In a crisis, the government relies on oceangoing U.S.-flag ships and U.S.-citizen crews to help the military. To ensure their availability, the government provides stipends and requires certain government cargoes to be shipped on U.S.-flag ships.
The Department of Transportation (DOT), though, is still finalizing the national maritime strategies that were called for in two separate mandates by Congress in 2014. According to DOT officials, DOT has been working on a single draft maritime strategy to meet both mandates.
In a summary of its August report released today, the Government Accountability Office said that by not completing the strategy or establishing a timeline for completing it, DOT had delayed providing decision-makers the information they needed to address challenges facing the U.S. flag fleet. Subsequently, with the passage of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, Congress extended the deadline for the strategy to February 2020. According to DOT officials, DOT will issue the strategy by the new deadline.
Stakeholders GAO spoke with for its August 2018 report identified two primary challenges to ensuring that the U.S.-flag fleet would continue to meet DOD’s national defense needs: (1) maintaining the financial viability of the U.S.-flag fleet, which is threatened by the increasingly higher costs of operating U.S. vessels compared to foreign flag vessels and a decrease in government cargo being shipped internationally; and (2) a potential shortage of U.S. citizen mariners available to support defense needs, in part due to the declining numbers of U.S.-flag vessels that employ these mariners.
For example, the number of U.S. flag vessels involved in international trade declined from 199 vessels at the end of 1990 to just 82 vessels by the end of 2017. DOT officials have identified some options to make U.S.-flag vessels more competitive, increase the amount of commercial cargo on U.S. flag vessels, and address a potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners, although they are not ready to assess their feasibility or formally propose these options.
To address the challenge of maintaining the financial viability of U.S.-flag vessels, DOT has identified options such as changing regulations to decrease the costs of bringing a ship under the U.S. flag and requiring that certain energy export commodities, such as oil or liquefied natural gas, be carried on U.S.-flag vessels.
To address the potential shortage of U.S.-citizen mariners, DOT convened a working group to determine how many mariners would be needed to meet defense needs. The working group estimated a shortage of over 1,800 U.S.-citizen mariners in the event of a sustained military activation, although it also recommended data improvements to increase the accuracy of the count of available mariners. In addition, the working group identified two actions that could help increase the number of U.S.-citizen mariners: (1) developing a reserve program to identify and support qualified mariners willing to sail to support defense needs during an emergency and (2) expanding programs and requirements that support U.S.-citizen mariners, such as requirements that government agencies must ship certain cargo on U.S. flag vessels.
In the August 2018 report, GAO recommended that DOT complete the national maritime strategy and establish time frames for its issuance. DOT concurred with the recommendation.