U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) is working with the Navy to develop plans to replace the military’s aging reserve fleet of cargo ships, the command’s leader said Nov. 15.

TRANSCOM and the Navy envision buying both new and used ships. Language included in the recently completed fiscal year 2018 defense authorization conference report “will allow us to buy used vessels as a bridge to building new ships,” said Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, TRANSCOM’s commander.

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.

Used commercial vessels that are only a half or a third of the age of current ships are “available for pennies on the dollar” and could be refurbished at U.S. shipyards, McDew said. If TRANSCOM can replace 50-year-old ships with 15-year-old vessels, “I’ll be very happy.”

The conference report would authorize the Department of Defense to buy up to two used ships for the Ready Reserve Force (RRF). It would also require auxiliary vessels to be included in the annual 30-year shipbuilding plan.

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.

The conference report indicates that the delivery of new vessels could begin in the late 2020s. The legislation calls on the Navy, in consultation with TRANSCOM and MARAD, to give Congress a report on RRF modernization plans by March 1.

The House passed the conference report Nov. 14 (Defense Daily, Nov. 14). The legislation is now pending in the Senate.

McDew, who spoke at an Air Force Association breakfast on Capitol Hill, also expressed concern about the increasing difficulty of maintaining the Air Force’s aging refueling planes, especially KC-135 Stratotankers, which are about 60 years old. He said that keeping such old aircraft in service will require “extraordinary things.”

While the Air Force is slated to buy 179 Boeing [BA] KC-46A tankers, deliveries will not be completed for a decade or so, and those planes will replace only about a third of the tanker fleet.