The Need for Sealift


If the United States is to draw correct military lessons from the Persian Gulf crisis, it will have to start giving higher priority to its sealift capabilities. While the rapid transport of massive supplies and tens of thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia during the past six weeks has been a logistics miracle of sorts, it hardly proved that this country was ready for an instant, distant shooting war.

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md. 2nd, a vociferous advocate of a stronger merchant marine, warns that if Iraq's Saddam Hussein had invaded Saudi Arabia right after his Aug. 2 seizure of Kuwait, there is no way the United States could have transported the supplies and equipment needed for an expeditionary force of up to 250,000 personnel. Even though prepositioned ships in the Indian Ocean plus 42 ships activated from the Ready Reserve Force were rushed into service along with chartered commercial vessels, there were "inadequacies," she says, that "will become glaring inadequacies if hostilities should break out soon."

Adequate sealift, unfortunately, is the stuff of lip service rather than armed service. While the Navy regularly avers its interest, its officers traditionally prefer combat ships to transport vessels. The top Pentagon command is no better. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has diverted half of the $600 million appropriated last year for sealift enhancement to other projects.

One problem is that the U.S. armed forces are still mainly structured to meet Cold War threats from the Soviet Union. The need to prepare for precisely the kind of Third World crisis now seen in the Persian Gulf has been acknowledged but largely unimplemented. Three years ago, a presidential commission on merchant marine and defense concluded there was "insufficient strategic sealift... to execute a major deployment in a contingency operation in a single distant theater." Little has been done. The commander of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia says the arrival of heavy armor is running a week late because of mechanical problems with Navy sealift vessels and the consequent reliance on slower leased commercial vessels.

Mid-crisis is no time for setting policy to meet future crises. But the defense establishment must prepare for a post-crisis reassessment to bring U.S. forces into the post-Cold War era.

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