National leaders stress need for a U.S. maritime strategy, urge support for fleet recapitalization, merchant marine

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During a joint congressional hearing held in May, elected representatives, military and government leaders alike acknowledged the positive steps being taken to recapitalize and modernize the surge and reserve maritime fleets, and stressed the importance of pushing a robust maritime strategy for the sake of national security as the U.S. faces the decommissioning of several military sealift vessels currently in service and more to come in the near future.

The hearing, Military Mobility Enterprise Posture, was held by the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittees on Readiness and Seapower and Projection Forces on May 18.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, was direct with his concerns over the nation's ability to project military force around the globe.

"I remain concerned that we are not doing enough now to recapitalize our sealift fleet to meet capacity requirements. We need a national sealift fleet of smaller, affordable, more numerous ships and we have to start this effort now," Rep. Garamendi said. "Failure to do so will place the Marines, the Army, the Navy, and anybody else that wants to fight anywhere in the world in an unacceptable risk and force projection capability beginning in 2024. Actually, today."

The U.S. Maritime Administration recently made the decision to reduce its fleet capacity by 10 percent starting this fiscal year, and other aging vessels in the Ready Reserve Force are scheduled to be decommissioned in the coming years, leaving a void in the nation's capacity to move military troops and equipment around the world.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), chairman of the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, highlighted the challenges faced by the U.S. Transportation Command and the Maritime Administration with an aging sealift fleet and the COVID-19 pandemic. He also cited some of the promising accomplishments in Congress to advance fleet sustainability and recapitalization.

"A major bipartisan accomplishment was the establishment of the Tanker Sealift Security Program, modeled after the highly successful Maritime Security Program," Rep. Courtney said. "This new program authorizes an adequate stipend to private ship owners who make their tankers available during time of war or national emergencies.

"We also secured an additional $388 million for the National Security Multi-Mission Vessel, which is again a newbuild program that is showing great promise in terms of an efficient, cost effective way to produce American-made ships," he continued.

"This was in addition to new priority grants for small coastal ports and terminals to help with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, $30 million for the Title XI loan guarantee program, a new strategic program focused on merchant marine recruitment, training and retention, and the extension of the Jones Act and other federal laws to offshore renewable energy," he said.

Commander of U.S. Transportation Command Gen. Stephen Lyons testified during the hearing that as many as 33 of the nation's 50 sealift vessels will meet the end of their useful life in the next 10 years.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) said Congress needs to act now to solve a problem that has already gotten out of hand.

"This reduction further limits our ability to project forces in times of conflict," he said. "In my estimation, this is quite simply a dereliction of duty, and the definition of a classic scene issue with [the Department of Defense]. We must do better."

The newly formed Tanker Security Program will serve as part of the solution to the vessel shortage by securing the service and availability of 10 U.S.-flagged tankers that will deploy for sealift and contingency operations when called upon by the Department of Defense.

Money has also been earmarked for the procurement of as many as two foreign vessels each year - starting in fiscal year 2021 - to be reflagged as part of a recapitalization plan that will also include American newbuilds. That number could increase to as many as seven reflagged vessels in the next two years, Gen. Lyons said, if certain budget increases are approved.

Congress has also approved the construction of several new national security multi-mission vessels for the maritime training academies, which will also be used for national security and emergency missions. The first ship in this series is expected to be delivered in 2023.

"I think that the strategy that we do have that we collectively with the Transportation Command, the Department of Navy and the Department of Transportation through the Maritime Administration will work," said Associate Maritime Administrator for Sealift Requirements Kevin Tokarski. "We've shown and proven that over a history of this program to be able to go and acquire sealift vessels with the right level of resources.

"The other spear of this attack is also to be able to put the resources into the ships that we do have in the fleet today that are going to remain in the fleet," he said. "We're not putting good money into bad ships. We're putting money into the ships that we're going to keep in the program, that we're going to need to be able to sustain."

Gen. Lyons said such moves are an encouraging sign and part of a strategy for a "good way forward" for national security.

"The essence of having a strong U.S.-flag mariner fleet, both organic and commercial, and then the mariners that sail both of them, are a critical component of our national defense and our national security," he said. "I think the work this committee has done on the Tanker Security Program is great work. We fully support that. We fully support the Jones Act and the Maritime Security Program."

Addressing Rep. Garamendi, Gen. Lyons said: "We're in complete agreement with the need for a strong fleet sailed by highly qualified mariners. It's critical to national defense."

Still, Rep. Garamendi and his colleagues believe more needs to be done. Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) hinted that cargo preference laws might need to be bolstered to include commercial entities being required to use American vessels in certain situations. Such moves would increase cargo capacity and shipbuilding, which should be the top priority of any national maritime strategy, she said.

"So approximately seven years ago, Congress mandated that the Department of Transportation submit a national maritime strategy to Congress to specifically make recommendations to increase the use of U.S.-flag vessels to carry imported and exported cargo from the U.S. It's seven years later, and I'm not aware of any policy recommendations that have been made. And the U.S. maritime enterprise has continued to decline," Rep. Luria said. "It feels like we just keep saying that we're waiting on a plan, and we're waiting to refine the plan."

Rep. Garamendi also supported a long-term approach to addressing the shortfall of ships. With Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), he has introduced the bipartisan Energizing American Shipbuilding Act, that would add much needed new ships to the fleet by requiring that portions of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and crude oil exports be transported on U.S.-built, flagged and crewed vessels. Without this legislation, all U.S. exports of LNG and crude oil will continue to be carried by foreign vessels.

According to some studies, as many as 40 new ships would need to be built in American shipyards as a result of the act if it were to become law. It would also provide good paying jobs for merchant mariners, Rep. Garamendi said.

"We do have the Tanker Security Program out there and that's a piece of the puzzle. We do have the purchase of used, but not so old, ships and repurposing them. But these are all short term," he said.

Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley testified that although resources have been limited - especially during the pandemic - the professionalism and dedication of the U.S. merchant marine has remained steadfast and will continue to be a reliable building block for the fleet overhaul. Bringing in new and reflagged ships will serve to bolster the opportunities to attract and train qualified mariners, she added.

"The members of the U.S. Merchant Marine have gone above and beyond to ensure the continued operation of our maritime transportation system during the COVID-19 pandemic," she testified. "Access to a pool of qualified mariners from a robust commercial maritime fleet is essential to maintain sealift readiness. And, due to the small number of ships in the U.S.-flag oceangoing fleet, MARAD is concerned about our ability to quickly assemble an adequate number of qualified mariners should an extended mobilization occur."

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