'Turbo activation' of surge sealift ships leaves MARAD confident but cautious

The U.S. can activate its strategic reserve sealift fleets safely in a defense emergency, but a critical and growing shortage of qualified officers and crews - especially those working with steam engines - could complicate such efforts within a short time.

These were among the public points made by the Maritime Administration in its report on the recent "turbo activation" of all 41 of the agency's Ready Reserve Force ships and all eight of Military Sealift Command's surge vessels.

The week-long nationwide ship activation exercise in July was ordered by Transportation Command in the Department of Defense and conducted by MARAD, which said the demonstration "measured one key objective" - the total number of officers and unlicensed personnel necessary for a 49-ship breakout.

MARAD verified the capabilities of U.S. merchant ship operators and managers and of all maritime unions - including American Maritime Officers - to activate the RRF and MSC vessels simultaneously.

"Using the information provided in the spreadsheets by the ship managers, maritime unions and MSC, MARAD headquarters staff analyzed the mariners' qualifications for the 1,523 billets required to fully crew the surge sealift fleet," the MARAD report said.

One early difficulty was the number of mariners "assigned to more than one vessel" for sealift service, but this was corrected "within hours."

MARAD's seagoing labor base analysis included verification of individuals' "willingness to sail, receive DOD required vaccinations, knowledge of danger pay for military missions and several questions regarding individual training and experience."

But MARAD cited an important caveat - the current number of available qualified mariners with steam engine experience is sufficient to "initially crew all sealift ships during a contingency breakout.

"This exercise indicated that there are enough licensed engineers listed by maritime unions and ship managers/ship operating companies to simultaneously assign crews to the 49 surge sealift vessels for the initial sealift requirement," MARAD added.

The MARAD headcount of steam-licensed marine engineers showed 59 Chief Engineers, 24 1st Assistant Engineers, 42 Second Assistant Engineers and 84 3rd Assistant Engineers for a total of 209.

"For the exercise, there is an assumption that these personnel would be available, ready, willing and able to serve at the time of activation and that they are not otherwise employed at sea," MARAD advised.

MARAD identified 1,281 RRF billets, 242 MSC billets and 1,523 billets combined in a full-scale activation.

"After the initial 4-6 months' surge, assigning replacements with steam endorsements will become difficult," MARAD warned. "While some mariners would want to stay onboard past the initial 4-6 months, this intent cannot be measured and therefore cannot be incorporated into the mariner workforce planning."