Most of us observe Memorial Day as a time to honor those who dedicated their lives to serving in our Armed Forces, but in the maritime community, we also reflect on the importance of our merchant fleet and remember the thousands of mariners who died in service to our nation.
Many Americans are unfamiliar with the work of the merchant marine or the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, but it is worth remembering their contributions to our nation’s prosperity and security. Merchant mariners have served this nation in every war since 1776, with over 11,000 killed in the Revolutionary War and over 7,000 killed in World War II. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is the only one of the five service academies that carries a battle standard, in recognition of the 142 cadets who made the ultimate sacrifice while training at sea as part of their studies.
As the former head of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), I am marking this year’s Memorial Day by calling attention to three troubling deficits in today’s Merchant Marine: the age of our government fleet, the number of U.S.-flagged vessels eligible for wartime service and the shortage of qualified mariners. With tensions running high in both the Persian Gulf and off the Korean Peninsula, the need to address this vulnerability is becoming increasingly urgent.
Many people assume in wartime that the Navy is responsible for moving tanks, ammunition and supplies. This is not the case. This vital job falls on the shoulders of the Merchant Marine, a fleet of dozens of commercial and government ships that can be tapped in a moment’s notice.
In times of conflict, these vessels are crewed by licensed American mariners, many of whom currently work in the private economy but are obligated to serve their country when called.
The ships in the government’s “Ready Reserve Force” of 46 vessels (average age 44 years old) do not “rest easy;” they need a lot of regular, time-consuming maintenance, but must still be ready to go in five days to move U.S.-based forces overseas in a major conflict.
The Ready Reserve Force is complemented by 15 Military Sealift Command vessels and 60 commercial vessels participating in the Maritime Security Program. These U.S.-flag commercial vessels augment the capabilities of the government’s fleet and deliver supplies and equipment to deployed forces overseas during an extended conflict. They are manned exclusively by American mariners, many of them members of the US Naval Reserve Strategic Sealift Officers force. The problem, however, is that the number of U.S.-flag vessels has shrunk to its lowest point ever, undermining the nation’s ability to move troops and sustain our forces during a long war.
MARAD has been working with the Navy and the Transportation Command to develop ways to acquire the sealift capability that the nation needs.
The good news is that Congress understands the severity of the problem and members of both parties are listening to the experts.
Maritime leaders are lining up behind a modernization plan that has three planks. The first is for several existing ships to receive service life extensions and upgraded systems to enable them to remain in the fleet until they are 60 years old. Second, we must buy newer ships on the open market and modify them to be more militarily useful. Those vessels would replace some of the older platforms in the Ready Reserve Force, including steam-powered ships. Finally – and there’s no getting around it – we need to build a few new ships.
Nobody wants to think about the next major war, but our nation must understand that we cannot win without our logistical backbone, the U.S. Merchant Marine. Our adversaries know this and on this Memorial Day, it is my hope that we turn our full attention to this vital national security need.
Capt. Shubert is a former maritime administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD).