By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. – On Monday, September 16, 2019, the United States Transportation Command ordered the no-notice activation of 28 out of the 61 ships held in the reserve sealift fleet. This exercise aimed to determine the material readiness of the fleet and whether the commercial merchant marine – the operating companies assigned to manage the vessels and the maritime unions – could provide sufficient crews to deploy the vessels. The exercise occurred at the end of the fiscal year, but amid rising tensions with Iran, causing some to speculate on the true purpose of the drill. Not since 2003, when a total of 40 ships from MARAD’s Ready Reserve Force, 8 Fast Sealift Ships (FSS), and 10 Large Medium Speed Roll-on/Roll-off ships (LMSRs) were deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom, has the surge sealift fleet (all painted in gray) been tested to this level.
The order by TRANSCOM directed 6 MSC and 22 RRF ships to depart port by Saturday, September 21 in order to meet their five-day reduced operating status window. The vessels were a cross section of types – 4 LMSRs, 2 former Maritime Prepositioning Ships, 15 Ro/Ros, 3 FSS, a barge carrier, a pair of crane ships, and an aviation logistics support ship. They included a single Gas Turbine powered vessel, 11 with steam plants (being phased out in the commercial sector due to IMO 2020 regulations), and 16 having diesel engines.
They activated in ports throughout the nation – along the Chesapeake Bay, Charleston, New Orleans, Beaumont, and San Francisco. American operating companies – US Marine Management, Crowley, Keystone, Ocean Shipholding, Pacific-Gulf, Patriot, and TOTE – all managed a portion of the fleet and coordinated with the maritime unions to acquire the additional twenty or so personnel needed for each craft on a ten-day voyage contract.
By Saturday evening, 23 out of the 28 ships had met their sail date and were off the coast of the United States conducting sea trials. Of the five vessels that failed to meet their window, one of them is a LMSR with Military Sealift Command. The remaining four are MARAD ships, with one FSS sailing a day late, and the three others located in Beaumont, Texas, currently suffering from the impact of Hurricane Imelda.
The ability to deploy twenty-three ships in five days, including four that had been identified in March 2019 as “Not Mission Capable,” is a questionable achievement. The ships that sailed on Saturday can transport 3.3 million square feet of cargo, 24 barges, 7,000 containers, and provide a repair base for a Marine Corps aviation wing. However, the successful departures do not mean all is well with the surge sealift fleet. It is not definitively known what caused the delays or how the ships performed once clear of the sea buoys.
While one MSC and three MARAD ships did not deploy, two other MARAD vessels – both Fast Sealift Ships built in the 1970s and converted in the 1980s – experienced issues. As stated, one cancelled its original departure on Saturday and sailed Sunday morning. Another one successfully sailed from its berth but had to anchor for four hours before completing her departure. This information, gathered by reviewing AIS tracking of the vessels, does not reveal any specific issues that occurred onboard the ships, or problems with crewing. The fact that all three FSS experienced issues, highlight the liability in relying on steam-propelled ships built in the early 1970s.
In terms of mariners, by monitoring websites and discussions with them, it appears that some deferred from taking the short-term Turbo Activations jobs so as not to risk their longer-term commitments. Shipping companies and unions were active in contacting potential mariners, including many who had not sailed in years and would need updates to their certifications before meeting the requirements set out by the US Coast Guard to actively operate on their merchant marine credentials.
Many questions about the surge fleet stem from studies conducted by the RAND Corporation, the US Government Accountability Office, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, along with reports in the press. Factors such as the mix of aging ships – the average age of the 61 ships is 44 years –, how MARAD and MSC maintain the force, and what should be done to rectify the active merchant marine to meet the National Defense Strategy were all examined. These issues all came to the surface in Congressional testimony given by Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby and General Steve Lyons of Transportation Command in March 2019; hence the decision to conduct such a large Turbo Activation exercise.
Only after a detailed post-exercise summary from US Transportation Command, MARAD, and MSC is published will the success and failures of this Turbo Activation be adequately assessed. In the short term, the activation of 23 out of 28 ships (82 percent) in the time frame specified by their reduced operating status does not meet the 85 percent readiness level goal identified in the RAND report. The reasons for the delays, and any other operational issues, will need to be further evaluated.
The results of the Turbo Activation should provide the heads of these agencies with some of the data needed to properly evaluate the status of the surge fleet. What is not assessed by this test is the long-term operation and manning of the vessels or their operation in contested waters in a potential peer-to-peer confrontation. This exercise also did not examine the ability of the 180 ships in the US merchant marine, particularly the 60 enrolled in the Maritime Security Program, to provide the needed sustainment in time of emergency or war.
The issues in breaking out ships nearly a half a century old, finding enough trained personnel to operate them, and overcoming breakdowns and mechanical issues is a great testimony to the U.S. merchant marine and maritime industry. As the first ship of the gray line – MV Cape Washington -returned to her homeport of Baltimore on the evening of Monday, September 23, the question that needs to be asked is whether the current surge fleet will be sustainable, and enough, in the years ahead?
The country needs newer ships, more mariners, and a National Defense Strategy that includes and provides for a domestic maritime industry. This requires a concentrated effort to protect the three pillars that keep the US merchant marine afloat today – the Jones Act, the Maritime Security Program, and cargo preference – amid foreign competitors that do not have the security of the United States as one of their objectives. This exercise should give pause to the American government, military, and populace about the state of their current sealift fleet.