The leader of U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) is defending the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 request to buy up to 24 foreign-built, used commercial ships for the military’s reserve fleet, saying they are the cheapest, fastest option to replace aging cargo vessels.

Asked by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee why the ships would not be built in the United States, Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, TRANSCOM’s commander, testified April 10 that 20-year-old, foreign-made ships are available for purchase at the relatively low price of $20 million to $30 million each. They would replace much older vessels. 

Air Force Gen. and Transcom Commander Darren McDew. Photo: U.S. Air Force.
Air Force Gen. and Transcom Commander Darren McDew. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

“That cuts my fleet’s age in half overnight, and they’re [being sold for] pennies on the dollar right now on the open market,” he said. “We would probably end up using those ships” for 20 to 30 years.

While McDew considers new, U.S.-made ships to be the “ultimate goal,” they would cost about $850 million each and take longer to buy.

“We won’t have a brand-new ship built, that I understand, in the Navy’s [recapitalization] plan until about 2030,” he told the committee. “Between now and then, I’m going to age out some ships.”

McDew made his comments in response to questions from Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). Reed, the committee’s top Democrat, said the panel “will look carefully” at the administration’s request.

Through the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization act, Congress has already approved buying two used ships for the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) (Defense Daily, Nov. 15, 2017). The FY 2019 request for 24 ships would boost the total purchase to 26.

“We have a requirement to try to recapitalize about 26 [steam-powered ships], so two is the beginning to try to get to 26,” McDew explained.

According to the Maritime Administration (MARAD), the RRF consists of 46 vessels that can rapidly deploy military equipment. Those ships are owned and maintained by MARAD and operated by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, which supports TRANSCOM.

In other comments, McDew thanked Congress for mandating a study to determine how many refueling aircraft, transport planes and cargo ships will be needed to support future military operations. The Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study (MCRS-18), which TRANSCOM is supposed to finish in September (Defense Daily, April 2), will factor in the recent return of great-power competition, including the possibility that U.S. aircraft and ships could be destroyed by enemy forces during a war.

“All the studies we’ve had to this point have not included things like a contested environment, cyber and some other things that we’ve discovered over the last few years that we really need to put a focus on for the mobility forces, “ McDew testified. “No one before has believed that we were going to lose anything.”

McDew called cybersecurity the top threat to his command. While TRANSCOM has shored up its own cyber defenses, some of its contractors are lagging in protecting their networks.

In a contested environment, the TRANSCOM assets that are the “most vulnerable are the ones I don’t own, and that’s commercial industry,” he said. “We have a strong cyber defense standard inside the Department of Defense, but outside the Department of Defense, I’m not as sure it reaches all of American citizens and all of American industry the way it ought to.”