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‘Fierce Competition Below the Threshold of Open Armed Conflict’ Threatens Sea Lanes

The nominee to lead U.S. Transportation Command told Congress that newly contested sea lanes with new potential adversaries pose a risk to mariners transporting equipment to U.S. forces abroad.

During his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Lyons also expressed concern about dwindling numbers of merchant mariners who could be called upon to support military operations.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), filling in as chairman for absent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), noted that Lyons was nominated to lead TRANSCOM “during a critical time in history.”

“Our capacity to mobilize or deploy forces across the globe is ever-more critical and crucial, given the contested environment described in the National Defense Strategy,” Inhofe said. “In this environment, we can no longer assume that U.S. forces will have uncontested access to international airspace and sea lanes.”

Because TRANSCOM “must work extensively with private sector entities in the transportation and shipping industries to support DOD deployment operations,” Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said, that presents “a unique set of cyber threats.”

“The Ready Reserve Force, a group of cargo ships held in readiness by the Maritime Administration, is aging and will need to be modernized over the next decade,” Reed said, adding that the administration “asked for authority to purchase up to 24 foreign-built vessels to modernize this force” but “we would prefer that it be conducted by American yards with American workers.”

Lyons told lawmakers that “a free and prosperous Pacific” is the goal “and, long-term, we’d like nothing more than a military relationship that’s transparent and based on non-aggression” with China, but “we can’t ignore” Beijing’s “military growth and the use of their military to coerce their neighbors and to compete in a way that violates international norms and standards.”

“What I would characterize as the unlawful growth of these platforms in the South China Sea is of great concern, I know, for the national security apparatus, and specifically for Admiral Davidson at INDOPACOM,” he added. “…What we see today is some pretty fierce competition below the threshold of open armed conflict.”

Lyons acknowledged that for many years the U.S. had “dominance” in uncontested corridors. “We could deploy when we wanted. We could assemble where we wanted. We could employ the force on the timeline that we desired,” he said. “As we look to the future and the emerging joint operating environment, we can no longer make any of those assumptions. We clearly expect that we are contested in all five domains: land, maritime, air, cyber and cyberspace.”

Shipping large amounts of ammunition and fuel for U.S. forces abroad “may also present a viable target for an adversary on the high end.”

The general said the military is “on the ragged edge of having sufficient numbers of mariners” who could contribute during a surge.

“Without a Maritime Security Program, I don’t know that you’d have a U.S.-flag fleet. And without the U.S.-flag fleet, you wouldn’t have the capacity or the mariners to serve as the U.S. Navy sea-land fleet. And so, they’re inextricably linked,” he said.

On the need for the United States to remain a “maritime nation,” Lyons stressed the U.S.-flagged fleet “has dwindled over time” and the support of Congress is appreciated “for programs like the Maritime Security Program that has retained that capability.”

“But, without those kinds of programs, I’m not sure we’d have a maritime fleet underneath the U.S. flag for a wide number of reasons. But this is concerning for our national defense, because that not only offers capacity — it also provides the merchant mariners that sail our sealift fleets to deliver the surge fleet, and it also provides global international networks that we use routinely, using these partners,” he said.

About half of the fleet is expected to age out by 2028, he noted.

The general warned that “the cyber vulnerabilities that we see today are a significant threat to our strategic logistics and, frankly, our national security.”

“It’s a multifaceted problem for which there’s not a single answer, but it’s a layered answer that begins with good cyber hygiene, good infrastructure, good cyber-defense measures, and, ultimately, an offensive capability with the right kind of policy and authorities behind it,” Lyons said.

“We have seen where our adversaries have indeed, whether intentionally so or collaterally, affected the ability of our commercial partners,” he said, noting last year’s cyberattack on Maersk. “…Our ability to project the force is inextricably linked to our commercial partners.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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