Desperate For More Firepower, Congress Asks About Arming Navy Cargo Ships - Elaine for Congress

Desperate For More Firepower, Congress Asks About Arming Navy Cargo Ships

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in June, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), inquired into the potential for incorporating Mk 41 Vertical Launching Systems (VLS) into the cargo ships operated by the Virginia-based Military Sealift Command, remarking, “I just think that’s a concept that requires further examination.”

Representative Luria, a former Navy captain and an up-and-coming member of the House Armed Services Committee, has a point. Adding 64 VLS cells to each of America’s 14 Lewis and Clark class dry cargo/ammunition ships, called, in military parlance, T-AKEs, would bring 896 VLS cells to the fleet, cheaply. And, given that the 14 T-AKEs and 17 fuel-distributing oilers currently on the U.S. Navy’s battle fleet inventory generally operate at sea for six months or more every single year, adding missiles on these otherwise unarmed platforms puts substantial firepower forward.

Luria is not the first to propose this. The concept of adding VLS cells—or some other type of missile launch capability—-aboard Military Sealift Command-operated ships has been mapped out and studied in detail, but the Navy has not moved forward beyond that. Insiders guess that the Navy has a challenge filling the VLS cells it already has and that the Navy can get more from other investments. Or the Navy is just dragging its feet.

But the Navy needs to respond to Congress. There are a lot of sacred cows at stake here. Dispersing weaponry into the cheap, civilian-operated ships of the Military Sealift Command is a big change. It disrupts a cozy iron triangle of suppliers, legacy assets and bureaucracy that are invested in keeping the Navy operating the way it has for the past 70 years.

While the Navy likes to claim that everything that floats will fight, the Navy has been sitting on the idea of putting VLS cells on auxiliary ships for more than a decade. In this era of great power competition, it is time to fish or cut bait.

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