Whither the Maritime Security Program

After a number of foreign flag ships refused to supply our military during the first Gulf War, putting our troops at risk, President Clinton established the Maritime Security Program (MSP) in 1996.

It provided funding to the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) to pay shipping companies a yearly “retainer” of $5 million per vessel. 

The 47 U.S.-flag ships originally enrolled in the MSP ran commercially under normal circumstances, but it had to be made available in times of armed conflict or other national emergency. The program proved so reliable and valuable that in 2003, the number of vessels was increased from the initial 47 to 60.

In addition to improving our national security and benefitting domestic shipping companies because it mandated that all vessels registered in the MSP had to be U.S. flag, the program also helped American merchant mariners. Over the past few years, more than 40 ships registered elsewhere have been reflagged domestically – providing nearly 3,000 good-paying ocean-going jobs for U.S. mariners that were not available before. 

In 2022, recognizing its decades-long usefulness, Congress formally extended the program until at least 2035.

The 60 vessels presently enrolled in the MSP include 34 container, 18 roll-on/roll-off, and 6 heavy-lift boom ships, but only two tankers – something which has been of concern for many years. 

To help rectify this, when the U.S. Senate approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), it included a new program modeled after the MSP called the Tanker Security Program (TSP). 

The purpose of the TSP was to establish a core fleet of 10 privately owned and operated U.S. flag product tankers that would be available to deliver vital fuel supplies whenever the Department of Defense deemed it necessary, and like the MSP, shipping companies enrolling their vessels also would receive a yearly “retainer.”

On Dec. 23, 2020, then-President Trump vetoed the bill, but in an overwhelming show of support from Senate Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, his veto was overridden by a vote of 81-13. 

A week later, over the President’s objection, the NDAA was officially passed – paving the way for the establishment of the program with funding for the TSP allocated by Congress in 2022.

Realizing how it could help keep our country safe and strengthen our merchant marine, many important leaders have expressed their strong support for the TSP. 

They include legislators such as Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), member of the Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, along with high-ranking military officers including head of the U.S. Transportation Command, USAF General Jacqueline Van Ovost, and several government officials such as U.S. Maritime Administrator, Ann Phillips.

Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently commented the vessels that are part of the TSP “will help strengthen both our supply chains and our national security by delivering fuel to our armed forces around the world while creating hundreds of good jobs for American mariners.”

On Oct. 17, 2023, the Maritime Administration announced that the TSP would reach its full enrollment of ten product tankers by the end of the year. 

While I applaud the attainment of that goal, it is unrealistic to assume that this small number of commercial ships will be sufficient to ensure the refueling of our military’s nearly 600 vessels and 750 bases in the event of a major crisis. 

According to Stephen Carmel, senior vice president of Maersk Line, Ltd., “it is projected that 100 additional tankers will be needed in the event of a serious conflict” – 1,000 percent more than the ten currently enrolled. 

A study conducted by military expert Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, offers a similar opinion. It would be prudent if Congress immediately appropriated the money to add 70-90 more U.S. flag tankers to the program, with funding guaranteed until at least 2035, as it has done for the MSP.

At the end of World War II there were close to 3,000 ocean-going cargo ships and tankers in our domestic merchant fleet. 

In the years since then, government officials have allowed, and in some cases even encouraged, a devastating decline of our merchant marine – to the point where there are now only around 180 American flag deep-sea commercial vessels operating. 

Foreign interests have not only refused to support our military, but have hurt us economically by circumventing many tax, labor, and maritime laws. 

We can no longer ignore the importance of our country’s commercial shipping needs, and I applaud the elected officials who have recognized this by establishing the MSP and TSP. 

For the safety and security of our nation, expanding and strengthening programs like these should now be a top priority.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license, as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at captsweeney@outlook.com