Widespread support for the U.S. Merchant Marine and American-flag shipping was voiced in a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Readiness and Seapower and the Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on March 30.
General Darren McDew, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), testified before members of the House of Representatives including: Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina); Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Rob Wittman (R-Virginia); Ranking Member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut); John Garamendi (D-California); Austin Scott (R-Georgia); Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii); Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama); A. Donald McEachin (D-Virginia); Duncan Hunter (R-California); Donald Norcross (D-New Jersey); Martha McSally (R-Arizona); Vicky Hartzler (R-Missouri) and Elise Stefanik (R-New York).
Chairman Wilson opened the hearing, which focused on the current state of TRANSCOM, by saying, “This hearing follows a series of hearings and briefings highlighting the individual readiness challenges of each military service, which further confirms that our services are indeed in a readiness crisis. The cornerstone of the U.S. military is its service members; underpinning their success is the ability of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to go where they are needed and have fully operational equipment ready to be used.
“While I firmly believe the United States military remains the world’s best, I’m concerned about shortfalls in readiness and the trend lines that we see,” he continued. “U.S. Transportation Command enables our military to deliver an immediate and powerful force against U.S. adversaries anywhere in the globe, through airlift, air refueling and our strategic sealift.”
Ranking Member Courtney echoed those concerns. “Under TRANSCOM, the mix of organic military assets and commercial partners makes a powerful combination that must be carefully managed and sustained,” he stated. “And while I believe that TRANSCOM remains ready today to fulfill its important mission, I’m concerned about some of the longer-term challenges it will face without action by Congress. For example, while the emerging build-up of our Navy fleet has received significant attention in recent months, the state of our sealift capabilities is just as important.”
He continued, “America’s Ready Reserve Fleet and the vessels within the Maritime Security Program are strategic and irreplaceable national assets. And like other strategic assets, we must ensure that we do all we can to maintain, support, and replace the ships that comprise them. I’m deeply concerned, however, that we have not paid enough attention as a nation to the health and viability of our pool of vessels or the mariner pipeline needed to crew them. As we look at addressing some of the more urgent near needs facing our sealift capability, it is important as well to have a clear and long-term path towards fully recapitalizing our sealift fleet and the mariners needed to man them. In the near term, I believe we need to take action to ensure that the MSP has the resources and support it needs.”
Wittman noted his concern over the availability of trained U.S. mariners, saying, “The Maritime Administration has indicated that our commercial sector does not have sufficient mariners to sustain a prolonged mobilization of our Ready Reserve forces. Our nation cannot presume that a foreign-owned maritime sealift component will be available during times of conflict to deploy into contested waters. Our nation needs U.S. mariners on U.S.-flagged ships.”
In his opening statement, Gen. McDew said in part, “I wanted to emphasize the vital role that you mentioned, that our commercial industry, who I call our fourth component, plays in our success.”
He went on to express his alarm about the current states of U.S. airlift and sealift capabilities, citing a recent war game in which planners were forced to account for transportation’s vital role – and potential loss.
“I’m concerned about our national strategic sealift capability,” he stated. “A delay in recapitalizing our military sealift fleet creates risk in our ability to deploy forces across the globe. These concerns are compounded further by merchant mariner shortages and the reduction of U.S.-flagged vessels. Today, our resources make us capable of meeting today’s logistics needs. However, if we don’t take action soon, many of our Military Sealift Command vessels will begin to age out by 2026. A significant portion of the DOD’s wartime cargo capability moves on these ships.”
In his testimony, McDew further explained TRASCOM’s view of commercial sealift: “Historically, nearly 90 percent of wartime transportation requirements are delivered through strategic organic and U.S.-flagged commercial sealift. In fact, our strategic sealift fleet provides the ability to deliver a decisive force over great distances. Our U.S. Navy component, the Military Sealift Command (MSC), provides sealift capabilities through ship chartering, prepositioning, and sustainment operations while also executing operational command over the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force ships during contingencies. Without a healthy and viable U.S. commercial sealift fleet, MSC surge fleet, and MARAD’s Ready Reserve Force, our nation’s military may not be able to deploy as quickly and efficiently as it can today.”
He then explained the great value of the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) and the related Maritime Security Program (MSP).
“Over time, MSP has provided access to required commercial U.S.-flag shipping assets, while also supporting the pool of merchant mariners needed to operate MSC’s surge and Ready Reserve Fleet,” McDew said. “In this way, the MSP significantly contributes to the supply of merchant mariners available to serve on U.S. vessels in time of war while mitigating future risk to our national commercial capacity. Along with MSP, The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, provides an additional pool of trained merchant mariners and sealift capacity. It does this, and contributes to national defense, by [supporting] a robust, domestic maritime industry including U.S. industrial shipyard infrastructure for building, repairing, and overhauling U.S. vessels.”
When asked by Courtney about a diminished merchant mariner pool, McDew responded, “As you know, the merchant mariner force is the bedrock to how we move the force in our country. It makes the difference between us being the most powerful military in the world and us not being the most powerful military in the world. There are nations around the world that wish they had the power projection ability we have. The mariner force we have today is insufficient to go to war for an extended period of time.”
Wittman asked about the RRF and whether the nation could sustain an activation. McDew replied, “We believe we have the numbers of ships to be able to start the initial deployment and maybe the second round of deployments. But maybe beyond that we’re starting to be hurt by how available these ships will be and the capacity of the mariners.”
After asking McDew about the status of the RRF vessels, Garamendi used his time to speak to his fellow members, saying, “We can expand the American commercial maritime fleet by requiring that the export of oil and gas be on American-built ships. And we can start at 10 percent, 15 percent, and then ramp it up. That would give us an opportunity for mariners to be trained and ready for the [RRF] or the MSP.”
Among his questions for the general, Hunter asked about the importance of the Jones Act for the maritime industrial base. McDew replied, “There are several pieces of U.S. law that are part of the industrial base and it’s not just one. The Jones Act is probably the anchor for it, but without the Jones Act, without the Maritime Security Program, without cargo preference, our maritime industry is in jeopardy and our ability project the force is in jeopardy. If we think we need to project our force with U.S.-flagged vessels, with U.S. mariners on board, we need all of those things right now to secure that.”