Author Topic: A Real Wake-Up Call: The Continuing Decline of the U.S.-Flag Merchant Fleet  (Read 6371 times)

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Offline Spr.Earl

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Robert Little is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun newspaper.

John Babineau can do things with a ship that very few people in the world can do. He can manage the loading and unloading of its cargo without blowing the schedule, for instance. Then he can maneuver it through a crowded channel without an accident--at night. Babineau is a trained and experienced deck officer in the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine, and precisely the type of qualified civilian professional that the United States is counting on to operate its military cargo ships in wartime.

But if war comes, Babineau is not going to sea--and much of the U.S. military‘s ammunition, supplies, and equipment might not be going either. Babineau and thousands of trained U.S. merchant seamen like him have fled the U.S. Merchant Marine in favor of more stable and lucrative work ashore--leaving the United States desperately short of the qualified manpower that it needs to activate its military cargo ships and deploy large numbers of its ground forces overseas.

"After seven years, I saw what was happening to the Merchant Marine, and I knew I couldn‘t ship out and still raise a family," said Babineau, 36, a Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who lives in Rhode Island and works as an engineer. "The work got longer, the pay got lower--it just wasn‘t worth it."

The Crisis in Manpower

More than 95 percent of the fuel, ammunition, and equipment required by U.S. forces in a typical military engagement overseas must move by ship. The United States maintains nearly 100 empty cargo ships for just that contingency, and it relies entirely on civilian sailors to operate them. But unprecedented declines in the nation‘s commercial shipping industry over the last decade have created a crippling dearth of qualified mariners available to ship out on these military cargo ships and tankers in times of crisis.

The commercial fleet, which is expected to provide manpower to the military in wartime, can barely find enough qualified mariners to sail its own ships. The Navy‘s Military Sealift Command (MSC) is so desperate for civilian seafarers that it is offering signing bonuses as high as $5,000 to mariners who will work on the logistics ships that it operates full-time in support of Navy and Department of Defense (DOD) operations.

In peacetime the Maritime Administration (MARAD) simply works around the manpower shortage by shuffling crews from ship to ship in the 76-ship Ready Reserve Force (RRF) just long enough to pass a drill or activation exercise. But if war broke out and all of the ships were activated simultaneously under the control of MSC, there would not be enough sailors to go around. Another problem is that the fallback supply of U.S. maritime labor--retired and inactive merchant seamen--has been all but eliminated by the new Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) regulations that took effect earlier this year.

These mandatory training-and-certification requirements caused many inactive mariners to give up their licenses and qualifications. The United States relied heavily on retired U.S. mariners during the Gulf War, when the RRF was last mobilized, but could not expect to do so again.

The result is that many of the U.S.-flag cargo ships still active could be stranded in port during a crisis, particularly a protracted one that would require the ships to find relief crews. In such a situation the U.S. Transportation Command could be forced to rely increasingly on foreign-flagged ships manned by foreign crews--an unacceptable wartime option to U.S. warfighters and U.S. regional commanders in chief.

"We need a fairly robust, certainly healthy, U.S.-flag fleet to do the [Department of Defense‘s] business," said retired Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr., a former commander in chief of the U.S. Transportation Command. "When a crisis occurs--I mean a real knockdown, drag-out crisis--for the country to rely on foreign-flag carriers is something we would not want to do."

Jerry A. Aspland, a former president of the California Maritime Academy, asks rhetorically: "Are there enough people to sail all of those ships today?" The answer to that question, he quickly adds, "is truly no. We could never send all of those ships to sea, and everyone in the country should be worried about that."

The Vanishing U.S. Fleet

DOD and MARAD have only recently acknowledged the manpower shortage and taken steps to reverse its decline. Both agencies are in early discussions to create a new Merchant Marine Reserve--a civilian branch, most likely, that would include not just officers but also unlicensed seamen, who make up the bulk of a merchant ship‘s crew.

MARAD and MSC are both reviewing how to tap the manpower graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and the nation‘s six state maritime academies more effectively--possibly by requiring midshipmen to make some commitment to the sealift fleet in exchange for their subsidized education.

But quick answers are elusive, because the maritime manpower shortage stems mostly from the enduring and systemic economic decline of the U.S. commercial shipping industry--a merchant fleet that once ruled the globe but today pales before the likes of Panama, Liberia, Malta, and Cyprus. U.S.-flag ships, which must hire expensive American crews and make repairs in expensive U.S. shipyards, typically cost as much as $4 million more to operate for a year than an identical ship flying a foreign flag. That is an expense few shipowners are willing to pay, which is why the U.S.-flag merchant fleet has all but vanished from the world‘s oceans.

"Because of the continued decline of the U.S.-flag merchant fleet and the recent implementation of stricter mandatory training standards, there is some concern that there may not be enough mariners to crew the surge fleet during a large-scale activation," said Rear Adm. David L. Brewer III, commander of the Military Sealift Command, in one of the strongest admissions of concern from a top Navy official.

Capt. William G. Schubert, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, goes even further: "This is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed right now--today," said Schubert, himself a former merchant mariner. "We don‘t have time to postpone this issue any longer, or there could be some very serious consequences. I am not very comfortable right now that we have the ability to respond to an emergency."

The United States has always relied on civilian merchant mariners to move its military supplies and equipment overseas in time of war. During World War II, the Merchant Marine was one of the most dangerous assignments anyone could choose. More than 6,000 American merchant mariners died in the line of duty during the war, and 733 U.S.-flag merchant ships were sunk by enemy action.

Sealift remains essential to combat success in virtually any large military operation carried out by U.S. personnel in a foreign theater. Smaller regional campaigns, like the war in Afghanistan, can be supported to a considerable extent by airlift, but aircraft simply cannot carry the huge tonnages of supplies and equipment necessary to sustain a large invading or occupying force like the one amassed during Operation Desert Shield.

The largest airplane in the U.S. Air Force inventory, a C-5 Galaxy, can carry only two M1-A1 Abrams tanks, for example, because of the immense weight of the tanks. A cargo ship could carry ten or 20 times as many tanks, and thousands of tons of other military supplies and equipment as well.

So vital is sealift to military operations that DOD keeps more than 30 cargo vessels fully loaded with war supplies and prepositioned in ports around the world to meet potential requirements of the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Defense Logistics Agency. Those ships can outfit an Army heavy division or Marine Air/Ground Task Force virtually anywhere in the world on short or no notice.

The prepositioned ships are just a start, however. To wage a war of any significant size or duration, the Pentagon also must activate the nation‘s fleet of roughly 100 inactive cargo ships maintained in reserve--waiting for a war--and strategically prepositioned in or close to various embarkation ports throughout the United States.

First to go, typically, would be eight "fast sealift ships" operated by MSC. Those ships, formerly owned and operated by Sea-Land Service Inc. and called SL-7s, are equipped with twin steam plants that can generate 30 knots or more, making them some of the fastest cargo ships afloat.

Next to go would be the fleet of large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) ships, or LMSRs, acquired since Desert Storm. The nation will have 19 of these modern vessels by 2003.

The last ships activated in a crisis, probably, would be the 76 dormant ships of the Ready Reserve Force (RRF), maintained by MARAD in peacetime but transferred to MSC control in time of war. The RRF is an eclectic collection of vessels ranging from Vietnam-era break-bulk ships to modern RO-ROs, from barge carriers to old T-1 tankers. Some are fairly new; others are 50 or more years old. All of them are well-maintained to meet DOD activation requirements. The RRF ships most likely to be activated early in a major mobilization have cadre crews onboard that maintain the ships in a reduced operating status (ROS) so that they can be fully crewed and ready to sail in five days or less. Other RRF ships are kept in a 10- or 20-day ROS readiness status.

Whistling Past the Graveyard

On any given day, a handful of fast sealift ships, LMSRs, and RRF ships might be operating for the Pentagon or laid up in a shipyard. But most of them are waiting empty in various ports. If all of the vessels were needed at once, DOD would have to find nearly 3,500 sailors to operate them. About 900 mariners already work on the vessels full-time, but the rest would have to be provided by the union halls and dispatch centers of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

None of this was a problem during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, when the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine was still a major force in global shipping. The Pentagon simply hired mariners the same way a commercial shipping company would--it asked the unions for workers, the unions posted the jobs on their hiring boards, and mariners took the jobs.

The U.S.-flag Merchant Marine is now less than one-tenth the size it was in 1950, however, and shrinking every year. At its post-World War II peak, the U.S.-flag merchant fleet totaled 3,492 oceangoing cargo vessels and nearly 166,000 mariners. Today it has only about 220 vessels in active trade and fewer than 15,000 mariners available. Since the Gulf War, when the activation of the RRF so strained the U.S. maritime labor pool that licensing requirements were waived, mariners in their eighties were being recalled into service, and some ships still could not find adequate crews. Today, the size of the available labor pool has shrunk almost 40 percent.

"A lot of people in the Department of Defense and the Maritime Administration are wetting their lips to whistle past the graveyard over this," said John Graykowski, a former acting maritime administrator. "They won‘t say it, but they know there‘s a real problem."

The U.S. government‘s own activation drills prove that there is a problem. Every one of the RRF sealift vessels is activated periodically, either by the Department of Defense or the Department of Transportation, and told to hire a crew and put out to sea. Only twice in the last decade has a ship missed its deadline, both times by a few hours.

Recycled Crewmen

But the ships routinely recycle crewmembers from one vessel to another. During activation drills last year, for example, ships in Maryland, Louisiana and Texas, all sailed with two of the same able-bodied seamen. In addition, two ships in the RRF fleet in Virginia, the MV Cape Race and the MV Cape Ray, sailed with the same captain. Ships routinely borrow sailors who work full-time on other ships. Some vessels that are rafted side by side and activated one after the other have been known to share an entire deck gang. "It‘s good money," said Eric Williams, an able seaman from California who once activated two ships in San Francisco--then flew to Baltimore to work on a third. "As long as they pay me to fly out there, why not?"

Government officials do not deny that the ships share crewmembers, but they say it is done mostly for convenience and that the drills are designed primarily to test the condition of the vessels. As evidence that the nation is prepared to use its dormant sealift vessels in a crisis, they often point to a drill in September 1998 during which 29 vessels went to sea simultaneously. More than 700 temporary crewmembers were hired, and the exercise was declared a success. That drill "exemplified ... the readiness response of the U.S. merchant mariners to crew the surge fleet," said then-Maritime Administrator Clyde J. Hart in testimony before Congress shortly after the drill was completed.

But if anything, the drill exposed the fleet‘s limitations. At least three ships--the MV Alatna, the MV Chattahoochee, and the MV Nodaway, all tankers based in Japan--never found full crews, according to men who worked on them. "Three crews were supposed to go, but they couldn‘t get enough people," said Paul Garber, a deck officer who served on one of the ships. "They just used the guys they had and sent the ships out one at a time."

As the exercise ended, and all 29 ships were reporting a successful activation, Hurricane George forced ships in the Gulf of Mexico to scurry out to sea to avoid damage. According to Coast Guard inspection reports, two Fast Sealift Ships that did not participate in the exercise, the USNS Algol and the USNS Regulus, had to leave the port of New Orleans "minimally manned"--i.e., without enough crew members to conduct an adequate lifeboat drill. A month later, the Coast Guard found the U.S.-flag tanker MV Valiant, chartered to the Military Sealift Command, sailing near Japan with a crew that included four sailors licensed in the Philippines, one from Poland, and three Americans who lacked the necessary qualifications.

DOD contingency plans are predicated on the call-up of as many as 100 reserve sealift ships in a major crisis, but the activation four years ago of just 29 vessels sapped the U.S. Merchant Marine of nearly every spare mariner available. "It was very painful, no question," said retired Vice Adm. James Perkins, commander of MSC at the time. "They just had to go out to the sea buoy and back, and that was only--what, one-third of the fleet?"

A Wake-Up Call

When Schubert was sworn in as maritime administrator in December 2001, he pledged to begin working immediately to ensure that the nation has enough merchant marine manpower for a crisis. Several initiatives have resulted. Besides the proposed Merchant Marine Reserve and possible changes at the federal and state maritime academies, he is developing an emergency plan for training and certifying retired and inactive mariners in as little as six weeks--perhaps by using facilities at the Merchant Marine Academy for refresher training. Schubert himself has a captain‘s license, but he does not hold an updated STCW certificate. He suspects that thousands of others face the same situation.

But no one really knows all of the facts associated with today‘s maritime manpower situation--another problem Schubert hopes to correct. He is currently developing a nationwide database of mariners to identify who they are, where they live, what qualifications they have, and whether they are willing to sail for the military. He also is conducting the most exhaustive survey to date to determine precisely how bad the mariner shortage has become.

None of those initiatives will matter, however, if Schubert fails in what he considers to be the only true long-term solution to the maritime manpower crisis--rebuilding the U.S.-flag merchant fleet. It is a daunting task, and one that has rarely received the attention of, or support from Congress and the American people.

The entire U.S.-flag Merchant Marine could disappear from the oceans tomorrow, and most American consumers might not even notice. Their store shelves are well-stocked with a steady supply of imported goods carried to them on foreign-flagged vessels. Fewer than 3 percent of the nation‘s imports ever see the inside of an American ship but the Pentagon would notice.

"I consider this such a high priority that I have scheduled in time for me, personally, to be involved on a weekly basis, working to solve some of these problems," said Schubert. "And the more I have gotten into it, the more I realize just how urgent the situation is. It‘s a real wake-up call that shows how important the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine is to our national defense."

Be Safe


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I Wonder if they would just give us just ONE of these ships so we can move our stuff?
Nobody respect's a country with a poor army, but everbody respect's a country with a good army.I raise my toast to the Finnish army.
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Offline Slim

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The really sad thing is that "ONE" of their ships would probably do it too!
"The only thing required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"

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Offline Scotty

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Your right.  One of those ships would be enough to carry our LAV3‘s to afghanistan or syria or wherever is next.  I don‘t think that they would mind if we offered to take one off their hands.

Offline Spartan

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don‘t we already contract out?
heyyyyyyyy.... doesn‘t our pm own a shipping line?
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Offline Ex-Dragoon

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He does but if he even offered to use his ships for the transport of our vehicles you would have the Opposition scream patronage.

SCM something you have to learn is after years of us refusing equipment the US would mind if we took one of their hands, they still need to move their equipment as well.
I will leave your flesh on the mountains and fill the valleys with your carcasses. I will water the land with what flows from you, and the river beds shall be filled with your blood. When I snuff you out I will cover the heavens and all the stars will darken. Ezekiel 32:5-7
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Offline Scotty

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I know, I didn‘t honestly think they would just give us one.  Possibly at a discounted price.  Or possibly not at all.

Offline tomahawk6

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Audio interview with individual with a lot of experience with the command.