Testimony Cites Indispensable Role in National Defense
Recent comments from expert witnesses and congressmen alike left no doubt that America is a maritime nation – one best-served by maintaining a robust U.S. Merchant Marine, along with shipbuilding capability.
The remarks were made Nov. 29 during a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation (part of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee). Titled “Review of Recent GAO Reports on Icebreaker Acquisition and the Need for a National Maritime Strategy,” the hearing mostly focused on the former issue but also devoted significant time to mariners and the laws that help keep the industry afloat.
Testifying at the hearing were Rear Adm. Michael J. Haycock, assistant commandant for Acquisition & Chief Acquisition Officer, United States Coast Guard; Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, USN, Ret., administrator, Maritime Administration (MARAD); Marie A. Mak, director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office (GAO); Andrew Von Ah, director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, GAO; and Ronald O’Rourke, specialist in Naval Affairs, Congressional Research Service.
Subcommittee Chairman U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida) noted that legislation has extended the deadline for submitting the national maritime strategy to February 2020. “This strategy is critical to addressing the challenges facing the U.S. flag fleet, including a potential shortage of U.S. mariners and the decreasing number of U.S. flag vessels,” Mast said. “As a maritime nation, the U.S. needs to address these challenges now. I can assure you I understand firsthand the importance of having sufficient maritime assets to get U.S. forces and their supplies where they need to be.”
Buzby, who formerly served as commanding officer of the U.S. Military Sealift Command, spoke with his usual candor and insight. He pointed out the GAO in August 2018 completed a report on maritime security, which examined the role U.S.-flag commercial vessels play in supporting Department of Defense (DOD) sealift needs. The GAO also urged formalization of a national maritime strategy.
“MARAD is conscious of the time it has taken to develop the strategy since Congress directed that it be done in 2014,” he said. “In this time, MARAD has conducted extensive engagement with public and private stakeholders representing the full spectrum of maritime industry professions, sectors, and regions. As the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System notes, there are 18 federal agencies and numerous public stakeholders with a role in maritime transportation issues. Each of these agencies is an important stakeholder and their input is critical to address both the challenge involved in developing a strategy for the U.S. Merchant Marine that can garner widespread support and the importance of developing a long-term strategy to address future needs. As you may be aware, the draft strategy was placed into review under the prior administration. It was subsequently withdrawn by the current administration so that they could have an opportunity to review, revise, and align the strategy accordingly. We appreciate that Congress provided an extension on this requirement to allow us to best align this strategy with the administration’s national security strategy and national defense strategy. MARAD has not stood idle during this interim period. We are using the extension afforded by Congress as an opportunity to further collaborate with stakeholders to refine goals of the strategy and produce an effective national maritime strategy.”
Buzby continued, “Developing a national maritime strategy will help the Maritime Administration accomplish its mission to foster, promote, and develop the U.S. maritime industry to meet the nation’s economic and security needs…. A critical part of this mission is ensuring the availability of U.S. ships, and qualified merchant mariners to crew those ships, to meet DOD sealift requirements. DOD relies on these strategic sealift capabilities to efficiently and effectively deploy military forces around the world. When the United States goes to war, DOD’s U.S. Transportation Command moves 90 percent of its cargo requirements with the strategic sealift fleet, which consists of government-owned ships augmented by the commercial U.S.-flagged fleet.”
He then further referenced the GAO report, which identified challenges and possible remedies for sustaining the U.S.- flag fleet and mariner pool for defense needs.
Similarly, Von Ah mentioned a DOT working group that formed to address findings both in the GAO report and other maritime studies. The working group “identified two actions that could help increase the number of U.S.-citizen mariners – one focused specifically on mariners and the other focused more broadly on the merchant marine, which encompasses U.S.-flag vessels and U.S.- citizen mariners,” Von Ah said.
The first of those possible actions would be development by MARAD of a “broad-based reserve program that would identify and support qualified mariners willing to sail in commercial and government- owned vessels during an emergency. MARAD would provide limited financial assistance in training mariners and maintaining credentials, in turn for which mariners who participate would be obligated to sail in the event of a defense need.”
The working group’s second potential recommendation: “The government should fully support programs including MSP, requiring the government to ship certain cargo on U.S-flag vessels, the Jones Act, and government chartering of privately owned vessels. If DOD determines that national needs require more mariners and vessels than can be provided through current programs, those programs should be expanded to meet such needs.”
O’Rourke said that while the “challenge of finding adequate numbers of appropriately trained mariners to crew DOD sealift ships in time of crisis or conflict is a longstanding issue, dating back at least to 1990,” current circumstances “may now be affected by a new factor that relates to the defense of DOD sealift ships in wartime. From 1990 until recently (i.e., during the post-Cold War era), the defense of DOD sealift ships was not a pressing concern. In the new era of renewed major power competition, it has become a concern, given current and potential future Chinese and Russian capabilities for interdicting ships.”