability and we’re also using commercial shipping, we’re right at the butting up against the maximum number of civilian mariners that we have available,” he said. “There is a concern with that. It’s not a crisis yet, but (that) is something that is being addressed mainly by the Maritime Administration.”
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The average age of the surge sea lift ships has reached 29 years old and the military is exploring how to recapitalize the fleet, he said.
“We can’t wait until they are no longer useful to then start building ships because there’s a long time frame so we have to look at options now,” the admiral said.