The privately owned U.S.-flag foreign trading fleet, which is an essential component of U.S. sealift capability, stands on the edge of a precipice. The fleet – roughly stable in terms of cargo carrying capacity from 2000 to 2012 – has declined from 106 vessels in 2012 to 78 vessels at October 30, 2016 primarily because of a substantial decline in available U.S. Government-reserved cargo. The size of the fleet has reached a point where the viability of the U.S.-flag industry involved in foreign trade – including its trained mariners, maritime academies and schools, and experienced back office personnel – is in danger of disappearing. As the cargo decline is not likely to be reversed any time soon, the fleet will likely only survive into the future if there is a substantial, renewed national commitment to sustain it.
This alarm bell has been rung before. In fact, it has been wrung over and over ever since the foreign trading fleet began to decline at about the time of the Civil War. For example, the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings published an article in 1882 by Lt. Cmdr. F.E. Chadwick, USN, entitled “Our Merchant Marine: The Causes of Its Decline, And the Means to Be Taken For Its Revival.” Scientific American devoted its entire July 15, 1911 issue to the question “Shall We Have a Merchant Marine?” (answered by all the authors including the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor in the affirmative). Prof. Andrew E. Gibson, of the Naval War College and the former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Maritime Affairs in the Nixon Administration, wrung the alarm bell on numerous occasions including “So Long, American Flag – It Was So Nice to Fly You” in the Naval War College Review in 1993. These are but a small sample of the pleas for help.
Dire State of the Fleet
What is different today is that the foreign trading U.S.-flag fleet has shrunk to the point that any further substantial decline is likely to make the situation irretrievable. As Vice Admiral William A. Brown, Deputy Commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, testified before Congress on July 30, 2014: “we are concerned that we may be coming closer to a tipping point where our ability to man some of the surge fleet would be at risk ....” At that point in time, the U.S.-flag foreign trading fleet was 83 vessels – it declined another five vessels by the end of October 2016. When Prof. Gibson wrote that we were saying goodbye to the U.S.-flag flying on vessels in foreign trade there were 176 such vessels.
Capt. Paul N. Jaenichen, Sr., USN (retired), the outgoing U.S. Maritime Administrator, has testified before Congress on several occasions to the effect that the fleet decline is endangering the U.S. ability to meet its sealift requirements. For example, he stated in a Congressional hearing on November 17, 2015 that we are already “on the very hairy edge” of lacking the manpower to man reserve defense sealift vessels (which only have partial crews until activation).
What is particularly alarming is that it is not at all clear that the manpower pool can be readily redirected from existing commercial employment to manning reserve vessels. There are a number of historical examples when the pool size appeared more than adequate but it was still difficult to draw on the pool in an emergency sufficient to meet all vessel activation needs. For example, personnel shortages caused delays in about 40 percent of scheduled sailings during the Korean War when the manpower pool reserve was substantial. In 1990, when the privately owned fleet was much larger than it is today, putting half the reserve fleet in operation exhausted the supply of mariners. The existing pool is also likely to be negatively impacted by the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1987 (STCW) which imposes new, stringent marine credentialing requirements effective January 1, 2017.