This is the first in a series of commentaries defense consultant and author Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is penning about how the U.S. can and should shape its forces to perform the Asia strategy pivot. As a key part of that, he’ll be looking closely at what he calls “several neglected aspects of a sustainable power projection force for the 21st century.” The Editor.

The U.S. can afford to build a 21st century power projection force able to provide a lynchpin for Asian security. But it won’t be able to if we don’t take advantage of new concepts of operation, new technologies and new approaches.

A key element for deploying a forward presence force is sustainability. There is probably no subject less discussed in the strategic debates than logistics and sustainment. As a version of the old adage goes: “Amateurs discuss strategy; professionals think logistics.”

This could not be truer when it comes to the Military Sealift Command.

The Military Sealift Command is not the most visible element of the Navy-Marine Corps team, unless you are at sea and need them.

Whether that support comes from underway replenishment, from ships at sea or air assets, the more than 100 MSC ships are the lifeblood of our fleet.

In an era of tight budgets and challenges to ship numbers, the ships of MSC are part of the solution for enhanced fleet performance. Indeed, the recent landing of a V-22 Osprey on a T-AKE MSC ship during Bold Alligator 2012 was an eye opener of how the roles of these ships can change.

All this is indicative of a shift from well-organized carrier battle groups to a more dispersed presence force. The dispersed fleet is occurring through LCS deployments, the evolution of the Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Group or Expeditionary Strike Group.

Indeed, the demand upon the fleet has gone up significantly over time. In a recent interview, Admiral Buzby, the Commander of the MSC underscored that from its humble origins in 1949 (as the Military Sea Transportation Service) the demand has gone up significantly over time.

There are a number of notable aspects of MSC as the U.S. builds its fleet out into the future for the long distances of the Pacific.

First, the crews of the MSC are civilians. Indeed, they are among the hardest working civilians in the U.S. government or in the private sector, for that matter. They are at sea an average of nine months of each year.

The personnel costs of these civilian mariners are substantially less than if they wore uniforms.

Second, the command has a very flexible contracting system, which allows it to achieve cost effective results and breathtaking acquisition outcomes in short periods of time.

A very impressive example illustrates this. When the Secretary of Defense decided he needed to develop and deploy a sea base to support countermine operations in the Gulf and focused on putting the USS Ponce back to sea, the Navy turned to MSC to get the job done. They did it in about 90 days. The RFP was published in mid-January 2012 and by mid-April 2012 the ship was being readied for deployment. That’s 90 days.

An ongoing example is the new supply ship – the T-AKE. These can be built in 12 months or less at a cost of $450 million. The last ones are being built, but to this analyst buying more of these ships to build a more diverse, forward-deployed fleet make a great deal of sense.

T-AKEs carry fuel, ammunition, and supplies and can support a contingent of military forces afloat.

As the U.S. shapes its con-ops for forward deployment, there are real opportunities to pair this ship with other combat or security vessels to create appropriate deployment packages.

For example, Adm. Buzby discussed a potential pairing of a USCG National Security Cutter with a T-AKE ship.

“The [Coast Guard’s] National Security Cutters have an embarked helicopter, some firepower and some good command-and-control. Pair them up with a T-AKE, and you can have presence and staying power for a regional security mission…..”

In other words, the MSC is an integral part of what the Navy-Marine Corps team can do, especially in the difficult and vast domain of the Pacific.

Three potential lessons, which could be learned moving forward, thinking about the future, can come from considering MSC and its role.

First, the MSC has very useful flight decks that can work with Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard flight elements. These decks function as lily pads for the fleet and provide a significant part of the sustainable presence punch essential to maritime forces, whether for military or security missions.

Second, the Secretary of the Navy is a keen proponent of environmental security. His commitment could be demonstrated by getting the MSC fleet out of single hull tankers and into more environmentally secure — and safer — double hull tankers as quickly as possible.

In today’s commercial environment, operating a single hull tanker would be difficult since insurance companies often will not cover them. But, is as too often the case, we ask our forces to operate in ways that we would not accept in our personal or commercial lives.

There is a plan to do this over time. But I think the time is now.

Third, the MSC and the logistics infrastructure it embodies reminds one that low cost is in the eye of the beholder. We are told that we should acquire the LCS in large part because of its initial operational capability (IOC) cost.

But LCS represents the classic approach of focusing on a platform without looking profoundly at the context of operational and sustainment approaches. The LCS ships are so small that they possess VERY limited organic support.

This means that the already challenged Military Sealift Command will have to be able to support the “surging” LCS fleet and if the fleet is disaggregated this will put significant stress on an already challenged fleet.

In short, the MSC provides a key element for sustained forward deployment. And folding this into the discussion about what is needed for the Asian pivot is part of what professionals need to do.