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American Sealift Capacity Gets Much-Needed Booster Shot with Addition of 12 Ships

Ira Breskin
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March 21, 2022

President Biden’s $1.5 trillion federal spending bill includes funds for ten tankers and two cable layers to be added to the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Tanker Security Program and Cable Security Program, respectively.

By Ira Breskin  

American sealift capacity recently received a welcome booster shot: a total of 12 ships soon will be added to the nation’s reserve fleet of commercial vessels. 

While the total seems modest, it represents a 20 percent increase —from 60 to 72—in the number of US-flagged commercial ships available to Pentagon in times of emergency. The government is paying for the option to charter these ships should it need supplemental sealft to haul material to a potential hot spot, or require vessels to lay or repair undersea cable. 

The moderate increase in the fleet size is the first one in about 25 years, providing added muscle to the afloat capacity available to the Navy.   

The additional ships also represent significant growth in the size of the US flagged international fleet, currently at 84 ships, as well sealift available to the Defense Department, said attorney Jeff Vogel, a partner in Cozen O’Connor’s Transportation and Trade Group in Washington D.C. 

Payment for an option to deploy these ships was included in fiscal 2022 $1.5 trillion federal budget legislation signed last week by President Biden. The legislation, for the first time ever, provides $60 million to fund the 10-ship Tanker Security Program. More specifically, operators of 10 tankers selected by the Maritime Administration, which runs the program, each will receive $6 million this year to enroll their vessels. 

Similarly, the budget bill appropriated $10 million to re-enroll two US flagged cable laying ships in the sister Cable Security Program, for the second year. These ships joined the fleet late last year, soon after Congress then agreed to fund this program.  

The National Defense Act of 2020 established both these programs and authorized funding through fiscal 2035.  However, Congress must reappropriate funding each year.

Ira Breskin is a senior lecturer at State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx, NY and author of The Business of Shipping (9th edition, 2018), a primer that explains shipping economics, operations and regulations.

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