In the event of a war with Iraq, there will be enough civilian mariners to crew U.S.-flagged vessels for the strategic sealift that would be required to supply American troops, according to the country’s top Maritime Administration (Marad) official.
USNS Bob Hope, a 950-foot ro-ro ship, loaded Army vehicles and equipment in October in Charleston, S.C. The ship was activated in support of forces operating in the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, which includes the Middle East. The ship normally has a crew of 13 to keep it ready to go on four day’s notice. When activated, the ship’s crew is increased to 30.
“We believe that we are capable of crewing the ships necessary to meet our country’s surge sealift requirements if the United States declares war,” said Capt. William G. Schubert, head of Marad. “This includes the 76-vessel ready-reserve fleet and other government sealift assets essential to such an effort.”
The Ready Reserve Force consists of 31 roll-on/roll-off ships, 17 break-bulk ships, 10 auxiliary crane ships, nine tanker ships, seven barge-carrying ships and two troop ships.
These vessels are kept on a readiness status that ranges from four to 20 days. There are 24 additional ships that are kept on a reduced operating status, according to Trish Larson, deputy director of public affairs for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. These ships are in addition to the 30 vessels owned by the Department of Defense — already staffed and loaded with supplies — that are in position around the world.
In the Ready Reserve Force, 51 of the ships already have about nine or 10 crewmembers onboard for the most critical jobs, Schubert said. “The mariners needed to augment these existing crews are expected to be derived, in large part, from members of the commercial mariner labor pool that are currently ashore,” he said. “Normal mariner labor union hiring processes would be used to meet that demand.”
Schubert has not always been this optimistic. “I am very concerned about manning and retention,” Schubert was quoted as saying in the May 2002 issue of Sea Power magazine, the publication of the Navy League of the United States. “It does us no good to go out and say we don’t have a problem, when there is a problem, so I have been very outspoken on this issue.”
In an interview in late November, Schubert said he has been working on that issue since his appointment to the post. Marad has worked “to ensure that we have sufficient manpower to handle our strategic sealift and not seriously impact the commercial fleet, as well,” he said.
With the number of U.S.-flagged international commercial ships steadily declining over the past decade, there has been a growing concern that there won’t be enough mariners to crew the cargo ships necessary to supply the military in the event of a war. As of October 2001, the number of privately owned U.S.-flagged oceangoing ships was down to 239, according to Robert W. Kesteloot, a former director of strategic sealift attached to the chief of naval operations. But that total included 105 ships working in domestic Jones Act trade and 32 ships working only for the U.S. government, so the effective total was 102 U.S.-flagged ships operating in international trade, according to Kesteloot. At the start of the Gulf War, there were 370 U.S.-flagged ships engaged in international commerce.
The number of mariners has steadily decreased, as well. From a peak of 166,000 U.S. mariners working on oceangoing cargo vessels after World War II, there are now just 15,000.
Crew shortages were so extreme during the Gulf War in 1991 that every able-bodied seaman in the country was called for service to supply crews for the 200 ships needed for the operation. An 81-year-old radio operator was called up for that operation. “We closed the union schools, and the instructors went out after they had trained the men,” Kesteloot said.
But Kesteloot, who, until a year ago, was raising alarm bells about the shortage of mariners for a strategic sealift, said he is no longer concerned, at least over the short term. Since the Gulf War, the U.S. military has changed the way it fights wars. “A transformation is going on,” he said. “We have reduced the number of people we’re going to put into a country.” Rather than land 500,000 troops, smaller forces are being prepared. “It’s a different kind of warfare; you’ve taken the support people out of the field,” he said. Instead, these support people are located at air bases, which already have supplies.
“I wouldn’t anticipate that a force couldn’t be supplied by normal commercial shipping,” Kesteloot said. “I think the whole picture has changed significantly.”
Indeed, Marad had no difficulty finding crew during a test of 23 Ready Reserve Force ships in August and September 2002, Schubert said. During these tests, called “turbo activations,” an entire crew for each ship is hired, and the vessel makes a short voyage. Marad activated 10 ships in one test and 13 in another, Schubert said, and had just one ship that experienced a mechanical problem when it returned to port. “We only had that one problem. It was considered a success,” he said about the activation.
Ron Davis, president of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, said his union will have no problem supplying crew when called upon by the Military Sealift Command. In the two recent turbo activations, “MEBA crewed all of its contracted vessels in less than 30 hours,” Davis said. “We have a surplus of engineering officers, and always have.”
But what if a war lasts longer than six months? Will there be enough crew to man ships for a longer war? Schubert said Marad has been planning for this contingency. Marad estimates it would need about 5,400 mariners to meet surge-sealift requirements for the first six months of a conflict, as well as to provide rotation crews if a conflict should last more than six months.
Marad has already been meeting with the U.S. Coast Guard and major maritime labor unions to talk about licensing and documentation issues that would need to be addressed to make sure mariners are available. Retired mariners, who could be called on in the event of a war, will likely have let their Coast Guard licenses and STCW ’95 certifications lapse.
To help with this issue, Schubert said that a special, three-week recertification course has been developed at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. Marad and the Coast Guard have also approved a program to allow mariners to receive temporary STCW ’95 certification in the event of an emergency, Davis said.
In 2001 and 2002 Marad conducted a survey of merchant mariners to see how many would be available in the event of an emergency. Marad is also working on a new database, called a mariner tracking system, that would maintain a list of mariners across the country, their qualifications and licenses, and contact information for use in an emergency. This database is scheduled to be completed in September 2003, Schubert said.
He is also working on an agreement with labor unions to allow the “temporary borrowing” of mariners across union lines to crew ships quickly.
Schubert has also proposed a merchant marine reserve. That proposal is being studied by the U.S. Department of Defense. “A reserve could be sized and easily adjusted to mariner requirements and would provide assured access to the specific mariner skill sets critical to crewing our vessels in times of national emergency,” he said.