A recent hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives focused on national defense capabilities, prominently including the crucial need for a strong U.S. Merchant Marine.
Jointly hosted by two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee (Readiness, and Seapower and Projection Forces), the hearing took place March 28. It featured testimony from Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commanding officer of the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), and from Maritime Administrator Ann Phillips.
Also weighing in with their support for American mariners and the U.S.-flag fleet were (among others) U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Florida), chairman of the Subcommittee on Readiness; and U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi), chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
The hearing featured candid dialogue about the challenges facing not only the maritime industry but other components of the nation’s readiness systems.
Waltz stated, “Recapitalization of our sealift fleet that we will rely on to carry ground platforms and materiel into theater is a pressing issue. Crewing these vessels is also of great concern. We have a significant shortage of credentialed mariners that, combined with poor vessel state, have resulted in less than impressive readiness rates during recent exercises.
“We will also rely on this same pool of credentialed mariners to crew commercial vessels in the Maritime Security Program and the Tanker Security Program,” he continued. “We have a tough road ahead and I look forward to hearing how MARAD plans to administer these important programs and bolster the number of credentialed mariners.”
Kelly noted, “I remain concerned with our aging sealift and air refueling fleet. This year’s budget includes money to purchase two additional sealift assets, but the fleet remains on average too old…. MARAD is also an organization punching above its weight. We are happy with the success of the Tanker Security Program and would like to hear your thoughts on increasing capacity…. Finally, I’m concerned with merchant mariner readiness and how we can increase the pool of credentialed mariners.”
Van Ovost offered a comprehensive review of USTRANSCOM’s responsibilities and explained some of the threats facing the United States. She said that President Biden’s official National Security Strategy “makes clear that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia are working aggressively to undermine democracy and export a model of governance marked by repression at home and coercion abroad. In their own ways, both seek to erode the legitimacy of established international norms and laws that have persisted for almost a century. Geopolitically, the PRC remains our most consequential pacing challenge; followed closely by Russia, an acute threat. Other persistent threats including North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations are developing or acquiring new capabilities and pursuing strategies that could challenge our ability to deploy and sustain the Joint Force.
“The Department of Defense’s ability to project military forces is inextricably linked to commercial industry,” she added. “Our industry partners provide critical transportation capacity and global networks to meet day-to-day and wartime requirements. Sealift is vital to delivering the decisive force. In wartime, 90 percent of military cargo will be transported via sealift.”
She then explained that there are concerns about the ages of many vessels in the Ready Reserve Force (RRF).
“Therefore, USTRANSCOM supports the Navy’s strategy to recapitalize the government- owned fleet by acquiring foreign-built used sealift ships from the commercial market and further requests to provide the Secretary of Defense discretionary authority to purchase foreign-built ships to expeditiously replace the aging ships under more favorable market conditions,” Van Ovost said. “This includes removing the overall limit on the number of used sealift vessels DOD can procure, currently authorized at nine ships. We are already a generation late in recapitalizing a ready sealift fleet to meet our national objectives.”
The general spelled out various steps her agency and MARAD have taken to bolster U.S. sealift capability, including vessel purchases, implementing the Tanker Security Program and more.
She said that maintaining a sufficient pool of mariners “requires continued assessment to ensure an adequately trained supply to crew our surge fleet while minimizing impacts to commercial industry. The supply of contract mariners is sufficient to meet the initial sealift surge when government reserve ships are activated but will be challenged with the ability to sustain crewing requirements over an extended period. The post-COVID recovery has highlighted significant workforce concerns to maritime stakeholders to include recruiting and retention.”
Phillips touched on components of President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget request that pertain to upgrading the RRF, and why doing so is vital to national security. She noted a plan to grow the fleet from its current number of 45 vessels to 51.
The maritime administrator also underscored the importance of the Maritime Security Program, Cable Ship Security Program, and Tanker Security Program.
Turning to shipboard manpower, she said her agency “is partnering with our stakeholders, both federal and non-federal, to work to identify strategies to help address the mariner shortage and ensure their readiness. Last fall, I hosted a summit with industry and federal stakeholders to discuss the mariner shortfall. Participants identified the need to address barriers to entry in the merchant marine as well as the need to ensure quality of life aboard ships such as ensuring internet connectivity for crew members.
“We also note that the existing Coast Guard licensing system relies on laborintensive paper copies and manual entries and is not set up to provide critical data regarding the number of and availability mariners with various credentials,” she added. “We fully support the Coast Guard’s ongoing efforts to modernize the system to enable efficient issuance of mariner credentials and provide enhanced querying capabilities.”
Phillips stressed the agency’s focus on “supporting our U.S.-flagged fleet through opportunities to carry cargo. As I said last year in testimony before the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, put simply, without cargoes, ships will leave the U.S. flag, and our modest fleet will continue to dwindle…. We are working with the Biden-Harris Administration’s Made In America Office to help agencies understand cargo preference requirements. In addition, I have written to all federal departments and agencies explaining how MARAD can help them ensure they meet their obligations under cargo preference laws and regulations.”