America’s long-awaited national maritime strategy is here – and it supports taking aggressive steps to ensure the ongoing viability of the U.S. Merchant Marine.
The Department of Transportation earlier this year issued the strategic document in the form of a report to Congress titled, “Goals and Objectives for a Stronger Maritime Nation.” As noted on its cover page, the report was developed by the DOT and its Maritime Administration “with interagency engagement through the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System.” Among other declarations and recommendations, the report expresses powerful backing of the Jones Act, the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP), and cargo preference laws. It calls for boosting domestic shipbuilding, repeatedly cites the critical value of merchant mariners, and categorically states the need to recapitalize the Ready Reserve Force (RRF).
Mandated by legislation from 2014, the report establishes four “strategic goals” with 39 “objectives” therein. The goals are to “strengthen U.S. Maritime Capabilities Essential to National Security and Economic Prosperity; Ensure the Availability of a U.S. Maritime Workforce that Will Support the Sea lift Resource Needs of the National Security Strategy; Support Enhancement of U.S. Port Infrastructure and Performance; and, Enable Maritime Industry Innovation in Information, Automation, Safety, Environmental Impact and Other Areas.”
The DOT has committed to the following steps within one year: prioritize the 39 objectives for near, medium and long-term capability; develop an implementation plan for the near-term objectives; consider a timeline for addressing the medium and long-term objectives; and, review and report on regulations that impact the competitiveness of the U.S.-flag fleet.
As noted in the report’s introduction, America’s military sealift capability always has depended on private-sector crews and vessels.
“Privately owned U.S.-flag ships in the international trades, the U.S. mariners they employ, and the U.S. shipyards and port facilities that support and sustain the ships’ operation and maintenance have long been relied upon as primary resources to serve as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency,” the report asserts. “These ships, mariners, and facilities have been integral and essential to the defense of our Nation.”
In that vein, the report later states, “Maritime readiness supports national security and a more resilient economy. DOT strongly supports DOD and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in their missions to protect our citizens and national interests in times of crisis and natural disaster.”
Instructively, the agency cites the historic reliability of U.S. mariners – but warns against any further erosion of the shipboard manpower pool.
“The United States maintains a workforce of highly qualified maritime professionals, reflecting a strong tradition of maritime education and training,” DOT says. “As large U.S. flag commercial vessels have left the fleet and international credentialing and certification requirements have become more stringent and costly, it is possible that the size of the mariner workforce will decline. Any further decline of the mariner workforce increases the risk of not having a sufficient number of mariners with appropriate experience and credentials to support sustained operations of more than six months by the full U.S. Government surge sealift fleet, U.S. Government non-surge fleet, and U.S.-flag commercial fleet during a wartime emergency.”
Later, the report spells out the aforementioned four goals and underlying objectives. That section includes:
Goal 1: Strengthen U.S. Maritime Capabilities Essential to National Security and Economic Prosperity
Objectives for Goal 1:
1.1 Leverage U.S. maritime policies to advance U.S. commercial interests in the global economy.
1.2 Increase the use of U.S.-flagged vessels in domestic energy transportation and international energy markets.
1.3 Develop and expand marine highway service options and facilitate their further integration into the current U.S. surface transportation system through the America’s Marine Highway Program, especially where water-based transport is the most efficient, effective and sustainable option.
1.4 Adapt organizational structures and related authorities, roles, and responsibilities to ensure the sustained ability to monitor the global performance of the U.S.-flagged fleet and the third-party organizations that perform delegated inspection and certification functions on the U.S. Government’s behalf.
1.5 Ensure effective use of third parties for inspection and certification by strengthening third-party oversight, auditing, and integrated risk management.
1.6 Address the challenges of the Arctic’s rapidly changing environment to ensure the safety and security of the U.S. marine transportation system.
1.7 Recapitalize the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) with modern vessels as ships reach the end of their usable lives.
1.8 Improve the capability of U.S.-flag international trading vessels to better align with DOD and DOT sealift requirements through a combination of MSP funding, MSC chartering, enforcement of preference cargo requirements, regulatory reform and policy, and incentives to reduce vessel operating costs.
1.9 Examine new ways to support shipbuilding and repair facilities, and increase U.S. coastwise trade for eligible U.S.-flag vessels.
1.10 Enhance the U.S. shipyard base by fostering support for shipyard modernization and innovation, and promoting use of the Capital Construction Fund (CCF) and Construction Reserve Fund (CRF) programs.
Goal 2: Ensure the Availability of a U.S. Maritime Workforce that Will Support the Sealift Resource Needs of the National Security Strategy
Objectives for Goal 2:
2.1 Attract and equip mariners and other maritime workers with skills needed to support the Nation’s sealift and economic needs.
2.2 Develop an accurate roster of sealift-qualified mariner volunteers.
2.3 Foster innovation in maritime education and training….
2.9 Support the training and education of unlicensed mariners (ratings) using domestic Centers of Maritime Excellence.
2.10 Incentivize the qualification of steam engineers to assure an adequate pool to support full RFF activation until full RRF recapitalization is achieved.
2.11 Engage with community colleges, K-12 schools, and non-SMA training institutions to promote the development of future mariners and other skilled maritime workers.
2.12 Work with interagency partners to improve credentialing processes for mariners, shipyard workers, port workers, and transitioning veterans.
Before the report was finalized, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a related document explaining the background of the maritime policy mandate (and offering candid looks at why the report was delayed). In the course of its own reporting, the GAO underscored the importance of the Jones Act, pointing out that one purpose of the nation’s freight cabotage law “is to provide the nation with a strong domestic maritime industry that can serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency.” Modifying or repealing the law would cripple the industry, according the Jones Act supporters, and while the GAO didn’t phrase the point as strongly, it did acknowledge that such steps would “affect the reliability of the industry and have a negative effect on the U.S.-flag maritime industry and national security.” Later, the GAO indirectly quoted Defense officials who cited the need for more U.S.-flag tankers, partly because “access to allied foreign-flag petroleum tankers is increasingly uncertain in the current geo-political environment.”