When I and other American Maritime Officers officials and representatives visited government-owned Ready Reserve Force ships in the Northeast and on the West Coast recently, we heard much from many of the officers aboard about troubling conditions on these aging ships – detailed reports on deficiencies affecting everything from maintenance to meals. Each first-person account deepened real concern that the RRF may soon be incapable of its military support mission during national security emergencies.
AMO represents the engine and deck officers on 28 of the 46 RRF ships, but the challenges these AMO members face in their work are not unique to them. Every reserve fleet officer from every union knows it is becoming more and more difficult to keep these ships primed, prepped and ready for breakout. These officers also know the problem is not a lack of motivation or skill on the job, but a lack of funds. Too often, there are no spare dollars for spare parts, and routine maintenance and repairs are delayed routinely. Nor is there enough money to hire additional officers and crewmembers when and where there is verifiable need. Nevertheless, the reserve fleet officers – ever clever and inventive – get it done day-to-day.
The tough irony here is that deferred maintenance and repairs, in dry dock or in port, puts less stress on a threadbare budget temporarily, but postponing extensive, complex projects essential to vessel operation or to the safety of the officers and crew, the cargo and the ship end up costing far more as conditions worsen – the longer the delay, the bigger the bill.
The Ready Reserve Force in fiscal 2017 is budgeted at $274 million, a sum said by many maritime interests to be inadequate at best. The amount is slightly higher than what was appropriated for the RRF in fiscal 2016. For fiscal 2018 next October, the Trump administration proposes $289 million in reserve fleet spending, a figure specified in the Navy's budget request summary. This modest gain would not result in immediate, conspicuous and measurable improvement.
Now the critical question: how much does the government have to spend to begin to restore the reserve fleet? Informed independent analyses put the initial required amount at about $400 million.
Money for the Ready Reserve Force is funneled through the National Defense Sealift Fund, the balance of which was tapped by two other Navy accounts in fiscal 2017. The NDSF supports other sealift programs, research and development, and the National Defense Reserve Fleet, which includes the RRF and a fleet of even older ships kept by the Maritime Administration in deep layup.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has asked Congress for $962 million for the National Defense Sealift Fund in fiscal 2018. In our view, Congress and the administration ought to act quickly and firmly – in advance of Ready Reserve Force budget deliberations – to insulate the NDSF from poaching by other agencies unrelated to sealift strategy.
NDSF money intended for the cobwebbed component of the National Defense Reserve Fleet – ships unlikely to see anymore sea time – can be redirected safely to the RRF, which is held in reduced operating status with limited officer and crew complements, and which is set for activation on five-to-10 days' notice in defense emergencies or for humanitarian aid service.
An additional potential option would be to shift NDSF money intended for research projects that can wait to the RRF. There is nothing theoretical about the Ready Reserve Force, which has confirmed its practical value as a national security asset several times since its launch in 1976.
The President's fiscal 2018 budget proposal includes a call to lift the defense sequester, an artificial, unreasonable spending cap that has complicated military planning since fiscal 2011. This would free up money that could go to the RRF.
The President also seeks a record increase in defense spending, which – given the established reliance on U.S.-flagged cargo ships and civilian American merchant mariners to get U.S. troops from here to there in a conventional war – suggests greater investment in the Ready Reserve Force as smart strategy.
One positive development is already underway. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) will press a fiscal 2018 proposal to "recapitalize the Ready Reserve Force . . . and the Military Sealift Command surge fleet."
The Thornberry initiative would authorize the Department of Defense to purchase cargo ships bumped by age limits from the separate Maritime Security Program and assign these vessels to the RRF. Suitable ships that had not been enrolled in the MSP could be purchased as well. U.S. construction would not be a prerequisite for ship acquisition by DOD for reserve or surge fleet services, but each vessel would have to be available "at a reasonable cost."
Because all of this boils down to bucks, it is worth noting at this point that the federal government cannot match the sealift capacity, the intermodal assets or the logistics support systems provided by the privately owned and operated U.S. merchant fleet and the merchant mariner workforce this fleet sustains, and it would cost the Defense Department multiple billions to attempt it.
In the context of the RRF, it is worth noting as well that the commercial merchant mariner pool – itself in alarming freefall – is the principal source of officers and crews for the reserve fleet. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf from 1990 through 1992, 79 RRF ships managed by private interests under government contracts and staffed by commercial merchant mariners delivered 25 percent of the unit equipment and 45 percent of the ammunition used by U.S. Armed Forces in Kuwait and in Iraq. In Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom, the RRF delivered 25 percent of the initial equipment and supplies, earned a 99 percent reliability rating and operated to varied extent from June 2002 through 2008.
This history and the lessons it provides cannot be ignored. A Ready Reserve Force in steep, steady decline portends a national security crisis – the unimaginable inability to mobilize immediately in defense emergencies. This is not a new issue, but it is growing more urgent.
Paul Doell is the national president of the American Maritime Officers.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.