Traffic World--September 23, 2002
War Planning; If there's a mobilization, defense planners will find the U.S. merchant marine both better and worse
BYLINE: BY CHRIS DUPIN
An army marches on its stomach, Napoleon said. Two centuries later much has changed about war, but the need for logistical support - including sealift - has not.
During the Persian Gulf war, aircraft carried soldiers to the front, but 85 to 95 percent of supplies arrived by ship. "We built a city of a half-million people over there," said John Graykowski, an attorney with Dyer and Ellis in Washington, D.C., who was assistant and acting maritime administrator from 1994 to 2000. "Everything you need from movie theaters to toilet paper, consumer goods and war-fighting stuff had to get to the Middle East. The only way you are going to get it there is the way American society gets it and that is with a ship."
With President Bush seeking congressional authorization for possible military action against Iraq, it's beginning to look as if the nation's sealift capacity may face a major mobilization. If that happens, defense planners will find an altered merchant marine - one that in some ways is in better shape than the one used in the 1990-1991 Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, but that in other ways is worse.
The U.S.-flag merchant marine continues to decline and is a shell of its former self. The number of large U.S.-flag ships has fallen from about 2,500 at the end of World War II to 239 at the beginning of the current fiscal year, according to Robert Kesteloot, a Reston, Va., consultant and former director of strategic sealift for the chief of naval operations.
Those ships include 47 vessels covered by the Maritime Security Program, which provides $2.1 million annual subsidies to U.S.-flag ships operated in international trade. Much of the rest of the U.S.-flag fleet consists of tankers or bulk carriers or container vessels in the domestic trades, which the Jones Act protects from foreign competition.
Most of the U.S.-flag ships in MSP are operated by U.S.-based intermediaries for foreign owners, including Denmark's A.P. Moller Group, Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines, Canada's CP Ships and the Anglo-Dutch combine P&O Nedlloyd. Subsidized ships must be owned by "Section 2" companies owned by U.S. citizens.
Albert J. Herberger, a former maritime administrator and deputy commander in chief of the U.S. Transportation Command, said the Section 2 arrangement provides a level of protection. "We have no reason to believe the Danes or the Singaporeans would ever break those contracts, but we had to set up these firewalls," he said, "I don't have any tinges that they would not support us and our requirements," agreed Gen. Edward Honor, the retired director of logistics for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and president of the National Defense Transportation Association for the past 13 years.
Still, the arrangement has provoked criticism that MSP subsidies eventually could go to an intermediary company working for a shipping company based in a nation whose interests aren't aligned with those of the United States.
If there is a war, the first ships to deliver cargo likely will be those in the Maritime Prepositioning Fleet - 37 ships that are preloaded with arms and other materiel for the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. These ships are kept fully crewed and ready to sail at a moment's notice from strategic locations such as Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, in Mediterranean ports and in Guam.
After the prepositioned ships are dispatched, the next source of cargo sealift available to defense planners are the eight Fast Sealift ships and 11 so-called "large medium speed roll-on/roll-off vessels "or LMSRs. The Fast Sealift ships, which can travel at 30 knots, are roll-on/roll-off vessels that were built in the 1970s by Sea-Land Service as container ships.
Rear Adm. David L. Brewer III, commander of the Military Sealift Command, said the 20 LMSRs built after the Persian Gulf war - some are used as prepositioning ships - are among the most significant improvements to the nation's sealift capacity in the past decade. They are enormous ships, with 315,000 to 394,000 square feet of capacity.
"If you want to haul a lot of stuff from one deepwater port to another, you are in pretty good shape," Kesteloot said. "But the LMSRs are much too big. It's a lot of eggs in one basket. There is not much of a threat out there in terms of submarine warfare, but China is coming up with submarines, Iran has a few. Who knows when that picture is going to shift? And then there is the problem of what are you going to do when you go into smaller ports."
In addition, the government would have access to 76 ships in the Ready Reserve Fleet. James E. Caponiti, the Maritime Administration's associate administrator for national security, notes that during Desert Storm, Marad activated 79 vessels from the Ready Reserve Fleet. Because of problems with activating some of those ships, the government created a program to keep skeleton crews on vessels so that they could be activated quickly in the event of a national emergency - in four, five, 10 or 20 days.
The program isn't cheap - it cost $251 million in the current fiscal year. But Caponiti said spot checks have shown that RRF ships have been able to get under way on schedule nearly 100 percent of the time during small-scale deployments for military actions in Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia and humanitarian missions such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.
During the Desert Storm mobilization, the Ready Reserve Fleet was concentrated at only a few locations, such as the James River in Virginia. Now the RRF's 76 ships are scattered among 20 ports. The RRF fleet also is more diverse than it was during Desert Storm when it consisted primarily of breakbulk ships. The fleet now comprises 17 breakbulk ships, 10 crane ships, 31 roll-on/roll-off vessels, four barge carriers, three heavylift ships, nine tankers and two school ships from merchant marine academies that can be used as troop carriers.
The RRF ships designed for deployment in four days have full-time port crews of 10 persons; the five-day ships have nine crew members. By keeping skeleton crews on the vessels, Aponiti also notes that Marad is helping solve one of the most intractable problems of maritime planners: the dwindling size of the pool of civilian merchant mariners.
The problem is worsened by the shrinking U.S.-flag fleet and the new international convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, which requires seamen to be certified to work on ships - a time-consuming and costly requirement that few retired seafarers are likely to want to meet. Retired merchant mariners, some from World War II, were an important part of the work force during the Persian Gulf war.
A final component of the nation's military sealift capacity is the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement program. There are 116 ships enrolled in the VISA program, in which shipowners agree to make a portion of their intermodal transportation capacity - not only ships, but containers, truck fleets, railcars and information systems - available to the military. In return, VISA participants get preference for military cargo. VISA participation also is required for the 47 ships in the U.S.-flag subsidy program. Those ships provide 70 percent of the sealift capacity of the VISA program.
Before activating the VISA program, the government first seeks to move cargo on ships or space chartered from the commercial market, with U.S.-flag ships getting first crack.
During Operation Desert Shield, the Military Sealift Command chartered space from operators of both U.S.- and foreign-flag ships. Few problems were reported, although Carl Seiberlich, former director of military programs for American President Lines, said the owner of a German feeder ship refused to let one of its vessels sail into the Persian Gulf. With no other way to get critical air control equipment to the Air Force days before the United States started shelling Iraq, APL used one of its mainline vessels to deliver the units.
Adm. James Perkins, commander of the Military Sealift Command from 1997 to 1999, said there were several other incidents where foreign crews refused to sail into dangerous waters. "They were just a bunch of guys who did not want to get shot," he said. "But today there is a different calculus. It is not difficult to postulate a situation where the crews might be sympathizers and might try to take a ship over and do something bad with it."
With the increased concern about terrorism, Brewer said the MSC is vetting crew members on both foreign-flag ships and U.S.-flag vessels.
Without knowing how much sealift is needed or whether companies will volunteer tonnage, Caponiti says it is impossible to know if the VISA program will have to be activated. Under the program, the government can demand that carriers supply up to half of their capacity and 100 percent of the capacity on their subsidized ships. It's more likely, though, that carriers would work cooperatively to help the military meet its needs.
What will those needs be? There's considerable debate. Kesteloot, who has been a leading advocate for the need for improved sealift capabilities, said the recent fighting in Afghanistan has caused him to take a second look at some of his assumptions about the need for sealift.
"Our whole philosophy of fighting has changed," he said. "We had very heavy forces (in previous wars) and the Marines, harking back to the days when they were stranded out at Guadalcanal and places like that, have always insisted on 30 days of supplies ready when they go in. I don't think we are going to put nearly as many troops on the ground. Nor are we going to go over with all the tanks that we took over the last time."
That's provocative stuff to others who follow the issue. Brewer points out that Afghanistan was a very different situation than the Persian Gulf war, because it was a landlocked country and a much smaller military force was deployed. And Perkins noted that cargo can be moved by sea for perhaps one-tenth the cost of airlift. "As a taxpayer, I'd like to see more of it," he said.