You Go to War with the Watercraft You Have
The U.S military is at risk of repeating Russia’s logistics failures in Ukraine during a war in the Indo-Pacific. One of the enduring images from Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine will likely be the convoy parked northeast of Kyiv for weeks, dozens of miles long, unable to bring its combat power to bear with an attack on the capital. The inability of the Russian army to supply or maintain its forces in Ukraine has been well-documented. An equally important corollary is Ukraine’s successful targeting of Russian supply operations and its ability to translate these actions into success on the battlefield. An obvious lesson for U.S. planners, policymakers, and legislators should be the importance of logistics to the successful execution of military operations.
The challenge of logistics in the Pacific theater is different than those associated with land movements across a shared border in Europe. Failure in the Indo-Pacific theater might not be represented by lines of stalled vehicles, but rather troops and equipment far removed from the battle and without adequate intra-theater lift to move them across the ocean. Though the Army and Marine Corps (via the Navy), each have plans to acquire intra-theater watercraft, without coordination and a significant increase in scale, U.S. forces could find themselves without adequate numbers of watercraft or a joint logistics concept that captures the dynamic changes of force design and modernization that each of the services has embarked upon.
Analysts have sought to apply initial lessons learned from the war in Ukraine to a potential conflict over Taiwan. They identify concepts and capabilities needed by Taiwan to resist a numerically and technologically superior China and see in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a cautionary tale for Xi Jinping should he harbor similarly militarized ambitions. These articles are correct in capturing key lessons from a ground war between bordering states in Europe but fail to adequately address the significant logistical implications for a largely maritime conflict in the Western Pacific. In such a conflict the U.S., not the Chinese, military is at most risk of replicating Russian logistical failures. The maritime environment will challenge Taiwan’s ability to apply Ukraine’s logistical playbook and complicate America’s ability to provide support to the island.
Choosing to not learn from Russia’s errors means the United States will be ill-equipped to conduct — or support — military operations thousands of miles from main supply bases and in an environment that will be highly contested by a capable and growing Chinese military.
Crossing a Contested Pacific
China’s growing air, naval, and rocket forces are increasingly able to threaten U.S. air and maritime vessels operating in the Western Pacific. U.S. reliance on a small number of large, slow-moving, easily targeted vessels simplifies targeting and increases the odds of China hitting its desired targets. The past 30 years of U.S. military operations have seen steady reliance on just such large, slow, easy-target vessels for logistics supply across the oceans. These large craft, previously used to build ‘iron mountains’ of materiel, will be unsuitable for operating effectively in the Indo-Pacific. Their size makes them relatively easy targets at sea or in port, and they are required to operate at functioning ports for onload or offload — a risky bet in a highly contested theater. Expanding the number while decreasing the size of U.S. logistics support vessels is one way to mitigate these risks. Yet despite a clear strategic need for these craft, the U.S. inventory is at a historic low point. At present, the U.S. Army operates 120 vessels, with a plan to reduce its fleet to 74 craft by the fiscal year 2027.
The question of how many watercraft might be needed for a war can be informed by history. If history is our guide, the current watercraft fleet is anemic for effective competition — much less combat. Over the course of World War II, the United States operated over 111,000 ships and watercraft supporting the movement of material and personnel to sustain the overall war effort.
World War II may have represented the apex of Army watercraft, but those vessels (and units) were also critical for the Cold War. For example, when considering the lift needed to deploy and support 100,000 soldiers anywhere in the world, a 1979 GAO report cites an Army requirement of at least 172 watercraft to sustain a force of 100,000 soldiers for global deployment. While the world has changed since the 1970s, it still takes an enormous amount of equipment to sustain military operations. For example, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine highlights that as many as 55,000 rounds of artillery are fired daily — about 2,612.5 tons of shells per day, at 95 pounds per round. In addition to munitions, a conflict in the Pacific would require large quantities of food, water, and fuel as well as vehicles and other supplies. The logistics bill would be immense, with a Department of Defense report to Congress on the Pacific Deterrence Initiative noting, “current theater logistics posture and capability to sustain the force are inadequate to support operations specifically in a contested environment.”
Even as history provides a guide, some basic math also helps to understand the logistics predicament of the current joint force. The Army currently operates 120 watercraft systems. Of those, eight are long-distance, self-deploying logistics support vessels. A logistics support vessel is a specific type of Army watercraft capable of carrying several thousand tons of people and equipment nearly 6,500 miles without additional support. Logistics support vessels are also able to beach themselves to unload from shore with or without improved ports necessary for most large transport vessels. These vessels can transport heavy equipment and one or two companies’ worth of personnel several thousand miles. Deploying a single infantry brigade combat team of approximately 4,750 soldiers and 1,800 vehicles in ‘one lift’ would require 61 logistics support vessels — nearly eight-times as many vessels as the current inventory. The current fleet of logistics support vessels could, theoretically, sustain two such brigades for prolonged operations in the Indo-Pacific, assuming the logistics support vessels ran 100 percent of the time and never needed repairs. Such assumptions are wildly optimistic, though, as watercraft generally can be assumed to spend a portion of their life cycle undergoing repairs, will be targeted by adversary forces in conflict, and are deployed throughout the globe. Even if a potential future conflict in the Indo-Pacific did not need a level of forces on par with World War II, or even Vietnam, the lack of sanctuary and the necessary distances to cover will require many more relatively small vessels able to self-deploy over operationally relevant distances in the Indo-Pacific. In reality, the current fleet is too small to contribute effectively to competition or conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
The Long Arm of the Light Amphibious Warship
The reality that the U.S. military is unable to dominate the maritime domain as it has since the end of WWII means new concepts that account for frequently noted adversary capabilities are a necessity. Understanding this imperative, each U.S. military service is developing new approaches and concepts for future conflict against a peer adversary, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Marine Corps is, arguably, leading the other services in adapting its thinking to what would be needed to operate most effectively in competition and conflict in the Indo-Pacific theater. Its Force Design 2030 as well as the concept for stand-in forces describe how the Marine Corps plans to posture itself to remain relevant to the nation and the nation’s interests in that critical theater.
The Air Force, Navy, and Army are similarly pressing ahead with concepts of operation for contested environments that call for distributed and dynamic operations. Unlike the Marine Corps, though, they do not prioritize the need for logistics forces or capabilities operationally relevant in the Indo-Pacific. Instead, driven by budgetary pressures and the competing need to modernize key weapons systems, they are prioritizing the acquisition of greater quantities of the lethal equipment (such as tanks, combat aircraft, and combatant vessels) that are core to the services’ cultural identity. This prioritization has long gone unchallenged and is often even driven by civilian leadership in the executive and legislative branches opposed to “divest to invest” arguments, even if those combat capabilities will be — at best — ornamental without the logistical capabilities to both get them into, and keep them in, the fight.
Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, has described logistics and mobility as key to the Marine Corps’ concepts’ viability in the vast Indo-Pacific region. He has stated the Marine Corps needs 24-35 relatively small, inexpensive, intra-theater transport and logistics vessels. The current Navy program calls those vessels the Light Amphibious Warship. It is envisioned to serve as a low-cost, easy-to-acquire amphibious ship that will serve as one of the primary mechanisms to deliver and execute the expeditionary advanced base operations that Force Design 2030 envisions.
The Light Amphibious Warship is remarkably similar to the Army’s logistics support vessel. The Army’s current watercraft meet or exceed the Marine Corps’ proposed capacity in both tonnage and surface area, and have a comparable range and a smaller crew. Its top speed of 12 knots is two to three knots slower than the proposed top speed of 14 to 15 knots, and its draft of 13 feet is one foot deeper than the Marine Corps proposal.
The Army acquired eight logistics support vessels, most recently in 2003, for a unit cost of approximately $23 million. In stark contrast, the Navy’s most recent statements on the Light Amphibious Warship indicate it is planning for each vessel to cost up to $150 million. While the Army’s watercraft costs are two decades old, shipbuilding inflation alone seems an implausible sole reason for such a significant cost increase, and FY23 Navy budgetary documents do not explain the excess cost. The inclusion of modern C4I systems, onboard point defense systems, and the engineering needed to support them may account for a portion of the increase, but without supporting documentation from the Navy this is conjecture. If so, these added systems would mean the Light Amphibious Warship is no longer the craft envisioned by General Berger and necessary for his future concepts.
Maximizing all aspects of a ship capable of independent deployment in support of distributed operations within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone will lead to such an expensive vessel that its acquisition is imperiled along with the Marine Corps’ efforts to realize force design 2030. Given the budgetary pressures in shipbuilding top lines, a procurement strategy that reduces the cost per ship is the only real solution.
The current strategies of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps rhetorically acknowledge the role that watercraft will play. But they provide few — if any — resources to procure the capabilities needed in the quantity required to operate at range, in contested environments, and to sustain operations even while experiencing losses. Concrete policy recommendations can address many of these issues.
The Navy’s plan to acquire the light amphibious warship provides a small number of high-cost vessels far after Indo-Pacific Command’s time window for the most credible threat. The Armed Services Committees should require the Navy to deliver a report and briefing within 90 days explaining what operational benefits the light amphibious warship provides for the cost as compared to the Army logistics support vessel.
The Army and the Navy are pursuing remarkably similar vessels for highly similar tasks yet appear to be developing the requirements and capabilities separately. The Secretary of Defense should ask for a joint briefing from the Service Chiefs explaining the need for different capabilities, and what the operational benefits — and consequences — are of delivering the proposed systems on the proposed timelines.
Russia’s failures and Ukraine’s successes in their ongoing war should be an alarm bell that the United States needs to ensure its own logistics capability and capacity to sustain combat power in the Indo-Pacific. Current sanguine assessments of logistics capacity seem to sidestep the analysis of risk to ports, airports, and vessels from potential adversary missile forces that would impede ready access to facilities needed for orderly delivery of troops or materiel. The Secretary should direct the military services and departments to report on the sufficiency of current and planned logistics forces to provide needed supplies and personnel into contested areas including through degraded or destroyed port and airport facilities. Indo-Pacific Command and European Command should evaluate these reports before they are delivered to the secretary of defense.
Chris Bernotavicius is an active-duty Navy commander, currently assigned as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct fellow at the U.S. Naval Institute.
Michelle Macander is an active-duty Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, currently serving as a strategist on the Joint Staff’s Joint Force Development Team, and was formerly assigned as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Danielle Ngo is an active-duty Army colonel, currently assigned as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
John Schaus is a fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS where he focuses on defense and security issues in the Asia-Pacific. From 2011 to 2014 he worked in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or that of any other organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies.