Naval Air Crewman (Helicopter) 2nd Class Benjamin Whitney, from Syracuse, New York, lowers a litter during rescue training with a merchant ship in the Gulf of Aden, March 1, 2019, during Lucky Mariner 19. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums)

Erosion of Maritime Support Fleet Leaves U.S. High and Dry in a National Emergency

A steady decline of ships and sailors in the U.S. merchant fleet threatens to leave national security adrift in the event of a domestic emergency or crisis abroad, lawmakers heard Tuesday.

Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, administrator of the Maritime Administration, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation that though the U.S. Merchant Marine provides “essential sealift capacity our nation needs to respond to domestic and international crisis, and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs at sea and ashore… regrettably, over the past several decades, we have allowed this indispensable national asset to erode.”

Out of some 50,000 large commercial vessels operating on the world’s oceans, only 181 sail under the U.S. flag. Eighty-one operate exclusively in international trade, while the other 100 operate almost exclusively in domestic Jones Act trade.

“This decline in ships has contributed to a drop in the number of qualified U.S. mariners that a long-term national emergency would require,” Buzby warned. “While commercial vessels provide sustained sealift, our nation relies on the 46 government vessels of the Ready Reserve Force for initial emergency sealift response to domestic crisis and military deployments. However, these vessels now average 44 years of age. We struggle to maintain their readiness.”

The administrator added that another challenge “is the fact that our maritime industry is not competing on a level playing field — we are matched against lower-priced foreign competitors who benefit from state subsidies, lax regulatory requirements, and favorable tax policies.”

“This is all part of their attempt to achieve a strategic advantage against the United States,” he said.

President Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget request asks for $682.5 million for the Maritime Administration, which includes the promise of a $5 million stipend per U.S. flagged ship enrolled in the Maritime Security Program.

It also includes funding for a third new training ship, which Buzby deemed “critical.” In fact, “all of the training ships are in need of replacement.”

Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Buzby what should be done to fix the “terrible shortage of mariners in this country.”

The “most direct” fix,” the administrator replied, is having more ships at sea.

“Quite simply, that’s how we’re going to grow our mariner pool. They have to have some place to work,” Buzby said. “So, we have to have a larger fleet, be it Jones Act fleet and internationally trading fleet, to have employment places for those mariners to practice their trade and to be promoted.”

“Across the industry, the mariners that I’m going to need to flesh out the crews on the Ready Reserve Force ships are unlimited horsepower, unlimited tonnage mariners,” he later noted. “…We’re graduating a lot of new midshipmen every year, a lot of new mates and engineers. But they’re not staying all the way through because they don’t have the opportunities for many of them to take us all the way to master or chief engineer.”

Buzby was asked about the national security risks posed by relying on foreign-flagged tankers to meet U.S. military Sealift requirements.

“All of the programs that we have in place for national Sealift — you know, we have the dry side pretty well covered, Maritime Security Program, visa program, other programs. What we don’t have assured access to are tankers and that is a concern. Yes, it is a concern especially if we got into a protracted Sealift in the Pacific where we were having to traverse great distances and be moving large volumes of petroleum,” he said.

Out of six U.S.-flagged internationally trading tankers, two of them are in the Maritime Security Program.

“The others get chartered from time to time by military Sealift command,” Buzby continued. “But you know the projections are that we would need upwards of 86 tankers to fulfill a continuous sealift out to the Western Pacific.”

Hence, proposals to incentivize ships to fly under the U.S. flag, as “there are many, many U.S.-owned tankers in the world but business case and cost of operating often keep them out from underneath the U.S. flag.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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