November 04, 2019

Not Enough Maritime Capability

The Challenge of Reinforcing Europe

Executive Summary

Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014 marked a clear shift in Russian foreign policy, with the Kremlin pursuing a more assertive and aggressive approach to Europe and the West. Russia’s resurgence has meant that the United States again must seriously consider a possible conflict in Europe in its military plans. Central to the defense of NATO allies is a requirement for U.S. reinforcement of Europe, and U.S. reinforcement in turn depends on U.S. maritime shipping, which faces a number of critical challenges.

This paper examines the current capability and availability of U.S. shipping to meet U.S. strategic sealift needs. It describes efforts by the United States to modernize and sustain the capacity required for strategic goals, including the reinforcement of Europe, and examines how the United States could leverage allied commercial and sealift capacity to address potential gaps. Finally, the paper identifies recommendations for addressing these challenges.

U.S. logistical capabilities that are required to reinforce Europe, including sealift capabilities, have atrophied since 1989. Competing naval requirements make addressing future sealift shortages unlikely to be a top funding priority, while complicated laws hamper quick solutions to filling maritime shortfalls. Until U.S. shipbuilding can fill the gaps, workarounds such as using allied maritime assets to ship U.S. reinforcements must be considered. The requirement to reinforce Europe is too urgent not to consider all alternatives to addressing future shortfalls.


  • The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) should seek legislative relief from the current restriction in U.S. Code that limits the purchasing of foreign-built ships; if changes are not possible, Transportation Command’s Maritime Security Program (MSP) should increase the number of commercial vessels in the program.
  • MSC and MARAD should consider entering into bilateral agreements with allies to meet U.S. sealift needs, identifying specific ship-by-ship matches of projected shortfalls with available allied ships that would be available to augment the U.S. fleet in a crisis.
  • MARAD also should conduct a study on alliance and partner shipping in the Indo-Pacific theater that could be used to inform efforts to augment maritime shipping in that theater in a crisis, thereby freeing up U.S. shipping for use elsewhere.
  • MARAD should develop a system that gives certification credit to mariners operating on non-U.S.-flagged ships, which could count toward U.S. certifications, with minimal retraining or testing, similar to college transfer credits. In doing so, MARAD could potentially deepen the pool of available mariners to crew U.S.-flagged ships in the reserve fleet.


For 25 years after the collapse of Soviet Union, the United States and Europe no longer viewed Russia as the substantial military threat of prior decades. U.S. defense posture reflected this reality as it accepted greater risk in Europe to focus forces on the Middle East and the rebalance to Asia. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 upended this status quo, however, and snapped NATO back into a reality that most allies thought had ended with the Cold War. Russia’s actions in Ukraine marked a clear shift in Russian foreign policy with the Kremlin pursuing a more assertive and aggressive approach to Europe and the West. Russia’s resurgence has meant that the United States again must seriously consider a possible conflict in Europe in its military plans and posture—though of a different tenor than the Cold War. Not only has this revitalized threat stressed demands on allied force capacity, but it has tested military muscle memory neglected since the early 1990s.

Central to U.S. contingency planning for a resurgent Russia is a requirement for U.S. reinforcement of Europe in the event of a conflict on European soil. Given the drawdown of permanently deployed U.S. forces in Europe since 1990, the allies are dependent on U.S. reinforcement, or the ability of the United States to relocate forces to any area at risk within the alliance in order to strengthen military capabilities as a means of conflict prevention, crisis management, or defense. The ability of the United States to reinforce, in turn, depends in part on U.S. shipping capacity, the shortage of which was a problem even during the Cold War. The solution during the Cold War included pooling of maritime vessels from NATO nations. But absent the Soviet threat the need to pool vessels dissipated. Today, the potential shortage of U.S. maritime shipping is especially acute—little has been done in the intervening years to improve such capacity. Although the reinforcement requirement is now a part of U.S. planning to defend Europe, there are few options to fill the gap in available ships, especially in the short term.

Today, the potential shortage of U.S. maritime shipping is especially acute.

This paper examines the current availability of U.S. shipping to meet U.S. reinforcement needs in case of conflict in Europe. We use U.S. reinforcement of Norway in a potential conflict scenario to illustrate the nature of the larger reinforcement challenge today and possible solutions. After reviewing the state of U.S. sealift and maritime capabilities, the paper describes how the United States approaches efforts to reach the capacity required to reinforce Europe. It then examines how the United States could leverage allied commercial and sealift capacity to address current gaps and identifies recommendations for how a short-term fix could be implemented.

Background on U.S. Reinforcement of Europe and Norway in the Cold War

The ability of NATO to deter Russian aggression in Europe is based on maintaining a conventional military capability backed by U.S. extended nuclear deterrence. This arrangement was sufficient for deterring Soviet aggression in Europe for 40 years. During the Cold War, conventional deterrence focused on the territorial defense of the alliance, with the core of alliance military capability coming from approximately 400,000 U.S. troops permanently deployed in Europe. These U.S. and other allied forces were backed up by units in the United States that would reinforce the alliance, if necessary, by sailing across the Atlantic following sea lines of communication that would have been familiar to veterans of World Wars I and II.

To achieve the complex movement of troops and equipment that would be required for reinforcement safely and swiftly, the United States and NATO established supply lines guarded by military bases and composed of logistical infrastructure stretching from the United States across the Atlantic (with bases in Iceland and the Azores) to ports in Europe. Once in Europe, U.S. forces would be sent through a network of transportation infrastructure to wherever they needed to go. To make sure this reinforcement system worked, the United States and NATO held exercises. The largest of these was called Reforger (Return of Forces to Germany), an annual exercise whose goal was to move multiple U.S. divisions across the Atlantic to Germany in a manner of days.


Beginning in the 1970s, Norwegian planners felt that even with this well-rehearsed reinforcement scheme, U.S. forces would not be able to reach Norway by ship in time to hold back a Soviet advance into northern Norway. NATO forces were due to arrive in Norway even later in such a scenario—after U.S. troops. To save time, the U.S.-Norwegian Bilateral Study Group developed a prepositioning scheme whereby U.S. Marine equipment was prepositioned in caves in the Trondheim area in central Norway. A U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade (the Norwegian Airlifted Marine Expeditionary Brigade or NALMEB) would fly into Norway, draw its equipment from the caves, and quickly move up to northern Norway to join with Norwegian forces to oppose a Soviet invasion force.

Once the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was no longer deemed an imminent threat so NATO planning focused largely on out of area operations. The United States and Norway maintained the NALMEB concept, now MCPPN (Marine Corps Prepositioning Program Norway), including maintaining Marine equipment prepositioned in Trondheim, but for years the NALMEB was rarely exercised.

As the post–Cold War era progressed, the skills that NATO and U.S. planners and logisticians had developed through planned and rehearsed mass reinforcement of Europe atrophied. The United States also cut back on the maintenance of its maritime capability, resulting in a cargo fleet that was less ready to quickly reinforce Europe. U.S. defense spending on naval and maritime equipment grew tighter in the 2000s even while military operations grew in number. This forced the Pentagon to prioritize the threats that needed to be addressed first above those viewed as lower priority and where the risk of underfunding was acceptable. Defense planners long determined that Europe was the place to take risk. Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014, however, convinced the alliance that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was not a one-off occurrence. From that point on, the United States and NATO partners reclassified Russia as a threat. For the United States, recovering its ability to reinforce Europe in a crisis scenario became paramount. The Marine Corps reinvigorated the MCPPN program in 2012 as it transitioned from predominantly engineer and transportation equipment to a Marine Air Ground Task Force capability, and U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams began to rotate back into Europe by ship in 2017, which they continue to do today.

As the post–Cold War era progressed, the skills that NATO and U.S. planners and logisticians had developed through planned and rehearsed mass reinforcement of Europe atrophied.

If the United States needed to reinforce Europe today, certain scenarios would require that planners prioritize reinforcement convoys, meaning that certain theaters and/or allies would fall lower in the queue for shipping. In other words, leaders would have to decide which theaters to resupply or reinforce first. This could negatively impact Norway if it were to fall low in the queue for reinforcements.

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  1. Congressional Research Service, “United States European Command: Overview and Key Issues,” March 12, 2019.
  2. U.S. Marine Corps, NAVMC 2907, “Prepositioning Objective for Maritime Prepositioning Force and Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway,” February 27, 2015.


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