Merchant mariners aboard the dry cargo and ammunition ship USNS William McLean (T-AKE 12) prepare for a replenishment-at-sea with the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) on Jan. 24, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alan L. Robertson)

U.S. Fleet Moving Well in COVID-19 Emergency, Says Buzby, While Sealift Readiness ‘Suffering’

The maritime fleet in the United States has so far had “plenty of capacity to move what has to be moved” during the COVID-19 national emergency, “but we’ll keep a very close eye on it,” U.S. Maritime Administration leader Mark Buzby said this week, while also warning “readiness is suffering” among aging ships in the sealift force.

Ships from Puerto Rico to Alaska to Hawaii are offering multiple daily sailings to move gear related to the pandemic response and the network of carriers, tug and barge that can move critical goods through inland waterways is “very robust,” the administrator told Sea-Air-Space 2020, which was held in a virtual format due to the coronavirus.

“We are always looking at capacity, we’re always very closely in touch with our carriers, very closely in touch with other elements of government to see if there are shortages and if there is capacity that can be brought to bear,” Buzby said. “Before any kind of a waiver can be considered for a Jones Act sort of thing, we are called upon by the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Jones Act, to do market surveys. Even when we get into hurricane sort of situations there’s almost always residual capacity to move whatever needs to be moved. We’re always watching it.”

Buzby, a retired Navy rear admiral, stressed that the U.S. Merchant Marine “really is a critical element to our national supply chain – stated quite simply, whether we’re moving DoD equipment or FEMA equipment around the globe or wherever, our Merchant Marine plays an absolutely key role to all of that.”

“Our nation does not deploy from our shores without our Merchant Marine,” he said. “It’s a vital piece both the government-owned ships and our commercial fleet that provides such a big peacetime element to our capability.”

A year ago, Buzby told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation that a “decline in ships has contributed to a drop in the number of qualified U.S. mariners that a long-term national emergency would require,” with vessels averaging more than four decades in age.

On Tuesday, he told the online conference that “the big thing right now is the recapitalization of the government-owned reserve force and the Military Sealift Command’s strategic sealift force so this group of 61 ships altogether – my 46 plus the 15 that MSC operates in a sealift sort of environment – as was shown in recent readiness exercises last fall, those ships, the readiness is suffering and we’re having a difficult time, I think, being able to rely on their sealift capacity.”

“This has been recognized — Congress has recognized this, TRANSCOM, and all of us have recognized this — so we’re working very diligently on a process to recapitalize those ships using basically a three-pronged approach, extending the service life a group of those ships to get them out potentially to a 60-year point to buy us some time,” Buzby said. “Replacing a group of those ships — about 25, 26 of them — with newer used ships that we buy from the open market, commercial ships that have military utility and then the Navy will build a number of purpose-built from the keel up sealift ships to be introduced into the fleet after sometime further down the line. But the combination of those three things is what’s going to help us renew this fleet and get its readiness such that we can depend on it completely again.”

“Anybody that owns older ships has the same issues and that is that steel rusts over time and as ships get older the equipment gets obsolete and repairing it and replacing it becomes more challenging. When you start talking about ships that are 45 years old and older that is just exacerbated – there’s just certain equipment… we’re no longer able to procure or replace when it breaks.”

Then there’s the issue of the manpower, the MARAD administrator continued.

“We have 24 of our ships that still have steam propulsion plants and because those only exist in the Ready Reserve Force, for the most part they’re not used commercially anymore, finding people that are available to operate those plants safely and efficiently like we need them to do become a difficult situation as well,” he said. “So there are material issues that impact readiness and there are personnel issues that impact readiness. Together they create quite a challenge for us.”

Buzby hailed personnel currently working as “tremendously dedicated” with the pool of mariners mostly working commercially in both the Jones Act fleet domestically and the internationally trading fleet.

“There’s a large group of them on the upwards of 7,000 or so that sail from Military Sealift Command, civilian mariners manning our government ships, and then there’s a large number of them that sail for me manning up our reserve force ships. So they all come from the same pool, they trade around from time to time working in the different fleets, but their endorsements, their unlimited credentials enable them to work in all those places,” he said. “The size of that pool really speaks to the readiness of all of our forces and that pool, because of the number of ships that we have under the U.S. flag, has been in decline for many years so that pool of employment has shrunk as well. And that’s why it has begun to impact our readiness so that we have enough for steady state operations today but should we have to ramp up and fully man up all of our Ready Reserve Force and sealift ships plus the commercial fleet plus Military Sealift Command — that’s where we’re going to run into a shortage. That’s going to be upward of 1,800 or so mariners as we stand today.”

Buzby said the “easy answer is more ships – more ships under U.S. flags, more opportunity to employ U.S. mariners so that we get that pool back up where it needs to be so that we can enjoy the large number of mariners that are available to man all of our ships several deep, so that as people get injured or have to rotate ashore or whatever there’s going to be somebody walking up the brow behind them to fill in.”

The administrator noted that “we’re asking our U.S.-flag Merchant Marine to play on a very uneven playing field with the large number of heavily subsidized merchant marines that are out there, particularly China, where there’s a lot of state-owned entities particularly in shipbuilding and in ship operations that don’t have the bottom lines to meet that our U.S. flag companies do.”

“They’re immediately at a disadvantage in terms of competing for cargo, and it all comes down to cargo. You’ve heard it said a lot that cargo is king, and it really is. It all starts with having access to that cargo to carry, which would then justify having a ship to carry it and then begets the crew. Figuring out how do we level that playing field out, how do we support our U.S. shippers through either cargo preference or stipends, Maritime Security Program, are ways we can make them more competitive to enable them to make that investment, a big capital investment and bring more ships online and therefore having some place for crew,” Buzby continued.

“When you level the playing field that means it’s getting taken away from someplace else … one thing we may want to do might impact another part of government, the State Department or Commerce, you name it, Interior, a lot of those entities move things around the world so when you say oh let’s have 100 percent cargo preference, say all cargo has to go on U.S. government flag ships, well you’ve just now impacted some of those other departments that are moving things around. So it all has to work together. We spend a lot of time with those other government agencies and departments figuring out what’s the best approach, how do we get after this.”

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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, BBC and SiriusXM.

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