There is no question that China under the Communist Party wants to “reunify” Taiwan under its governing model. Though the method, including use of military force, remains ambiguous, two probable scenarios are:
1. China does not invade Taiwan, but instead attempts a quarantine of the island to starve it of maritime trade. In this scenario, the United States likely will be the only nation able to break the quarantine and provide Taiwan with the goods it needs.
2. War breaks out, either as an outcome of the quarantine scenario or because of some other combination of events, which results in the United States and its allies embroiled in an all-out conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
In either scenario, U.S. shipping will be vital to ensuring Taiwan retains access to the global logistics supply chain and matériel. Unfortunately, the U.S. merchant fleet is a shadow of its World War II zenith. Globalization and the complexity of global supply chains have eroded the reach of U.S. merchant shipping; just 125 U.S. naval supply ships currently are in service and some 140 U.S.-flagged merchant ships globally.1
Luckily, there are historical blueprints for achieving success in either scenario: Great Britain’s Ships Taken Up from Trade (STUFT) of Falklands War fame and Operation Earnest Will from the Gulf War each illuminates a path for the United States to quickly generate and protect a naval logistics enterprise. These events are ripe with lessons that should be considered as the United States marshals resources for a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
The Falklands War is frequently held up as an example of what a modern, “missile age” naval conflict might look like. One often-studied aspect of the conflict is the herculean logistics enterprise that sustained a carrier strike group at the ends of the earth for 74 days. STUFT was the key legal mechanism employed by the Admiralty to requisition British-flagged ships for government use to move men, matériel, and stores to the theater of operations. From luxury liners converted to troop carriers to fishing trawlers converted to submarine hunters, 47 British commercial vessels were activated at the behest of the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Henry Leach, who stated simply, “Man and support the Fleet. Money is no object.”2
When Great Britain emerged victorious from the Falklands conflict, the fusion of military and commerce was cited as a critical enabler of a victory more than 8,000 miles away and some 3,500 miles from the nearest friendly port. Though the Admiralty was able to retrofit and get its fleet of STUFT sailors underway mere weeks after hostilities began, its legal authority was rooted in three major factors.
First, the “Royal Prerogative,” the loosely defined residual powers of the Crown, held by the king or queen and delegated to the executive arms, gave the government the power to requisition ships. This authority dates to as early as 1138 CE.3 Second, the 1907 Hague Convention (VII) outlined policy governing how nations may convert merchant ships to warships. These policies were implemented to abolish privateering and, more important, “to distinguish between those ships entitled to use lawful military force and those which were not, and thereby attribute state responsibility for infractions of naval warfare.” Last, a six-part criteria governing a merchant ship’s transition to combatant was met that allowed the vessels to retain the privileges of a warship, including mandates governing flag state, crewing, and adherence to the laws of war.4
These measures allowed the Admiralty to convert commercial ships to lawful combatants and scale its transport fleet in just seven weeks, birthing the logistical enterprise necessary to win a war on the other side of the planet.
Operation Earnest Will
If the Falklands War offers a template for how the United States could assemble a commercial-military fleet, Operation Earnest Will demonstrates why one may be necessary. U.S. involvement in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war was rooted in the 1980 Carter Doctrine, an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be “regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by all means necessary, including military force.” Though the doctrine was borne of concern for Soviet interference in the region, its message was nevertheless tested when Iraq crossed Iran’s border nearly nine months later. As the ground conflict reached a stalemate in 1984, Iraq attempted to turn the tide by escalating its antishipping campaign in the Gulf, theoretically targeting Iranian oil industry assets. The conflict degenerated into a free-for-all; by 1986, the Tanker War had resulted in more than 296 documented attacks on merchant shipping of all nationalities.5
In December 1986, Kuwait requested U.S. flag-state status for five of its oil tankers to secure their protection from Iranian strikes. Until this point, the United States had striven to maintain neutrality. However, the Kuwaiti request, in conjunction with the USS Stark (FFG-31) being struck by an Iraqi Exocet missile, forced a change in posture: Operation Earnest Will was initiated in July 1987.
The operation was predicated on the notion that to bring stability to the Arabian Gulf and deter further aggression on Kuwaiti and international vessels, the U.S. Navy needed to escort shipping throughout the Gulf. The Navy posited that the presence of overwhelming maritime force would be sufficient to deescalate conflict at sea and bring peace to the region. Unfortunately, this strategy did not go according to plan. Iranian-U.S. engagement rapidly escalated, culminating in the tragic downing of an Iranian passenger airliner by the USS Vincennes (CG-49). This, along with aggressive U.S. response to the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) mine strike eventually led to Iran requesting a ceasefire in July 1988.6
In post-conflict arbitration of the Falklands War, Argentina levied several complaints of improper behavior at Britain. The British cruise liner Queen Elizabeth II, employed as a troop transport, was cited for improperly flying noncombatant flags when, as a warship under Hague conventions, she could have been subject to lawful attack from Argentinian forces.7 This leaves room for a belligerent to justifiably destroy a similarly flagged ship if it were deemed a military objective that could generate an advantage.
While Argentina may only have been able to take issue with elements of STUFT’s legal credibility following the cessation of hostilities, China undoubtedly would not make the same mistake. Given China’s access to global media outlets and international governance mechanisms such as the United Nations, one can assume that a major international effort led by the United States to build a blockade-breaking merchant fleet would face myriad attempts at sabotage, destruction, and delegitimization well before hoisting colors. Preparation will be key: Bilateral agreements, plans, resource allocation strategies, and even manning all need to be established long before conflict appears on the horizon. The rationale for such forehandedness is twofold: It will ensure the United States provides expedient aid to Taiwan and that the United States and its allies are well into the execution stage before the operation is subject to the court of public opinion—which will be manipulated by China.
Further, while Operation Earnest Will did lead to a conclusion of hostilities in the Gulf, one can hardly claim that U.S. naval presence was de-escalatory. While the United States intended to secure the Gulf for the sake of global markets, Iran’s conception of the conflict was based on the notion that the credibility of the Ayatollah’s regime was up for debate, demonstrating a clear strategic mismatch.
If the United States and its allies attempt to undermine a quarantine of Taiwan, they will need to be aware they will be repudiating a competitor whose credibility, at home and abroad, relies on the success of the operation. A logistics mission of this nature cannot singlehandedly end such a conflict, but it can serve as a basis for de-escalation, giving ample breathing room for diplomatic negotiations before a strained geopolitical situation boils over into open conflict. Therefore, such an operation cannot be intended purely for stability’s sake. It will need to be scoped and prepared for with the realistic expectation that unless diplomacy or other international pressures external to the actual operation defuse the situation, the situation likely will escalate into open hostilities.
Current Sea State
The Falklands War and Operation Earnest Will present two examples of a modern, mass mobilization of merchant fleets to augment the military. For a presumed conflict in the Indo-Pacific, this military-civil fusion will have to take place on a much larger scale.
Under the aegis of “U.S. maritime logistics capability” are the Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC), Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MarAd), and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. Army. Troublingly, though exact numbers vary, best estimates according to publicly available data suggest this fleet includes:
• MSC Ships: 125
• National Defense Ready Reserve (NDRR): 100
• Ready Reserve Force (subset of NDRR): 41
• Maritime Security Program: 60
• U.S. Army Watercraft (USA Transportation Corps): 62
• Total: ~328 ships
This number should be taken with a grain of salt, as it includes vessels that are not “true” logistics vessels, such as oceangoing tugs. Even if the United States could muster 388 ships in a timely fashion, they would almost certainly not be enough to sustain Taiwan or meet the overwhelming demands of a kinetic war.
Given the insufficiency of the U.S. maritime logistics apparatus, recapitalization alone will not meet the demands of a future conflict. In austere budget environments, bold spending to address the gap in logistics capability is unlikely. Further, given the intractable nature of Jones Act reform, it is unrealistic to assume the legislation could be altered on a timeline necessary to meet the moment. To address the gap between U.S. logistics capabilities and needs, low-cost, high-yield solutions must be emphasized. Given these considerations, the United States should take a two-pronged approach.
Smooth integration seams. Foremost, an easy step is to ensure military interoperability between the United States and its partners. Details, such as ensuring correct fittings for underway replenishments, will be vital for interoperability. Aviation, with the advent of fifth-generation fighters and sophisticated helicopters, presents myriad engineering, maintenance, and administrative challenges. Guaranteeing compatible aviation fuel, that flight decks are certified and pilots are trained to land on them, and even parts and maintenance will be crucial to resolving integration challenges in the vast reaches of the Indo-Pacific.
This is a score on which the United States and its allies have already made considerable progress. Of the Quad nations, Australia and India have begun using variants of the MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, and Japan has announced intentions to use F-35 variants for carrier aviation. While these efforts are not a panacea for interoperability, it is clear the technical capacity for such measures exists. Fortunately, measures to ensure interoperability are firmly at the Department of Defense level and only require strong communication with counterparts and modest investments to realize them, not vast expenditures or mobilizing enormous fleets.
Reflagging operations. The United States must secure a series of flag-state agreements with commercial carriers and their host nations to protect commercial shipping in the event of a Chinese quarantine or open hostilities and provide credible deterrence against further escalation. The United States needs a system to rapidly acquire scalable tonnage. Fortunately, it has a proven template for executing such an endeavor. The Maritime Security Program (MSP), administered by MarAd, is a public-private partnership that allows the U.S. government to effectively “charter” U.S.-flagged ships with U.S. crews to execute maritime logistics for military operations. Notably, MSP vessels have carried 99 percent of cargoes destined for Afghanistan and Iraq since 2009. The program is currently congressionally capped at 60 vessels, despite efforts to expand capacity.8
Given the gaps in the U.S. commercial fleet’s tonnage, the solution for fielding a scalable logistics solution in such a conflict must come from allies. Such a solution would take features of STUFT, Operation Earnest Will, and the MSP program to rapidly generate sealift capacity.
First, the United States must research and establish a short list of candidate nations. Criteria should include the extent of their trade relationship with Taiwan, volume of shipping tonnage available, and likelihood of their support of assertive operations to counter Chinese hostilities. Several regions offer opportunities, such as Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. By offering modest subsidies and a planning framework to allies from these areas, the United States could lay the groundwork for deploying a large fleet of allied shipping—flagged, crewed, operated by partners in a broader effort to check Chinese aggression and protected by the laws of armed conflict and U.S. naval power.
Two key considerations should be factored into this calculus. First, ensuring that the companies involved are not underwritten by Chinese investment banks—as of 2018, 3 of the top 15 shipping portfolios, including 2 of the top 5, were held by Chinese banks.7 Further, ensuring that the ships are not crewed by hostile nationalities—in this case, Chinese. Fortunately, as the commercial shipping industry is crewed in large part by Filipino and Indian sailors, this is a secondary consideration.
The scenario in which conflict breaks out is admittedly more complicated. Given the number of Chinese shipping firms and their dominance in world shipping volume, if a conflict were to break out, world maritime shipping would likely bifurcate. Countries that have demonstrated interest in a “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific, such as Germany, France, and Great Britain, likely would side with the United States in such a scenario. These countries, when combined with Nordic shipping companies, have competitive domestic shipping industries that, combined, rival Chinese preeminence in terms of tonnage and dollars invested.
While the future of Taiwan vis-a-vis China is uncertain, in the advent of conflict or near-conflict, the United States must be poised to deliver food, fuel, ordnance, and other logistics where it needs to be in the Indo-Pacific. If the United States is to realize low-cost, high-yield endeavors that can aid in military operations in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to get its STUFT together.
1. Paul McLeary, “How Much Sealift Does U.S. Have for Crisis? It’s Not Sure,” Breaking Defense, 12 August 2019.
2. Nick Kerry, “The Falklands Campaign,” Naval War College Review 35, no. 6 (November–December 1982): 14–21; and LCDR Andrew A. King, USN, “The Falkland Island Campaign of 1982: A Case Study and Lessons for the United States Today,” GlobalSecurity.org (1982).
3. Elizabeth Chadwick, “Merchant Ship Conversion in Warfare, the Falklands (Malvinas) Conflict and the Requisition of the QE2,” Journal of the History of International Law 12, no. 1 (March 2010): 71–100.
4. Chadwick, “Merchant Ship Conversion in Warfare.”
5. Stephen Andrew Kelley, “Better Lucky than Good: Operation Earnest Will as Gunboat Diplomacy,” Naval Post Graduate School master’s thesis (June 2017).
6. Kelley, “Better Lucky than Good.”
7. Chadwick, “Merchant Ship Conversion in Warfare.”
8. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Maritime Security Program.”