The head of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) thoroughly understands the challenges facing America’s maritime industry, but remains optimistic about its future.
Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby delivered that message Feb. 21 as the first guest speaker to address the MTD executive board this year.
The setting was nothing new for the retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, who formerly served as commanding officer of the U.S. Military Sealift Command. As Buzby appreciatively pointed out, he has been attending MTD meetings for a decade.
“I’m very sincere when I say how much I’ve enjoyed working with and getting to know the leadership of the MTD over the years,” he said. “We have a level of trust that allows for some very frank discussions, and I think that’s for the benefit of all of us. Your executive committee provides an incalculable service to the maritime industry ashore and to the merchant marine afloat, promoting not only a comprehensive legislative agenda but, perhaps more importantly, educating the congress, the administration, the international community and the American public about a vitally important industry.”
He reiterated the unwavering support of his boss, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, another longtime friend of the SIU.
Buzby detailed many of the obstacles the industry is dealing with, including a manpower shortage and an urgent need to recapitalize the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) vessels and other sealift ships. Nevertheless, he stated, “I really am optimistic. We’re making some real headway in getting our merchant marine strengthened. All of my energy and focus and that of my staff is to ensure that the U.S. Merchant Marine continues to move forward – that our story is told forcefully and truthfully. I can also promise that we’ll continue to work shoulder to shoulder with all of you for the benefit of our mariners, because it’s our mariners who often are taken for granted and are the key to our nation’s sealift.”
He pointed out that the industry “did pretty well” in the recent appropriations bill, which included full funding for the Maritime Security Program and a boost for the RRF, among other positive outcomes.
“I attribute our success this year to the great working relationships we have with labor and with all the facets of the maritime industry, and certainly key members of Congress who understand the importance of a strong maritime sector,” Buzby said, adding that the industry enjoys bipartisan backing.
Specifically discussing the ages of various U.S.-flag military support ships, Buzby described the RRF as “a key part of TRANSCOM’s ability to execute its wartime mission of deploying and sustaining our nation’s combat forces. The Navy’s plan to recapitalize that force of 46 ships plus 15 sealift ships that MSC runs is gaining some headway. Congress gets it; they’re pushing hard. They want it to happen faster. We’ve had several members of Congress down on the ships to talk to our mariners and hear firsthand the challenges they have with maintaining these 44-and-a-half-year-old average-age ships. These are the ships we are going to depend on to move our armed forces overseas in a crisis or national emergency, and we have to be able to depend on them.”
He also said RRF ships, most with SIU crews, in the last three years have been activated and used more than during any other peacetime stretch.
Buzby has spent lots of time visiting vessels in the past year. Reflecting on those trips and interactions, he said. “A real bright spot in all this work that’s being done to maintain these ships is our mariners. They are doing a tremendous job. They totally understand the role they play in national security. They know that when they go out there and tear a pump apart or chip rust on deck to make sure that ship is ready to go, they are actually making a vital contribution to our nation’s security, should the call come – and it will come at some point…. They work their butts off. Their spirit is good, and there are smiles on their faces, and they understand the importance of what it is they do, and are happy to be doing it. I don’t think that’s something that’s unique to the RRF crews. Talk to our MSP mariners, talk to our Jones Act mariners, they get it, too. They understand how it’s all part of the web that is our maritime industry that is so vital both to our national and economic security.”
The maritime administrator also said that the industry must continue defending the Jones Act, which faces a “recent heightened level of organized attacks…. We’re fighting at MARAD, and Secretary Chao has been tenacious in defending the Jones Act. There is no wavering in her at all…. The Jones Act is a bedrock, foundational piece of legislation for our industry.”
He added, “I think Congress, by and large, is behind us. Everyone that I’ve spoken with is for it and understands it. There are a few voices out there that are crying in the wilderness, but we really can’t take that for granted. Clearly, we have to continue to drive home the criticality of the Jones Act, because the Jones Act is jobs. The Jones Act and national security go hand in hand.”