NORFOLK, Va. (NNS) -- For more than 50 years the mariners of Military Sealift Command have sailed virtually uncontested around the globe to deliver the logistics and service support our fleet commanders and deployed warfighters require to complete their missions.
But today we can no longer assume unfettered access across the maritime domain. Our competitors and adversaries can compete with us on a global scale across all domains, therefore we must prepare our mariners to operate in an environment where the rapid pace of technology means change is exponential and training and preparation are essential to future success.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the commander of Military Sealift Command, Rear Adm. Dee Mewbourne, to discuss the topic of operating our ships in a contested environment.
For decades, the U.S. Navy and Military Sealift Command have enjoyed unimpeded access in the maritime domain, with little to no interference from adversaries or competitors. How has the maritime environment changed and what are some of the challenges we currently face?
-Mewbourne- The operating environment which Military Sealift Command ships operate has changed. Most significantly, our mariners are now sailing in a contested environment. We've seen several recent examples where civilian-crewed vessels have been attacked.
Our civilian and military leadership acknowledge there are four nation-states which the United States is concerned about; Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. We are also deeply engaged in the fight against violent extremism worldwide.
As an example of the contested environment we now face, in October 2016, the high-speed logistics vessel MV Swift, which was leased to the United Arab Emirates' navy, was badly damaged by an anti-ship missile attack, off the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb.
That same month, a missile attack was launched from the coast of Yemen at the Navy's guided missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) and near MSC's afloat forward staging base USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15) forcing Mason to fire missiles in response to the threat. This is an example of the contested environment we are witnessing.
While these incidents were carried out by a smaller, less capable force, we must also be concerned with the maritime threats posed by the rise of strategic rivals or 'near-peer' adversaries to include powerful nation states such as China and Russia.
Both of these nations have very capable naval forces and each is currently increasing their naval capabilities. Both are considered global navies and possess the ability to project power throughout the global commons.
The U.S. Navy is transparent when it comes to our maritime operations. This is not the case with many other nations. The manner in which some states operate at sea raises the possibility of harmful incidents due to miscalculations or misunderstanding.
Should our country find itself in a naval conflict with another nation, MSC's fleet will be providing support to our combatant ships in a war zone, something our mariners have not encountered since WWII.
While the U.S. Navy has been involved extensively in strike warfare against targets ashore in the land wars of the last several decades, the seas have not been the primary battlespace. Previously the sea was a generally safe environment from which our naval forces could operate and strike our enemies with impunity. That is no longer the case.
What steps will MSC have to take to ensure we can deliver assured maritime logistics in this increasingly complex and contested environment?
-Mewbourne- Military Sealift Command is the best in the world at what we do today. There is no other organization that provides the level of joint-warfighter maritime logistical support we do. My focus is making sure we continue to provide that same level of support five, 10 and 20 years from now.
We're building upon the good work that every employee has contributed to MSC over the past six and half decades to continue to be the best maritime transportation organization in the nation.
We're focused on things like process improvement, building strong business practices and partnerships, maintaining our ships, and training our mariners. To maintain MSC's effectiveness, we must continue to excel at these things by focusing on high-end training and becoming proficient in new skill sets. While we might hope to evade the shoal waters ahead, we must prepare to operate and win in this new environment.
My vision is that MSC trains to successfully carry out our missions in a contested environment, and that our mariners and shore staff are ready for the threats and complex problems they may encounter.
To demonstrate metaphorically, we use the MSC 'United We Sail' graphic which includes one of our fleet oilers sailing the high seas into a storm. The oiler in this graphic is sailing in very troubled waters and there is a powerful storm looming off the bow on the horizon of the ship.
While the crew is hopeful to avoid the storm, the mariners aboard must be prepared to weather the threat. This is the mindset I want MSC's teammates to embrace. We must be prepared to weather the storm.
Focusing on ship and crew readiness is a priority; be it the material condition of our platforms, training of our shipboard personnel, proper manning of our ships with qualified mariners, or the resilience of our people and their families; all of these play a role in the holistic readiness of our fleet.
How are we training our civilian mariners to safely operate in this new more complex environment?
-Mewbourne- The training our people receive must address the hazards we could face in a contested environment.
During WWII, mariners understood there was a strong likelihood that their ship could be targeted and attacked. They focused on skills which would increase their chances of survival. Our mariners need to do the same and focus on what I like to call 'life skills' such as swimming, survival at sea tactics, celestial navigation, damage control, and medical life-saving procedures. These basic skills are needed to survive in times of peril at sea.
Another area we need to focus on is the ability to sail undetected.
During WWII we became very proficient at avoiding detection by German U-boats. To accomplish this we implemented tactics such as turning out lights, reducing radio transmissions, and avoiding certain areas which increased the chances of ship detection by adversaries.
MSC must develop, implement and practice similar tactics to counter detection in a modern contested environment and prevent our ships from being targeted.
MSC recently stood up the Contested Environment Working Group. What is this group's objective and how will it contribute to the overall problem of operating in a contested environment?
-Mewbourne- The overall purpose of a working group is to be the engine which drives change at MSC. In order to implement change, we must first understand were we are today, where we want to go, and then plot a course to get there.
The Contested Environment Working Group is a collection of cross-functional experts who understand how MSC operates today, and is actively seeking information through war games, training exercises, personal testimony, and historical examples about the potential future of our fleet while operating in challenged seas. The working group uses this knowledge to compare where MSC is now with where it should be heading.
Furthermore, the working group evaluates gaps in capability, capacity, knowledge and training, and proposes solutions to remedy any deficiencies.
We've heard you say the phrase "bend the curve" when addressing challenges associated with contested environments. Could you explain what "bending the curve" means and how it applies to MSC?
-Mewbourne- To understand the concept of 'bend the curve,' envision a basic curve graph.
The horizontal axis of the graph demonstrates the element of time. The time period we are concerned with begins just after WWII and extends to today and into the near-future.
The vertical axis represents MSC's ability to support the warfighter.
If we were to plot MSC's ability to provide logistics support over the years, we would see a relatively small growth in our warfighter support methods since the end of WWII because the seas have not been a battlefield.
After WWII, we primarily focused on becoming more efficient, more effective, and modeled our operations on some of our county's successful maritime business practices. This course led us to being the best in the world but is represented on the graph by a relatively flat line because we also stopped doing some of the things which were necessary to operate successfully in a contested environment. Examples include removing military personnel such as the Navy Armed Guard, and certain self-defense systems from our ships.
At the same time that we've remained in a near steady state, our potential near-peer adversaries have been pushing to increase their capabilities. They have invested lots of resources, manpower and effort into strengthening their ability to conduct warfare at sea. These actions are demonstrated by an upward curving "ski-jump" shape to the graph.
So, if MSC doesn't 'bend our combat support capability curve,' then we run the risk of our potential adversaries outpacing us, and beating us in the race to successfully operate in a contested environment.
As Americans, defeat is not in our vocabulary. As a nation, we do all we can to avoid armed conflict, but if we must fight, we are in it to win. So when I'm talking about 'bending the curve,' I'm talking about increasing MSC's combat support capability so that our mariners never find themselves outmatched by a potential adversary.
We need to do everything possible to accomplish the mission and return our mariners home safely. As the professional and dedicated men and women of MSC have done throughout our history, we will answer the call, and effectively provide assured global maritime logistics services to the warfighter.
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