US merchant fleet not able to sustain long wartime effort, administrator admits

US merchant fleet not able to sustain long wartime effort, administrator admits

Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, second from right, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, outlines the woes of the maritime fleet, Monday morning at the 2019 Sea-Air-Space Exposition at National Harbor, Md. (Tom Squitieri/TMN)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Supplying U.S. forces engaged in a prolonged overseas mission is unlikely to be possible unless the fleet used by the Merchant Marines is quickly and vastly upgraded, the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration said Monday.

“Eventually it’s going to catch up with you,” retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby said, during the opening session of the 2019 Sea-Air-Space Exposition at National Harbor, Md., regarding the dismal state of the maritime fleet. “Without that (maritime fleet), it’s over very quickly.”

Buzby said it has become “a real challenge” to maintain the 46 ships in the Ready Reserve Fleet, which is owned by the government, where the average vessel age is almost 45 years.

Another 60 ships are owned by private entities and subject to use by the military in the event of warfare. The Navy’s Military Sealift Command has 15 roll-on/roll-off container ships to create the U.S. surge fleet.

“Things will not get better until we get more ships,” Buzby said. “We still are a bit on the edge to provide a solid sealift over a period of time.”

The question of the decrepit state of the Merchant Marine link is one of the quiet concerns of the Pentagon. The U.S. sealift capacity — the ships used to transport equipment from 17 U.S. ports to war theaters — is smaller in magnitude than it was during World War II. Adding to the danger is the fact that the  commercial shipbuilding industry in the U.S. is nearly evaporated — which Buzby also acknowledged on Monday; that means the U.S. could not ignite a massive buildup of logistics ships similar to what happened in World War II.

Of the 46 ships in the ready reserve force, 24 are steam- operated, which is largely obsolete in the commercial world. Additionally the hulls are rapidly approaching the end of their useful service life, Pentagon officials said in interviews with TMN.

During a question-and-answer period following remarks by Buzby and other service chiefs, he said the fleet must be maintained at a five-day readiness status, something he said “does not come easily.”

Another challenge, Buzby said, is “keeping people motivated” when the ships that are to be used “are not going anywhere.” He said there is a 1,800 mariner shortfall in the ranks.

He also said the condition of the fleet has worsened from last year, when he stated then that it was close to life support. “The readiness of those ships have slipped even more,” Buzby said Monday.

Unlike military personnel who make up the fighting units of the armed services, the merchant marine fleet is operated by civilians.

Earlier this year, in testimony to Congress, Buzby said of the 46 ships in his force, about 24 need urgent attention.

He said the Navy has a plan that includes a mash-up of service-life extensions, new-build replacements and buying used ships from the commercial market that meet fleet requirement. A used ship could cost anywhere from $75 million to $100 million before needed retrofitting and modernization, Buzby said then.

“They are some old girls that have served well,” Buzby said then. “They aren’t commercially viable anymore but they are militarily useful because of their configuration, deck strength, height of their hulls that can take large equipment that wouldn’t fit in commercial designs.”

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