(U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class William Johnson)

What is DOD Doing to Mitigate the Challenges of Contested Mobility?

In a potential conflict, a hostile country could prevent the military from rapidly moving equipment and personnel. China and Russia are strengthening their militaries to neutralize U.S. strengths, including mobility—the ability of U.S. military airlift and air refueling aircraft and sealift ships to rapidly move equipment and personnel from the United States to locations abroad to support Department of Defense (DOD) missions. 

The Defense Intelligence Agency believes that space and cyber operations will likely be an integral component of Chinese efforts to counter adversaries during military conflicts. The agency has noted that China’s cyberwarfare could target links and nodes in an adversary’s mobility system and identify operational vulnerabilities in the mobilization and deployment phase of a U.S. operation. China has also developed a variety of counter-space capabilities designed to limit or prevent an adversary’s use of space-based assets during a conflict, such as satellite jammers, directed-energy weapons, and kinetic-energy weapons.

One of Russia’s core military capabilities is anti-access/area denial. It achieves this through a combination of information operations, strategic air operations, an integrated air defense system, and modern precision-strike capabilities. Russia also has extensive cyber capabilities, including but not limited to a troll army, hacktivists, and bots. Russia has also fielded a wide range of ground-based electronic warfare systems to counter global positioning system technology, tactical communications, satellite communications, and radars. A 2019 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments described how Russia might employ its military capabilities against DOD sealift during a conflict. Russian threats to sealift could start in the homeland with a cyber-network attack or other exploitation to slow mobility efforts at their outset. Then, Russian unmanned underwater vehicles, mines, or submarines might attempt to attack sealift as it leaves ports in the United States. En-route sealift ships would be vulnerable to submarines or Russian bombers. Sealift destination ports in Europe might also be vulnerable to tactical air attack, mining, unmanned underwater vehicles, or sabotage.

DOD transportation also faces threats from Iran, North Korea, and terrorism.

From 2016 through 2019, DOD conducted or sponsored at least 11 classified or sensitive studies on contested mobility. The studies resulted in more than 50 recommendations, However, a February 26 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said DOD officials did not know the exact disposition of the recommendations, as they are not actively tracking implementation activities. GAO also found that no single DOD oversight entity evaluated the studies’ recommendations and tracked implementation across the department. As a result, the watchdog says DOD may be missing an opportunity to leverage existing knowledge on mobility in contested environments across organizations, and strengthen its mobility efforts for major conflicts as envisioned in the National Defense Strategy.

The review found that DOD has updated aspects of wargame exercises and mobility training to prepare for a contested environment, but has not updated training for the surge sealift fleet—ships owned by DOD and the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) and crewed by contracted mariners. These crews are primarily trained and qualified to operate the ship, but receive limited contested mobility training. While DOD has updated air mobility training and other aspects of mobility training, sealift crew training requirements have not been updated by DOD and MARAD to reflect contested environment concerns because DOD has not conducted an evaluation of such training. Since sealift is the means by which the majority of military equipment would be transported during a major conflict, it is important that crews be trained appropriately for contested mobility to help ensure that ships safely reach their destinations and complete their missions.

DOD has begun to mitigate contested environment challenges through improved technology and related initiatives. The Navy is acquiring improved technologies to deploy on surge sealift ships and replacement ships. The Air Force is equipping current mobility aircraft with additional defensive technologies and planning for the development of future replacement aircraft. According to U.S. Transportation Command, the command is revising its contracts with commercial partners to address cyber threats, and funding research and development projects that address contested mobility concerns. Many of these efforts are nascent and will take years to be put in place.

GAO recommends that DOD designate an oversight entity to track the implementation of study recommendations, and that DOD and MARAD evaluate and update sealift training.

DOD proposed to designate an oversight entity to coordinate the results of contested mobility studies and monitor the implementation of recommendations deemed appropriate by study sponsors.

The Department of Transportation stated that it believes DOD, not MARAD, is better suited to determine the skills and competencies that sealift crews will need in a contested environment. DOD is responsible, the Department of Transportation stated, for identifying requirements for operating sealift ships through a contested environment. They further stated that if DOD identified and documented requirements, and developed and implemented a comprehensive, relevant and structured training schema, MARAD would be in a position to determine if updates to surge sealift crew training were feasible and appropriate in terms of the level of resources and coordination required to implement such training.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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