When it comes to shortfalls in the U.S. government’s ability to meet its national security requirements at sea, the U.S. Navy is not the only organization that believes it has a capacity problem.
The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) — the Department of Transportation component in charge of coordinating civilian ships and mariners to move military members and equipment during wartime — is woefully short of the numbers it believes it needs to meet its missions.
MARAD recently reported to Congress that its Ready Reserve Force, which draws from the U.S. shipping industry to provide the military with “surge” sealift capacity, would be able to do its job in the first few months of a major military operation. But it estimates its current force is roughly 1,800 people short of what would be needed if a conflict dragged on for much longer than that.
Currently, the U.S. has about 11,700 private sector mariners with credentials of the kind that would be need to be pressed into service during wartime, said Dr. Shashi Kumar, the MARAD deputy administrator who leads its education and training efforts.
“With normal operations, we’re OK. We’re in the green,” he said. “But when you activate the strategic sealift fleet, when they move from the reserve to full activation status, you need more mariners. You would have to pull them off of commercial ships, as well as people who are on leave or their annual vacation. So about three to four months into the activation of the strategic sealift, we would run into difficulties in crewing those vessels.”
The RRF’s capacity problem is a symptom of larger trends that have reduced America’s relative role in global commercial shipping over the decades. Those trends have also reduced the number of U.S.-flagged ships and U.S. civilian mariners that can be called upon to move military supplies and military personnel when DoD’s Transportation Command determines the Navy’s organic sealift forces aren’t sufficient.
“It’s difficult to have a base of mariners if you don’t have work for them to do in peacetime,” Mark Buzby, MARAD’s administrator said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “If those ships don’t exist, the mariners don’t exist. It all sort of works together. So the peacetime role is really critical in getting more of those U.S.-flagged ships.”
Buzby, who took over as the MARAD chief eight months ago, said he is trying to refocus his agency, which is part of the Department of Transportation, on its national security role. In his view, that includes advocating for policies that would increase the number of U.S.-flagged ships.
Among those are ones that would increase U.S. shipping companies’ role in exporting American goods, and defending the Jones Act, the sometimes-controversial statute that requires all ships carrying goods from one U.S. port to another be carried on U.S.-built ships, owned by American companies and staffed by American crews.
“It all comes back to cargo. Cargo is king,” he said. “You have to have something to carry to justify ships being there, which then requires a certain number of people. So in figuring out where we get our hands on more cargo, we’re about to become a net energy exporter. That’s a lot of product that should be carried on our ships, and currently, most of it is not. That’s a way to gain fleet size.”
Those oil and natural gas shipments could go a long way toward spurring demand for an additional 40-to-45 U.S.-flagged cargo ships. Buzby said that number of vessels would probably be enough to generate the workforce MARAD would need in in order to close its 1,800-mariner gap.
And assuring that there’s enough work for them to do over the course of a career is among his agency’s biggest challenges, he said. As of now, civilian maritime academies, including the MARAD-operated Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, generate enough graduates to meet the nation’s current demand.
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“The challenge is retaining those people,” Buzby said. “It’s having enough jobs for them to progress through the ranks and to stick around. When your ocean-going fleet is 81 ships involved in international trade, which is what it is today, that’s not a lot of billets.”
But those ships aren’t the only ones whose crewmembers who could contribute to wartime service.
There are an additional 100 whose main function is to transport goods between U.S. ports because of the Jones Act, which forbids foreign-flagged ships from performing that service.
The statute is sometimes criticized as a protectionist measure; one that routinely and artificially raises the price of goods in places like Hawaii and other U.S. locations that depend on sea delivery for everything from milk to furniture.
It came under renewed scrutiny this summer, when some members of Congress pointed out that Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts could be dramatically accelerated if deliveries of supplies weren’t encumbered by legal requirements that those goods be delivered by U.S. ships, originating from other U.S. ports.
Although the Trump administration issued some temporary waivers for Puerto Rico to relieve the Jones Act’s requirements, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Puerto Rico disaster was a perfect example of why the law should be repealed.
“It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster,” McCain said in a September statement. “Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome act.”
Buzby said one of his main aims as MARAD’s administrator was to “educate” the public about what he believes is mistaken view of the military value of the Jones Act on the part of McCain and others.
“People say let’s get rid of it, because it costs too much. But if you took away those 100 ships, you’ve taken away the majority of people that are going to man my sealift forces in time of war,” he said. “That’s not to mention what it would do to ship building and repair, because all those ships get repaired in commercial yards. If you take that requirement away, the few remaining ship yards that build military vessels are now shouldering all of the overhead and burden.”
He suggested such a step would only serve to further reduce the competition among the handful of shipyards that are currently capable of building military vessels.
“If you’re worried about a $1.5 billion-dollar destroyer, try a $3.5-billion dollar destroyer if all of that cost has to get shifted,” he said. “It’s a big deal.”