Force Projection: Port Diversification Generates Strategic Readiness

By Maj. Gen. Stephen E. FarmenApril 13, 2020

Cpl. Dustin Jobe, noncommissioned officer in charge of lifting provisions, 647th Expeditionary Terminal Operations Element, U.S. Army Reserves, supervises the lifting of an M1A2 Abrams Tank assigned to 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, over the pier ledge at the Port of Vlissingen, Netherlands, to be lowered onto a low-barge ship for transportation to another location within Europe, Oct. 12, 2019. (Photo by Sgt. Kyle Larsen.)
Cpl. Dustin Jobe, noncommissioned officer in charge of lifting provisions, 647th Expeditionary Terminal Operations Element, U.S. Army Reserves, supervises the lifting of an M1A2 Abrams Tank assigned to 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, over the pier ledge at the Port of Vlissingen, Netherlands, to be lowered onto a low-barge ship for transportation to another location within Europe, Oct. 12, 2019. (Photo by Sgt. Kyle Larsen.) (Photo Credit: Sgt. Kyle Larsen) VIEW ORIGINAL

If and when America goes to war, we will fight by, with, and through seaports. These critical nodes at home and abroad are key to projecting the nation’s decisive military force, 85% of which is based in the homeland. The Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC) directly builds strategic readiness through a seaport diversification strategy that identifies and exercises mission critical seaports for brigade-sized deployments in preparation for large-scale combat operations around the world.

By expanding the portfolio of viable seaports, SDDC provides our military leadership with strategic options to project the force, deter our adversaries, and show commitment to our allies and partners while enabling the Army to rapidly deliver the decisive force capable of fighting and winning anywhere in the world.

In the words of Gen. Gus Perna, commanding ge-neal of U.S. Army Materiel Command, “In war, the difference between being ready and reacting will be measured by the number of lives lost. We must hold ourselves accountable to be ready.”

Therein lies the true profit margin of strategic readiness: We must be ready. We must turn a focused lens toward our military’s strategic readiness. If we expect to maintain our strategic advantage over our enemies, we must expand our options to take the fight to the enemy. Our nation’s readiness for war is critically dependent on our ability to project our forces across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. To do this, we need ports to move equipment to the point of need.

While strategic airlift remains essential to quickly move personnel and small equipment packages, over 90% of military cargo in our war plans will transit via sealift. Airlift cannot match the shear capacity of sealift. One of our largest cargo vessels, a large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off, commonly referred to as an LMSR, has the cargo capacity equivalent to approximately 400 C-17 aircraft. This reinforces the fact that, for any major conflict, we must fight by, with, and through seaports. Unfortunately, many of these strategic nodes have not seen military cargo in over a decade. We must continue to open the aperture and expand our competitive space at home and abroad to enhance readiness and keep our enemies guessing.

Gen. Stephen Lyons, commander, U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), said during a recent visit to SDDC headquarters, “Warfighting readiness is our number one priority. We will maintain the global deployment networks, ready mobility capacity, and global command and control necessary to generate an immediate force; and seamlessly transition to a fully mobilized Joint Deployment and Distribution Enterprise to project a decisive force when required.”

Executing a vibrant seaport diversification strategy is crucial to maintaining these global deployment networks and projecting the decisive force. As Lyons commonly states, it is the nodes and the networks of the Joint Deployment and Distribution Enterprise (JDDE) which are the true strength and power of USTRANSCOM. Seaports, both in the U.S. and abroad, are key terrain for SDDC and our national security. We must own and dominate this space.

By further exercising this key terrain across all geographic combatant commands, we not only demonstrate our ability to rapidly deliver forces to the fight anywhere in the world, but we also show unwavering commitment to our allies and partners.

Port diversification produces several tangible and intangible positive outputs, such as sparking infrastructure investment at the ports and within the intermodal networks that feed the ports and take cargo inland; identifying port-specific requirements; gaining experience for future missions; and forging new relationships at the ports and with commercial partners who operate there. These outputs are powerful and generate strategic readiness, ensuring our first meeting engagement does not occur during a crisis.

While SDDC’s Transportation Engineering Agency conducts regular infrastructure assessments of our strategic seaports, there are always intangibles that can only be revealed and exercised by projecting combat forces through the nodes. A brigade-sized deployment can consume months of deliberate planning. The movement becomes more complex when deploying through untested seaports. That requires new relationships to be forged, recons to be conducted, and deployment rehearsals executed.

Over years of steady overseas unit rotations, the JDDE has made regular use of reliable seaports through which we deploy the vast majority of our combat power. A few examples include: Beaumont, Texas, in the Gulf; Charleston, South Carolina, on the East Coast; Bremerhaven, Germany, in Europe; and Busan in Korea. Over time, we have built notable efficiency and familiarity across these strategic nodes and their associated routes and infrastructure; however, their consistent use also makes them prime targets for conventional disruption and cyber tactics which makes us less flexible for projecting forces at scale. To maintain our strategic edge over our adversaries, we must play the long game by choosing to expand our portfolio of viable seaports over the immediate convenience of familiarity.

The good news is we are getting a lot of practice and opportunities to pressure test multiple ports, both inside and outside the continental U.S., to expand our competitive space, generate dynamic force employment options, identify vulnerabilities, smartly invest to mitigate risk, and form the relationships, partnerships, and friendships at all of these nodes so we can move at the speed of war and speed of trust. More than 40 brigade-sized elements will deploy over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in 2020. This rate has increased annually since 2014 as the enterprise returns to a culture of deployment readiness by directing units to deploy with their own equipment.

In 2019, the enterprise deployed units through more than a dozen previously untested seaports, the trend will continue in 2020.

At the operational and tactical levels, flexibility and readiness must be emphasized. Leaders can no longer assume their units will deploy via the same seaports year after year. The upfront cost of time and energy involved in diversifying seaports will pay dividends through the strategic effect and muscle-memory built over time.

Across the deployment enterprise, senior leaders must be prepared to support the use of alternate seaports as we continue to deploy forces in support of combat and training operations. Using these nodes tests our ability to execute operational plans while also building tangible investments and relationships when executed in conjunction with our global partners and allies. We continue to get great support in operationalizing our port diversification strategy from U.S. Forces Command as we work together to enhance strategic readiness by looking out six to 24 months in our planning.

Through seaport diversification, SDDC rapidly delivers the Army’s credible and capable strategic land power to combatant commanders to prevent conflict, shape the environment, and win decisively. We build trust and assurance with our partner nations and deter our enemies by ensuring that our ability to project forces at the time and place of our choosing remains unmatched. In great power competition, speed matters—to win we must move at the speed of war, speed of assembly, speed of documentation and speed of trust. A vibrant port diversification strategy generates strategic readiness and keeps us in the right boxer stance to ensure Dynamic Force Employment and to ensure, when the time comes, we move at the speed of relevance! As former Defense Secretary James Mattis said during his visit to USTRANSCOM, “If you cannot move, you are not lethal.”

As we continue to send America’s men and women overseas into harm’s way, we maintain an inherent responsibility to collectively prepare for America’s worst day. The only way to project our decisive force is by, with, and through our strategic seaports. By diversifying our port usage now, we generate strategic readiness for tomorrow.


Maj. Gen. Stephen E. Farmen is the 21st commanding general of U.S. Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, the Army Service Component Command to U.S. Transportation Command and a major subordinate command to U.S. Army Materiel Command. He graduated from University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia, in 1986 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and was commissioned into the Transportation Corps. He holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College. His military education includes the Transportation Basic and Advanced Officer Leader Courses and the U.S. Naval Command and Staff College. He completed a Senior Service College Fellowship as the first military fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation and Logistics.


This article was published in the April-June 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.


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