The Fourth Arm of Defense: The U.S. Merchant Marine

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Published Jun 27, 2021 5:37 PM by CIMSEC

[By James Caponiti]

From its earliest days when the American colonies were dependent on trade with Europe, the United States has been reliant on merchant shipping. During the fight for independence beginning in 1775, an effective American strategy was to arm merchant ships to disrupt the British supply chain of ships along the eastern seaboard and across the Atlantic Ocean. In this way, the U.S. Merchant Marine’s vital role of support in wartime predates both the United States Coast Guard (1790) and the United States Navy (1797). As another measure of its importance, the development and passage of laws related to maritime issues and the merchant fleet were among the early priorities of the newly formed Congress.

The United States benefits economically and strategically from an abundance of ocean coastline and internal rivers and lakes, and U.S. citizen merchant mariners navigate, maintain, and work on the ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, and other vessels that provide service in associated waterborne trades. U.S. mariners are expertly trained and perform their respective shipboard tasks to the highest of standards anywhere in the world. The adequacy and viability of a qualified pool of citizen mariners is distinguishable from many other civil occupations since it is critical to U.S. national security and to America’s ability to project power.

Though it is fundamentally a commercial enterprise, the U.S. Merchant Marine has proven throughout history its capability to serve as an auxiliary to the Navy. The often overlooked “fourth arm of defense,” [along with the Navy, Army, and Air Force] as described by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the U.S. Merchant Marine and American seafarers have been called upon repeatedly to deliver U.S. military personnel and materiel to areas of conflict or emergency. 

Perhaps most notably, the U.S. Merchant Marine and civilian merchant mariners were integral to the Allied Forces’ victory in World War II, delivering nearly 270 billion long tons of cargo in support of the war while risking their lives in the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All told, 733 American cargo ships were lost during World War II. Though U.S. Government records management for merchant mariners failed to match the precision applied to the other services, it is widely held that proportionately, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered a higher fatality rate during World War II than any of the Armed Forces. According to the 1946 Report of the War Shipping Administration “Up to V-J Day, 5,638 merchant seamen and officers are dead and missing; 581 were made prisoners of war.”

The U.S. Merchant Marine has continued to demonstrate its value as a strategic resource into the 21st Century and beyond providing worldwide shipping facilities and support to the Department of Defense (DOD) and to essential foreign assistance programs, such as waterborne response related to domestic and international disaster recovery operations. U.S.-flag industry sealift missions in support of U.S. military operations throughout recent decades have been historically efficient, especially its ability to deliver more than 90 percent of all cargoes bound to and from Afghanistan and Iraq during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. 

U.S.-flag ships have also supported months-long U.S. Gulf of Mexico recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, have responded to the devastating 2010 earthquake destruction in Haiti in 2010, and have bolstered federal and state recovery efforts in the New York/New Jersey area following destruction to that region as a consequence of Hurricane Sandy. Sadly, few Americans will forget the evacuation of New York City on 9-11 and the selfless acts of U.S. mariners and private sector companies to evacuate citizens from lower Manhattan – the largest and safest evacuation of citizens in U.S. history.

It is important to note that U.S.-flag capability brought to bear in the wartime and hurricane missions noted above included both U.S. Government-owned sealift vessels and privately-owned commercial ships. However, the same single pool of trained and qualified civilian mariners is called upon during emergencies to crew government ships, the majority of which are idle and maintained in readiness prior to activation—all while simultaneously meeting service requirements in U.S.-flag commercial trades.

The availability of a trained and qualified mariner pool sufficient to support the activation and operation of the U.S. Government’s surge sealift assets is a key element of U.S. strategy and planning. This organic lift includes the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force (RRF) which currently numbers 41 ships and the Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) 19 Large Medium-Speed Roll-on Roll-off ships (LMSRs). These vessels are maintained by commercial ship managers in prescribed levels of readiness and outported in reduced operating status (ROS) in commercial berths or in government facilities, available to be activated when crises arise. To promote readiness and to enable rapid transition to operational capability, ROS vessels are partially crewed while idle. Once activated and fully crewed, all of these assets, RRF and LMSR alike, fall under MSC’s operational control. The surge sealift capabilities comprised from these vessels enable deployment of combat forces in the early stages of a conflict. Of course, the vessels themselves are essentially useless without trained civilian crews to maintain and operate them.

The government relies on a partnership with U.S.-flag operators and maritime labor organizations to assure access to commercial sealift capability and civilian merchant mariners. The framework through which this is possible is the Maritime Security Program (MSP) and its companion program, the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). These programs are administered jointly by MARAD, an agency within the Department of Transportation, and DOD’s United States Transportation Command. With MSP funding, the Government leverages a relatively small investment, $314 million for fiscal year 2021, and $318 million annually for fiscal years 2022 through 2025 for 60 ships of diverse capability, gaining assured access to militarily useful ships and related intermodal transportation networks. 

The investment also works to ensure the continued viability of both a U.S.-flag fleet engaged in international trade and the pool of seafarers to crew those vessels. Without a viable U.S.-flag commercial fleet, and the American merchant mariners this fleet supports, the United States would be unable to deploy and effectively sustain its military forces on a global basis.

The government / private industry partnership itself is unique, and it entails peacetime planning and an operational relationship through peacetime service contracts. The U.S. companies enrolled in MSP/VISA agreements are required to be managed by U.S. citizens, and those companies with a foreign parent are required to execute security agreements that protect the rights and interests of the United States. The companies have the equivalent of a “secret” clearance enabling participation in joint planning and operational exercises with U.S. military commands in a secure environment at regular intervals.

MSP is approaching the end of its third 10-year authorization cycle, and the program has been authorized for a fourth time through Fiscal Year 2035. Given the austere fiscal environment facing DOD and every other executive agency from time-to-time, it is important to note from a budgetary standpoint that the fleet of vessels and infrastructure available for military missions through the MSP is capitalized and recapitalized solely through the private investment of the owners and operators of enrolled vessels.

The current annual taxpayer investment in MSP is modest when compared to an alternative scenario that would call for the Government to acquire, operate, and maintain equivalent sealift capabilities on its own. Accordingly, to assess the cost effectiveness of the MSP, it is important to understand this huge cost avoidance at the same time one evaluates the cost of Government programs and policies that support the U.S. Merchant Marine to achieve national sealift objectives. For example, the cost of MSP operating agreements during the program’s first 15 years were less than $1.9 billion; meanwhile the U.S. government benefitted by saving nearly $70 billion in other costs that would have been incurred for equal readiness. 

Perhaps the largest bargain gained from the government’s maritime investment lies in sustaining jobs on U.S.-flag ships, benefitting America economically as a large international trading power while also ensuring that the country has the readily available pool of trained and qualified citizen seafarers on which the nation relies to provide sealift during emergencies. 

A fundamental element of U.S. maritime legislative policy is — and has been — that “vessels of the merchant marine should be operated by highly trained and efficient citizens of the United States.” Of course, the application of this principle is especially true with respect to developing and maintaining the nation’s military sealift capability. Military planners understand that America’s security is best protected when the country relies on a commercial shipping industry domiciled in the United States, employing U.S. citizens both at sea and ashore, and subject to U.S. laws and regulations.

The statutory requirement for U.S.-flag vessels to be crewed by Americans is enforced by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). There are two general categories, licensed (officers) and unlicensed (non-officers, sometimes referred to as “ratings”). Only U.S. citizens and aliens lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence may be issued a USCG credential. All licensed officers must be U.S. citizens, and only 25 percent of the unlicensed crew on board each vessel may be aliens lawfully admitted to the United States. U.S. mariners are issued licenses and credentials based on their training and experience, and U.S. standards and the level of enforcement are considered by observers to be the most stringent in the international community.

The United States has been able to respond to crises and support military operations in recent decades because its U.S.-flag maritime industry was sufficiently sized to do so. Likewise, U.S. sealift strategy calling first for the deployment of government-owned surge assets followed by the use of commercially sourced ships for the longer sustainment phase of missions has been very effective. As explained earlier, the critical component of this strategy has been maintaining a pool of qualified oceangoing U.S. mariners adequate enough to crew the government’s surge ships when necessary without disrupting commercial crewing requirements. However, recent trends could cause concern among military planners and industry officials with respect to the availability of U.S. mariners to meet surge and sustainment requirements for the duration of a conflict in the future.

The pool of U.S. mariners available to crew government ships when activated has declined over the last decade, creating the distinct likelihood that America’s national security could be adversely impacted in the near future if the trend continues. Much of this decline stems from the fact that it is increasingly difficult for U.S.-flag ships to compete in international commerce against heavily subsidized foreign flag vessels, many of which operate in a tax-free environment.

Competition in global shipping is fierce and survival depends on many factors. Quality of service can eclipse cost to a degree, but much of the market is driven by carriers adhering to a minimum level of compliance with international safety and environmental standards while employing mariners from underdeveloped countries, all to minimize cost. Much of this occurs within open registries which account for more than half the ships in the world’s commercial trading fleet. Competitive pressures have been magnified in recent years by the economic crisis worldwide and by an oversupply of shipping tonnage. The result has been a loss of U.S.-flag oceangoing tonnage and related afloat jobs. This is partly because federal programs designed to support the maritime industry have been reduced in some instances while others have failed to keep pace with rapidly changing national and international factors affecting shipping conditions and economics.

Other issues have further impacted the mariner pool. The loss of shipboard billets when U.S.-flag ships leave commercial service has a compounding effect on the mariner pool since each billet supports roughly two individuals when vacations, training, and other time spent on shore are taken into account. The loss of billets also negatively affects the ability to recruit and develop new mariners to grow the manpower pool. International and domestic regulatory rules limit mariners’ ability to maintain and upgrade their seafaring credentials without possessing sufficient sea time and without meeting recency of service requirements. For example, a mariner might require specific training to update practical experience in technical skills before being allowed to volunteer for an emergency sealift billet during a contingency.

A primary element of DOD’s sealift planning framework are manpower exercises that focus on and test proficiency in the timely recruitment of qualified personnel necessary to crew organic government assets to meet emergency activation requirements. MARAD and MSC place a high priority on working with carriers and labor unions to identify, contact, and prepare qualified mariners leading up to and during emergencies. MARAD has developed and maintains a Mariner Outreach System with the cooperation of willing mariners to maintain and update contact information and current USCG qualifications. 

Notwithstanding the willingness of U.S. mariners to maintain their qualifications and stand ready to sail – for any reason – into harm’s way, the retention of mariners in the workforce is a growing problem. This problem exists not only in the United States but globally, especially among mariners in developed economies. For more than a decade, there have been concerns about a global shortage of qualified seafarers and the reasons are numerous and varied. It is a difficult and often dangerous occupation that, for many, is arduous to endure long term. 

Time away from family is probably the most prominent downside for individuals sailing far from home. In the modern age of containerization, expedited cargo handling, and sophisticated shipboard technology the job is more intense than ever. Expectations and communications from management are endless, which can impact mariners during working shifts and beyond. The sense of adventure once associated with going to sea has eroded significantly. A mariner today gets only a limited dose of “seeing the world.” 

Turnaround intervals in ports today are usually numbered in hours – not days – and access to the cities attached to ports of call has been eliminated or minimized at best. Security issues, together with strict limitations on the granting of entry visas by port states, also prominently impact port access. These and other issues cause some mariners entering the workforce to view it as a short term opportunity to make some money rather than as a career.

This is especially true in the United States, where competition from onshore job opportunities is a significant factor that draws mariners away from sailing. The work has always been demanding, but imagine the impact of the ongoing pandemic. New and lasting pressures combine with frequent instances whereby crews remain trapped on board with little certainty of when they can disembark to enjoy families and something approaching normalcy, even as mariners wonder if they can ever forget the risks experienced in close quarters and unknown threats stemming from the virus. 

Due in no small measure to America’s standard of living and the reasonable expectations all American workers, including American mariners, have for a living wage, health and pension benefits, a safe workplace environment, and other employment-related terms and conditions, it is difficult for the U.S.-flag maritime industry to compete in the international cargo markets against foreign flag of convenience vessels and their third world crews. This is why the Federal government has administered and must continue to administer programs to support the industry.

Throughout American history, the one constant has been that a strong commercial maritime capability enhances national security. This is as true today as ever. The Maritime Security Program remains the most important of the federal programs that assist U.S.-flag ships in foreign trade, and it should be supported, fully funded, and modified as necessary to keep pace with economic conditions affecting U.S.-flag shipping. The government also administers a framework of cargo preference programs designed to provide access to military and civilian government-impelled cargoes. Especially with respect to food assistance, certain of those programs should be expanded to promote global peace and stability. In any case, authorizing statutes and programs should be supported by all Federal agencies to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent at least in part to enable U.S.-flag shipping and not spent in their entirety to rely on foreign-flag shipping and foreign crews. Finally, the domestic shipping statutes commonly referred to as the Jones Act should be retained to sustain the commercial shipping base that helps support the civilian manpower pool needed to meet defense requirements.

Ocean-borne transport is largely taken for granted by the American public. It is predominantly about freight, and therefore essentially invisible to most citizens, who view the television in their living room as having come from Walmart instead of from Asia. The United States remains the largest trading nation in the world based on exports and imports of goods and services. Yet only about four percent of U.S. foreign trade is carried on U.S.-flag ships. The benefits of maintaining a strong maritime industry does not naturally resonate with citizens, so the shipping industry is trying to raise public awareness to this vital capability. To learn more about the U.S.-flag maritime industry and the benefits it provides, please visit www.americanmaritime.org. 

James Caponiti joined the American Maritime Congress (AMC) in 2011, following 38 years of distinguished service in the Federal Government. He served with the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration for 37 years. He is a recipient of the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award and the Distinguished Rank Award, the highest Civil Service awards for Senior Executives. Mr. Caponiti also served as Chairman of NATO’s Planning Board for Ocean Shipping for 14 years, responsible for developing and maintaining plans for civil shipping support to deploy NATO military forces during times of crisis and war. 

AMC is a research and educational organization dedicated to informing the public, media, and government officials on policy and issues affecting the U.S.-flag merchant marine and the maritime industry.

This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.