The U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) estimated the nation has a shortage of around 2,000 mariners, and one logical way to overcome the shortage would be to add 40-45 vessels to the U.S. commercial fleet, MarAd Executive Director Joel Szabat said.
U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) Executive Director Joel Szabat said the decline in the U.S.-flag domestic fleet and international U.S.-flag commercial fleet has MarAd and the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) concerned there are not enough qualified mariners to sustain an activation of the entire sealift fleet, though there has never been a full activation of the entire sealift fleet.
However, in testimony last week to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Szabat said, “As of today, the size and composition of the U.S.-flag commercial fleet is adequate to meet immediate military contingencies.”
Szabat noted there are three programs that ensure there are enough U.S.-flag vessels available to provide sealift capacity, including:
• The Jones Act, which requires the use of U.S.-flag ships and mariners in domestic trade;
• Cargo preference, which requires certain cargo, including food aid, be transported on U.S. ships;
• And the Maritime Security Program (MSP), which provides a stipend to operators of 60 U.S. ships engaged in foreign trade that are considered to be militarily useful.
The MSP is authorized about $300 million for fiscal year 2017 and provides a stipend of around $4.9 million per vessel. Sixty of the 81 U.S.-flag ships that trade internationally full time participate in the MSP program.
MarAd also manages and maintains a fleet of 45 ships in Ready Reserve Force that can be activated in five days to transport cargo, and one off-shore petroleum discharge vessel that can be activated within 10 days.
“In many ways, the Maritime Administration serves as a component command of the USTRANSCOM in providing 46 of the 61 vessels that they need out of the surge fleet,” Szabat said.
The U.S. is “aging out, both the ready reserve ships as well as the sailors on those ships,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who asked Szabat, “What do you suggest we do about that?”
Szabat said MarAd has a responsibility to come back to Congress with a list of options. “And we owe it to our new political team as they come on board to vet those options to determine what the recommendations would be, so I can’t speak to our recommendations, but I can speak broadly to what the range of options are,” he said.
“The policy that we have followed for years in the U.S. that we rely on the commercial U.S. merchant marine to employ and train enough mariners to serve on both those commercial vessels but also to generate a surplus that we use on the federal vessels to meet our sealift requirements,” he said. “The challenge that we have today is that the U.S. commercial fleet is no longer large enough to provide both of those needs.”
MarAd has estimated the U.S. has a shortage of about 2,000 mariners, and that one logical way to overcome that shortage would be to add 40-45 vessels to the U.S. commercial fleet, Szabat said.
Szabat said that could be done through “expansion of the MSP or an MSP-like program where we include vessels not just for their military capability but for their ability to serve in commerce but also to employ enough mariners so that that pool is large enough to meet our national security needs. The second way, which would not involve a direct subsidy, or a direct stipend to the vessels would be trade policies.”
Those could be trade policies that would require certain U.S. exports to be carried on U.S.-flag vessels, or bilateral agreements with countries like China that would require a certain number of vessels to sail under the U.S. flag.
In February, Garamendi introduced the Energizing American Maritime Act (H.R. 1240) that would require 15 percent of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) and crude oil exported from the U.S. be carried on U.S.-flag ships from 2020 to 2024, with the percentage increasing to 30 percent in 2025 and subsequent years.
The bill’s six cosponsors include Reps John Duncan, R-Tenn.; Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.; Anthony Brown, D-Md.; Julia Brownley, D-Calif.; Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif.; and Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif.
“If we’re going to export a strategic American resource such as natural gas and oil, it ought to be on American built ships with American sailors, thus providing a solution to the overarching problem,” Garamendi said.
Szabat said the Government Accountability Office indicated that Garamendi’s proposal would mean about 30 additional ships for moving LNG and 9-10 ships moving oil under the U.S. flag.
Another approach, Szabat said, “would be to divorce the need for mariners from the requirement that the U.S.-flag fleet be large enough to employ them” and “have the U.S. Navy or the Maritime Administration employ the additional mariners that were needed.”
He said the government relies on the commercial fleet to provide a surplus of 1,300 mariners that it can draw on within four days of a full sealift activation.
Garamendi and Hunter both noted that General Darren McDew, the commander of TRANSCOM, testified during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in March that he was also concerned about the small number of U.S.-flag ships and civilian mariners.
“We ought to have a dialogue about how important is an international fleet to the United States of America. I believe it’s vital to moving military goods and hardware,” McDew said at the hearing, adding that TRANSCOM is working with the Navy to figure how to recapitalize the merchant fleet and how long it will take.
McDew said that according to MarAd, the U.S. needs more than 11,000 mariners. “Without mariners, we don’t have a capability, and I believe that U.S.-credentialed mariners [are] important too,” he said. “I’ve been visiting some of the maritime colleges to ensure that those young men and women understand how much we need them, how much we value their credentials they come out of college with, and we need them to go to sea. And we need them to stay with us.”
Hunter said that according to McDew, TRANSCOM had “never looked at the attrition that would take place with a full sealift call up when you actually have ships sinking. Their numbers do not account for that. They’re finally using a model that brings actual wartime attrition into that, and I hope you guys are tied in and in sync with that so that your end numbers would come up the same roughly.”