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Panel tackles defense sealift manning crisis, U.S. fleet decline

By Paul Doell
National President

A new federal advisory panel that includes U.S. maritime industry and labor interests is focused exclusively on the national security threat emerging from unchecked defense shipping deficiencies.

The Maritime Workforce Working Group is the result of a welcome directive to the Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration in the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The panel's task under the law is to "examine and assess the size of the pool of U.S. citizen mariners" in the context of surge shipping of military cargoes in a distant conflict.

The MWWG - which counts American Maritime Officers Assistant Vice President for Government Relations Christian Spain among its participants - was off to an auspicious start at this writing, zeroing in on two specific, inseparable issues: a dangerously underfunded Ready Reserve Force and the U.S. merchant fleet's fast fall in international trade.

As we all know in AMO, the privately owned and operated U.S. merchant fleet in commercial import and export trades provides the civilian officers and crewmembers the Department of Defense relies on exclusively to keep the RRF prepared for wartime service, to break these ships out when needed, and to keep these vessels operating for as long as necessary.

Unsettling conditions endemic to the government-owned, MARAD-managed Ready Reserve Force - including deferred maintenance and inadequate officer and crew complements while the ships are standing by - raise the grim prospect of the reserve fleet paralyzed in port, unable to fulfill its short-notice sealift mission, especially in a contingency of such size that all 46 RRF ships are ordered-up for service.

Meanwhile, the most recent official count puts the private sector American merchant fleet in international trade at only 78 ships, 60 of which operate under the Maritime Security Program. Seventy-eight ships? The U.S. lost 10 times that number to enemy action in World War II.

It's an easy equation: fewer U.S.-flag merchant ships on the world's trade routes mean fewer jobs for the skilled, dependable and loyal merchant mariners the U.S. needs to man not only the Ready Reserve Force, but also Military Sealift Command's surge sealift fleet of 17 ships.

In recent Congressional testimony, and in a January 2016 graphic, MARAD warned that the U.S. now has enough qualified merchant marine officers and unlicensed mariners to activate all 46 of its RRF ships and all 17 MSC vessels, but not enough to keep these fleets in service during "sustained operations" of six months or longer.

The Maritime Workforce Working Group is centered most appropriately on three critical questions:
  • How many U.S. merchant marine officers and crewmembers employed in the private sector are known to have the required sealift service credentials - unlimited licenses, unlimited STCW endorsements, security clearances and medical certificates - to man the RRF and MSC fleets in a large-scale mobilization?
  • How many of these qualified mariners would the Defense Department need for such immediate service?
  • How many of these vessel officers and crewmembers would actually be available when called, assuming necessarily that many had been forced into careers ashore or into retirement as consequences of a diminishing U.S. merchant fleet in world trade?
The MWWG's portfolio also includes an accounting of sealift-ready mariners working in domestic markets under Jones Act jurisdiction, qualified mariners employed through government programs that promote the U.S. merchant fleet and seagoing jobs (PL-480 food aid export service, for example), mariners with sea time within 18 months and those serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

The panel is considering as well the possibility of sea service requirements for graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the six state-operated maritime academies, all of which draw some funding through the MARAD budget.

The Maritime Workforce Working Group may even apply some skillful surgical parsing of the official U.S. merchant mariner database, which is held closely by the U.S. Coast Guard. This headcount exceeds 200,000, and it includes every document issued to every mariner at every professional level in every diverse sector of the maritime industry nationwide.

More importantly, the Coast Guard database cannot distinguish easily between those mariners with sealift credentials and those without.

In addition to determining the practical value of current data to sealift manpower strategy, the MWWG will ease data and information exchange among MARAD, the Coast Guard and other relevant federal agencies.

To its credit, the panel has already gathered industry and labor comment on potential policy initiatives to first halt the decline of the U.S. merchant fleet in world trade and then to increase its size measurably in anticipation of proportional growth of the U.S. mariner employment base. AMO filed statements, which will be discussed openly as the conversation progresses.

Now I know what you're thinking. We've seen advisory panels and commissions like this before, only to have their policy recommendations quashed by budget wonks in the White House or by budget hardliners in Congress. But the Maritime Workforce Working Group was established in a far more favorable environment.

The President is committed to a larger, more powerful military, which in itself would require a larger private sector U.S. merchant fleet for reliable, effective and efficient seaborne support services worldwide.

Moreover, the confirmations of Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation and retired Navy Rear Admiral Mark Buzby as Maritime Administrator are most encouraging. Both officials have solid records in support of the U.S. merchant fleet and American merchant mariners as national security assets, and both acknowledge the urgent need to avert a crippling sealift crisis.

American Maritime Officers will work closely with these officials, and with our broad bipartisan support base in Congress, to boost the RRF budget significantly and to achieve policy initiatives and reforms that will result in a larger, stronger and more diverse private sector U.S. merchant fleet.

In a July 18 email to me, 75-year-old AMO retiree Harry Scholer discussed these issues, expressing his "distress" over the deterioration of the Ready Reserve Force and the state of the U.S. merchant fleet in a stark, colloquial way.

"What I see today scares the hell out of me," he wrote.

What each of us in American Maritime Officers sees today is enough to scare the hell out of anyone - and enough to spur a quick, positive and comprehensive official response in the interest of national security.

As always, I welcome comments, questions and suggestions from AMO members everywhere. I can be reached on the toll-free headquarters line at 800-362-0513, on the office phone at 954-921-2221 (extension 1001) or on my cell at 954-881-5651.

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