By Paul Doell
The U.S. Government Accountability Office in August heightened growing concern over the alarming conditions of government-owned standby cargo ships intended for surge sealift service in national security emergencies.
In a report to the Department of Defense and key Congressional committees, the GAO echoed widespread fears that the Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Force and Military Sealift Command's surge sealift fleet could soon be incapable of their wartime missions.
"MSC's and MARAD's reserve fleets are collectively referred to as the surge sealift fleet and are expected to be a ready source of shipping and provide millions of square feet of cargo carrying capacity to transport Army, Marine Corps and other force equipment and supplies," the GAO report said. "However, the surge sealift fleet is aging, and some of its ships are more than 50 years old, raising questions about the fleet's readiness to respond if it is called to support a major contingency."
Addressing the ship age factor specifically, the GAO warned that the number of RRF and MSC surge fleet vessels withdrawn from service at the end of their "programmed service lives" in the next 10 years "will reduce sealift capacity by over 25 percent."
The GAO also cited shipboard equipment failures, deferred maintenance and discouraging results of activation exercises as chronic deficiencies threatening the ability of the RRF and MSC surge fleets to deliver military cargoes to U.S. Armed Forces overseas. The agency's report did not attribute these difficulties to the private sector officers and crews working aboard the ships under government contracts limited by time and by money.
In its report, the GAO - which conducts policy analyses and program audits for Congress - questioned not the quality, but the quantity, of RRF and MSC vessel personnel. The agency alluded to an intertwined crisis already in advanced development: the acute and growing shortage of the qualified civilian American merchant mariners DOD relies on exclusively to maintain the RRF and MSC surge ships while in reduced operating status, to break the vessels out as required, and to keep them operating for as long as necessary.
"Nearly all of the surge sealift fleet is expected to be fully operational within five days of activation ... as called for in the initial phases of various DOD operational plans," the report noted. "The ability of surge sealift ships to meet these readiness requirements depends on the material condition of the ships and the availability of U.S. civilian mariners needed to crew them.
"While MSC and MARAD are responsible for the maintenance and repair of their respective surge sealift ships, MARAD is responsible for ensuring that a sufficient number of U.S. civilian mariners are available to crew all surge sealift ships if they are activated," the GAO added. "In August 2015, we reported that the number of U.S. civilian mariners who would be qualified and available to serve during a prolonged activation of the surge sealift fleet was uncertain."
The GAO two years ago recommended that MARAD "study the potential availability of qualified mariners." The agency's new report acknowledged that the sealift manpower issue is now before MARAD's Maritime Workforce Working Group, which was established under a provision in the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The MWWG, which was reported on here in our last issue, expects to report its findings and recommendations to Congress in December 2017.
In one of many disturbing passages, the August 2017 GAO report advised: "The readiness of the surge sealift fleet has trended downward over the past five years, as shown by increasing equipment casualties and decreasing scores on activation exercises. As a result, the amount of ready sealift carrying capacity, expressed in terms of square feet available for transporting equipment and supplies, has been decreasing, and the decrease has been particularly steep since fiscal year 2015.
"MSC and MARAD officials explained that the primary factors causing these capacity decreases are increases in mission-limiting equipment casualties and maintenance periods that are running longer than planned," the GAO continued. "Both of these factors indicate declining material readiness across the surge sealift fleet."
Describing the RRF and MSC surge assets as "critical enablers," the GAO report warned of "increasing risk" that the U.S. "will be unable to rapidly deliver the equipment, supplies and forces called for in the initial phases of operational plans."
The GAO proposed a "comprehensive recapitalization plan" to begin to rehab the RRF and MSC surge fleets. The Navy concurred with the recommendation and pointed out that DOD last November "directed the Navy to develop a plan for recapitalizing the surge sealift fleet. This effort, the Navy added, "is in progress and is being finalized."
In July 2017, the House of Representatives approved an initial recap plan offered by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX). Under the Thornberry initiative, DOD would be authorized to buy up to five suitable surge fleet replacement ships on the world market at "reasonable cost," with priority going to ships that had once served U.S. defense needs through the separate Maritime Security Program.
One issue the GAO did not address in its latest report is funding of the Ready Reserve Force and the MSC surge fleet, but the report's observations and conclusions should ease our underway effort to increase this spending to a significant degree in fiscal 2018, which begins October 1.
American Maritime Officers represents the engine and deck officers on 25 of the 46 RRF ships, as well as the Pacific Collector and Pacific Tracker, and on 10 of the 15 MSC surge sealift vessels. The AMO members filling these jobs provide the most compelling, direct, first person accounts of the extent of the difficulties, and we encourage their continued participation in this increasingly important conversation.
As always, I can be reached with comments and questions - any topic, any time - on the headquarters line at 954-921-2221 (extension 1001), on the toll free HQ line at 800-362-0513, on my cell at 954-881-5651 and by .