With the threat of international conflict, we must preserve America’s sea bridge

Associated Press

Another European ground war may be brewing. The news abounds with images of U.S. forces arriving to bolster our allies, serving as a sober reminder that such crises are “come-as-you-are events.” Our transportation forces are moving people and material across the globe. Most warfighting equipment, ammunition, fuel and food travels by sea. If hostilities were to continue beyond a week, we must establish and maintain a sea bridge to transport 90 percent of the cargo needed for a military campaign. 

This is no small task. It is done by calling upon ships manned almost entirely by civilian mariners. The bulk of those mariners are graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), whose sworn legal obligation commits them to serve as Strategic Sealift Officers (SSO). This essential sea bridge, and the manpower that runs it, are in jeopardy today because of political expediency and bureaucratic malpractice, a dangerous Washington toxin. 

In peace and war, the nation’s five service academies continue to produce more than 3,000 junior military officers annually to adequately prepare to defend our national interests. Fully one-quarter of USMMA midshipmen are aboard scores of merchant ships at any one time, as they accrue at-sea training that qualifies them to serve as shipboard officers immediately upon graduation. 

The Department of Transportation instituted what was to be a one-month pause in the vital sea year training aboard the U.S. merchant fleet, prompted by a despicable sexual assault of a USMMA midshipman by a civilian crew member some 18 months ago. Make no mistake: Sexual assault and sexual harassment crimes are intolerable and should be investigated and prosecuted.  However, the “pause” effectively has become a “halt,” with no end in sight, and that has placed the nation’s sea bridge in jeopardy. 

Bureaucrats with little understanding of the strategic implications of curtailing fundamental training have threatened the very existence of the academy and its mission. The classes of 2023 and 2024 should be developing their know-how to serve as licensed deck officers and engineers through Sea year. Instead, they are awaiting orders in their living rooms while the clock ticks. The increasing backlog of unmet sea time will create insurmountable burdens on subsequent classes to graduate if the Sea Year does not resume immediately. 

Our ability to maintain a credible sealift capacity during conflict depends entirely upon graduating merchant officers with an obligation to serve as Strategic Sealift Officers. More than 85 percent of these officers graduate from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. No other federal service academy has ever halted its training curriculum. The USMMA must resume.

I write this as a proud graduate, proud parent of a graduate, a naval officer and as the former president of the USMMA National Parents Association. The Academy was born amid the strife of World War II. Kings Pointers proudly served throughout the duration of the war and took their places as shipboard officers upon graduation. Indeed, 142 midshipmen were lost at sea during training. The only federal service academy that permits its students to traverse a war zone is USMMA and a Regimental Battle Standard honors their sacrifice. Kings Pointers have served with distinction ever since, and USMMA midshipmen are no strangers to extreme challenges.

The bulk of Sea Year training takes place aboard military-useful, commercially owned merchant vessels. Companies participating in the Maritime Security Program are obliged to make berths available for USMMA Sea Year training. The Department of Transportation is seeking to negotiate additional safety concessions on dozens of shipping companies to provide a safer shipboard environment. These negotiations should be conducted in parallel with the resumption of Sea Year training, or the sea bridge may well be broken beyond repair. The best reform made to date is empowering the Coast Guard with the authority to pursue legal remedies and prosecute sexual predators. Industry leaders agree this is the most effective step to end such crimes — not sidelining the hundreds of men and women for their legally-required training to serve the nation.

Halting Sea Year training is detrimental to national security. Members of Congress who have nominated young men and women to the USMMA to serve as the next generation of mariners should be alarmed. Congress and the Biden administration must return our midshipmen to Sea Year immediately and let the USMMA continue to support our nation.

Thomas Wesley is a former aviator in the U.S. Navy, an alumni of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) and past president of USMMA National Parents Association.

Tags merchant mariners Russia-Ukraine conflict

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