The International Propeller Club of the United States on May 16 presented Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA) with the Salute to Congress Award for his strong support of the U.S. maritime industry, U.S. Merchant Marine and the important military sealift and national defense roles served by both.
During his acceptance speech, Rep. Wittman, chairman of the Armed Services Committee's Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, focused on the revitalization of the Ready Reserve Force, and on increasing the U.S.-flag fleet in commercial trades.
"We are at one of those crossroads where we must recapitalize those fleets, and we must keep in mind the importance of the Jones Act," he said. "It's not only the ships, it's the merchant mariners who crew those ships and having modern ships to train future mariners on."
Rep. Wittman participated in inspection tours of several AMO-contracted Ready Reserve Force vessels earlier this year, saw firsthand the condition of the aging ships and spoke with American Maritime Officers members crewing the ships about the challenges of operating and maintaining the older vessels.
Rep. Wittman relayed his experience and conversations with the officers to the gathering, saying that, while it's a testament to the mariners that these aging ships are still able to respond when needed, it's time to find suitable replacements with more modern technology.
"These engineers are some of the last remaining engineers in the world who are certified to run steam plants, and unless we want these guys to end up working for the Smithsonian at an exhibit, we need to have them using their skills running modern ships," he said.
Modernizing the RRF fleet is essential for national security as well, Rep. Wittman said.
Connecting the U.S. military to the fight and allowing for sustainment operations during a conflict are key to the nation's military success, and newer ships will be critical to ensuring reliability, Rep. Wittman continued. "All of our military capabilities go for not if we don't have the connectors to get them to the right places."
He pointed to the dwindling number of U.S. commercial vessels in international trades and the shrinking mariner pool due to the lack of vessels. In 1951, there were 1,288 commercial vessels operating in international trades, but that number has plummeted to just 81 today, he said.
Congress has to do a better job of initiating policy and supporting cabotage laws like the Jones Act, as well as cargo preference laws, in order to bolster those numbers. Without that effort, there won't be enough mariners available when the nation needs them in a time of crisis, Rep. Wittman said.
"We have to make sure we have a modernized fleet so that we have the pipeline to train merchant mariners of the future. That is key and that's something we have to emphasize in how Congress develops public policy, authorizes not only the construction of new ships, but also authorizes how we train those merchant mariners," he said.
"It has to be the first thought in people's minds and I argue it should be a priority for every service branch," he said. "The first words out of decision makers' mouths in Washington, whether they are appropriators or authorizers, should be about how can we recapitalize our ready reserve fleet, how are we going to extend the viability and longevity of the Maritime Security Program and how do we make sure we have the pipeline of merchant mariners to be on board those ships," Rep. Wittman said.
"When we do that, and I believe we will do that quickly É people will again realize we indeed are a maritime nation."