A recent hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives featured candid discussion about challenges facing the maritime industry, and also emphasized the critical need for a strong U.S. Merchant Marine.
Two individuals testified at the March 31 gathering, conducted by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Seapower and Projection Forces: U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commanding officer of the United States Transportation Command (TRANSCOM); and Acting U.S. Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley.
Titled “Posture and Readiness of the Mobility Enterprise,” the hearing featured strong words of support for U.S. mariners, not just from the panelists but also from legislators.
Chairman Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut), after pointing out that U.S. “mobility forces” already had conducted more than 200 missions “in support of the effort to deliver weapons and supplies to the brave people fighting in Ukraine” expressed wide-ranging distress about sustaining the ability to execute such missions.
“Today, the ships and aircraft that comprise our sealift and airlift capabilities are challenged by readiness shortfalls, obsolescence, and an evolving threat landscape,” he said. “Congress has acted on a bipartisan basis to address some of these issues….”
For example, Courtney commended the recent securing of full authorization for the Tanker Security Program (TSP).
Courtney also said he remains “very concerned about the path forward on recapitalizing our sealift fleet. In just a decade, nearly threequarters of our fleet will reach the end of their service life…. I remain firmly committed to the three-pronged strategy of cost-effective life extensions for current ships, the procurement of a discrete number of used ships and the start of a domestic new-build effort…. We will continue to look at an ‘all of the above plan’ for sealift, rather than the either-or choice between used or new ships.”
Ranking Member Rob Wittman (R-Virginia) said of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “If there is anything in this war that we can use as a lesson learned, it is the value of our logistics forces and their need to keep pace with the combat forces…. I would propose a strategy that expands our Tanker Security Program; that ensures our intra-theater connector strategy is coupled with a prepositioned force appropriate for the Pacific distances our forces will be required to traverse; that has adequate surge sealift forces; and, that has adequate bulk fuel stores positioned at the correct locations….”
Van Ovost stressed the military’s reliance on “our commercial industry partners” to help ensure ongoing readiness. She said the country’s ability to “project and sustain military forces anywhere on the globe at a time and place of our nation’s choosing … could not happen without our total force and civilian personnel, who are critical to our daily capacity and ability to seamlessly transition to a wartime footing. The DOD’s ability to project military forces is inextricably linked to commercial industry. These industry partners provide critical transportation capacity and global networks to meet day-to-day and wartime requirements.”
Emphasizing those points, the general added, “During times of war, 90% of our personnel are transported via commercially contracted air and 90% of our military cargo is transported by sealift vessels.”
Van Ovost also said recapitalizing the sealift fleet must be a top priority.
“By 2032, approximately 70% of government- owned surge sealift ships will approach the end of their service life and must be replaced,” she stated. “DOD, DOT, U.S. Navy and TRANSCOM made initial progress in executing the strategy to recapitalize the fleet with used sealift ships from the commercial market and are working through the process of the initial purchases. The Vessel Acquisition Manager will also survey additional ships authorized for purchase in FY22. These first ships are a welcome beginning to the recapitalization of vital square footage and capacity.”
Lessley described many of the laws and programs that help maintain the U.S. maritime industry and then pointed out, “These programs are sustained by a strong and highly qualified U.S. Merchant Marine and shoreside personnel. As they always have during times of crisis in our nation’s history, U.S. Merchant Mariners and other critical transportation infrastructure workers – including longshore workers, truckers, rail workers, and warehouse workers – have gone above and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the effective operation of our maritime transportation system and our intermodal supply chains. These essential workers have moved record volumes of cargo often at great personal risk, and we remember their heroic efforts and sacrifices during the COVID- 19 pandemic.”
Like other speakers, Lessley also described challenges to the nation’s strategic sealift capability, which she said includes “an aging fleet, operations in increasingly contested environments, a shortage of available mariners, and unprecedented readiness challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
She pointed out, for instance, that the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) consists of just 41 government- owned vessels. “This is nearly the smallest the RRF has been since inception and provides only a fraction of the sealift needed by the DOD,” she said.
Lessley added, “Due to the declining number of ships in the U.S.-flag oceangoing fleet, MARAD is concerned about our ability to quickly assemble an adequate number of qualified mariners to operate large ships for surge and sustainment sealift operations if an extended mobilization were to occur.”
She then explained some of the steps the agency is taking for potential mitigation.