Weighing the potential long-range effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. security, two maritime experts said the country desperately needs to bolster its commercial fleet and the corresponding manpower pool.
U.S. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby and Navy League of the United States National Vice President for Legislative Affairs Jonathan Kaskin both emphasized those goals during a mid-July online event named “NatSec 2020: Coronavirus and Beyond,” cosponsored by the Navy League, the Association of the United States Army, and Government Matters (a multi-platform news program). The sessions examined “the long-term impact of the pandemic on the business of government in the national security community.”
Kaskin said the U.S. especially needs greater sealift capacity and additional tankers in an era of “great power competition,” especially for a potential conflict in the Pacific.
The former Navy logistics officer stated, “We in the Navy League would like to advocate for a much larger U.S. Merchant Marine in order to support the tenets of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, which says that we should have a [merchant] fleet large enough to support not only our domestic trade but a portion of our international trade to be able to maintain our commerce at all time in peace and war. I don’t think we have adequate capability in both areas right now.”
He added that the “fleet itself just needs to grow.”
Buzby, former commander of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, agreed.
“We need more ships,” he said, adding that a strong case may be made for adding upwards of 50 more vessels.
The maritime administrator also called attention to a shortage of civilian mariners that threatens the nation’s ability to successfully executive a sustained sealift operation. Partly with that in mind, he said the country would benefit from an increase in commercial vessels rather than reserve-status ships (since the vessels themselves would have greater readiness and in turn would facilitate larger numbers of trained crews).
Kaskin advocated expansion of the U.S. Maritime Security Program and also supported an administration proposal to create a similar structure for tankers. He said only a half-dozen American-flag internationally-trading tankers are available for use by the military, and three of those are already leased by the Navy for current operations.
“The requirement that U.S. Transportation Command has shown – and earlier studies have shown – is that we need more than 78 tankers,” he said. “Adding 10 is not going to be sufficient. So, what we really need to do is find ways of utilizing the tankers that we have in the domestic fleet – the Jones Act [ships] – to be able to support wartime operations.”