The U.S. House of Representatives recently offered a major, bipartisan show of support for the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP), one of the pillars of American-flag shipping.
Voting on an amendment that would have required an unnecessary, awkward study of the MSP based on questions that appear to have been developed by an anti-maritime think tank, the House on May 18 shot down the proposal in overwhelming fashion. The final tally was 383-41, with a dozen or so abstentions. In essence, those figures mean that 383 representatives voted in support of the MSP.
In a “Dear Colleague” message before the vote, U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Virginia) and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) made it clear they viewed the proposed Government Accountability Office (GAO) study as a waste. Forbes is chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee; Courtney serves as ranking member on the subcommittee.
Their letter read in part: “We oppose this amendment because we believe that the GAO report it produces cannot and will not adequately address the issues of military judgement and strategy that are at the core of the case for sustaining the Maritime Security Program. For example, the amendment would require the GAO to report on the justification for the size of the Maritime Security Fleet, but this is not a question about dollars and cents. This is a question about what sealift capacity and capabilities our military contingency plans require, and the extent to which we can rely upon foreign shipping companies and foreign mariners in times of both peace and war. This strategic question is best answered by the professionals at U.S. Transportation Command, Military Sealift Command, and the Maritime Administration.”
The letter continues: “The Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces heard testimony from the leaders of these organizations earlier this year. Lieutenant General Stephen Lyons, the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Transportation Command, testified that ‘the case for a US-Flag fleet is compelling’ and that several mobility capability studies done by Transportation Command have repeatedly reaffirmed the need for a 60-ship Maritime Security Fleet. Chip Jaenichen, the Maritime Administrator, testified that the Maritime Security Fleet’s ‘60-ship capability is extremely important’ and that foreign-flagged ships, which might be cheaper, cannot be relied upon for critical national security missions.
“In World War II, 1 in 26 Merchant Mariners was killed—a higher rate of losses than any other service,” the letter continued. “That rate was so high that the government concealed it because they were afraid they couldn’t find enough Mariners if the true dangers of the service were known. Lieutenant General Lyons hit at the heart of this issue when he said that ‘There is no guarantee whatsoever that a foreign-flag fleet will sail into harm’s way.’
“The Maritime Security Fleet is a wartime capability that must be there when we need it,” Forbes and Courtney concluded. “It’s about military readiness and national security, not just dollars and cents. The study called for by this amendment cannot and will not adequately address the military reasons for sustaining the Maritime Security Fleet, and for that reason we urge our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to oppose this amendment.”
In a related communication, U.S. Rep. Mac Tornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pointed out, “Ninety percent of all U.S. military cargo moved from Iraq and Afghanistan has been by U.S.-flagged, U.S.-crewed commercial vessels enrolled in the (MSP) program.”
During floor debate on the proposed amendment, U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-California) strongly spoke in support of the MSP. He also pointed out that during Operation Desert Storm, a foreign-flag ship that was supposed to transport cargo for American troops refused to sail. “We cannot allow that to happen ever again,” he stated.
Enacted in 1996 as part of the Maritime Security Act, the MSP ensures that Department of Defense has access to a fleet of U.S.-crewed, U.S.- flagged, militarily useful vessels in times of need. The program has been hailed by military leaders for its reliability and cost-effectiveness. Experts have estimated that it would cost the government billions of dollars to replicate the assets it receives through the MSP and its related Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement – and that’s not including the intangible value of well-trained, loyal, reliable, U.S.- citizen crews who deliver the goods for our troops wherever and whenever needed.