An evolving strategy to restructure the Military Sealift Command and Maritime Administration defense shipping fleets attempts to balance national security requirements with seagoing capabilities but puts U.S. merchant mariner jobs at real risk between fiscal years 2022 and 2027.
This strategy - based on budgets and potential sealift need worldwide - emerged in a memo from Transportation Command in the Department of Defense to MSC and MARAD in November 2020. However, the effort was delayed significantly by the Presidential transition resulting from last year's election.
According to the TRANSCOM memo, the strategy is subject to "updates" twice each year to reflect White House budget proposals and to conform to "programmatic decisions and results of the fiscal 2022-2026 program review."
TRANSCOM's memo cited the National Defense Sealift Fund authorized by Congress in 1994 and strategic sealift analyses dating from 2009 to 2019. Each of these studies confirmed the need for private sector U.S. merchant mariners to staff both the MSC surge fleet and MARAD's Ready Reserve Force during defense mobilization in an overseas conflict.
The TRANSCOM initiative - "primarily focused" on roll-on/roll-off capacity - addresses the MSC surge and prepositioned fleets, the RRF, fast sealift ships, LMSRs, aviation support ships and auxiliary crane ships. A ship's age and its condition will determine "vessel disposition," its standby port placement and its active or reserve status.
Decisions made in fiscal 2021 have already resulted in what TRANSCOM referred to as "inactivation," "downgrade" or "retirement" of the Flickertail State, the Grand Canyon State, the Cape May, the Cape Mohican and the OPDS tanker Petersburg.
The chart accompanying the TRANSCOM memo set an approximate timeline for the further removal from service of several additional ships over several years.
This is expected to begin in fiscal 2022 with the Martin and the Wheat and continue in 2023 with the Pless, Kocak, Obregon, Shughart and Pollux.
The Altair may be retired in 2025, and others - the Bellatrix, Capella, the Bob Hope, Fisher, Mendonca, Brittin and Benavidez may be withdrawn from service between 2023 and 2053.
The AMO employer companies affected by this schedule thus far are Crowley Government Services, OSI, TOTE Services, Pacific Gulf Marine and the USMMI division of Maersk Line Ltd.
The chart covers an additional 33 RRF ships operated by other companies employing engine and deck officers represented by other unions, but contract awards in the interim could transfer vessel management and operation to AMO employers by the end of the estimated schedule.
The TRANSCOM memo acknowledged Congressional authorization to acquire four replacement ships on the world market in fiscal 2022 and anticipated the acquisition of five ships per year between fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2024 and four ships in fiscal 2025 - all of which would - presumably - be subject to competitive bidding among U.S.-flag shipping companies.
TRANSCOM will require MSC and MARAD to "maintain at a minimum 85 percent overall availability ... on any given day."
All officers and crewmembers assigned to these vessels would be required to undergo "training, qualification and certification" in CBRD and Antiterrorism/Force Protection.
This disturbing layout remains subject to change as the TRANSCOM strategy is reviewed twice each year as required, and as circumstances worldwide may require. The intent appears to be to shift principal concern from potential threats in the Middle East and Southwest Asia to Russia and China, but new turmoil in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and a resurgent ISIS could result in strategic status quo.
TRANSCOM, MSC and MARAD will consult on specific options when "program and budget submissions differ from the programmatic guidance provided by TRANSCOM and when the Congressionally approved budget differs from the program and budget submissions."
Therein lies a key point. Presidential budget proposals are just that - proposals. Congress alone determines what the federal government can spend each fiscal year, and the numbers have worked generally well for AMO and for the U.S. maritime industry in military support services and in commercial markets under a broad, bipartisan support base in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. We will tighten our union's interaction with all lawmakers on defense shipping issues.
In a new and equally disturbing related but separate development, the President's fiscal 2022-2023 budget proposal recommends that the five Bobo-class prepositioned ships and possibly all vessels serving the U.S. Marine Corps be placed in ROS during the two-year spending cycle, and it, too, is subject to Congressional approval.
Meanwhile, AMO Gov't Relations Vice President Chris Spain will continue to track these developments day-by-day and discuss them personally with key contacts at TRANSCOM, MSC and MARAD.
AMO members will be advised of timeline revisions and other developments as they occur.
August 27, 2021