Gen. McDew Underscores Need for U.S. Crews, Pro-Maritime Laws
The commanding officer of the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) once again has forcefully spoken out about the crucial need to maintain a strong U.S. Merchant Marine.
Gen. Darren McDew testified April 10 during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was the lone panelist for the session titled, “Posture of the United States Transportation Command.”
A consistently outspoken advocate of the American maritime industry, McDew told the committee that the nation depends on strong, reliable, U.S.-flag sealift capability and U.S. crews. He described the need to maintain a modern American-flag fleet and emphasized concerns about the gradual reduction that has taken place with the shipboard manpower pool.
“When the United States goes to war, USTRANSCOM moves 90 percent of its cargo requirements with the strategic sealift fleet, which consists of government-owned ships augmented by the commercial U.S.-flagged fleet,” McDew stated. “The ability to deploy a decisive force is foundational to the National Defense Strategy, as the size and lethality of the force is of little consequence if we are unable to project power in the pursuit of national objectives. Therefore, the readiness of the entire strategic sealift portfolio, both organic and commercial, remains the top priority for USTRANSCOM.”
He continued, “USTRANSCOM’s Navy component, Military Sealift Command (MSC), controls the organic strategic sealift ships that deliver logistics and humanitarian relief, move military equipment, supply combat forces, and forward-position combat cargo around the world. MSC also assumes operational command of the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force (RRF) ships during periods of activation. However, our organic sealift capabilities will degrade rapidly over the coming years if we fail to pursue a responsible recapitalization strategy.… USTRANSCOM is working with the Navy on a comprehensive recapitalization plan which includes acquiring used vessels, extending the service life of able vessels, and building new ships – all three of which are required to stabilize the fleet.”
The general said that the aging fleet, coupled with a reduction in U.S.-flag vessels and a corresponding decrease of available mariners “threatens our ability to meet national security requirements.” He added that if those trends continue, the U.S. could eventually be forced to rely on foreign-flag vessels for sustainment in a mission on the scale of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
McDew further pointed out that during Desert Storm, 13 foreign-flag ships that were hired to carry materiel to American troops “declined to enter the area of operations, while U.S.-flagged vessels provided steadfast support.”
The general then spoke in support of the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP) and explained how the Jones Act and cargo preference laws “are intended to ensure a baseline of ongoing business to support our inter-coastal shipping capacity and maintain a market for U.S. industrial shipyard infrastructure to build, repair, and overhaul U.S. vessels.”
He described the U.S.-flag commercial fleet as “vital to the Joint Force’s ability to accomplish its mission.”
Moreover, the general pointed out that the MSP and its related Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) “has proven a cost-effective means to assure access to sealift capability, capacity, and worldwide networks…. The MSP provides an intermodal and logistics capability outside of the [Defense Department] portfolio that would be cost prohibitive to replicate. MSP assures access to 60 militarily useful vessels, the mariners who crew those ships, and commercial carriers’ global networks and infrastructure. Without this program, DOD’s asymmetric advantage in logistics would be put at significant risk as many of the vessels currently in the program would reflag under foreign flags and no longer participate in VISA. In this scenario, DOD would be forced to augment organic capacity with foreign-flagged vessels to deploy and sustain the Joint Force.”
Turning to the area of manpower, McDew said USTRANSCOM is “concerned” about a decline in numbers. Further reduction would “put at risk our ability to surge forces overseas and sustain a protracted conflict with U.S. Mariners. Although the qualified mariner labor pool industry-wide is adequate to support a surge requirement today, a protracted need for mariners would stress the labor pool beyond acceptable risk.”
He said the Defense Department and Transportation Department “must seek innovative ways to recruit and retain sufficient mariners to sustain sealift operations across the full spectrum of conflict. A healthy and viable U.S.-flagged fleet remains the foundation for a suitable U.S. Merchant Mariner pool.”