U.S. Facing Looming Shortage of Merchant Mariners

March 22, 2016 6:06 PM
M/V Cape Ray (T-AKR-9679). MARAD Photo
M/V Cape Ray (T-AKR-9679). MARAD Photo

By 2022, the United States will need “70,000 new people” for the nation’s maritime fleet, but the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., and the six state maritime academies only graduate 900 per year and are at capacity, Paul Jaenichen Sr., the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), told the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee on Tuesday.

He added that even with a new military-to-mariner program for separating service members—and other programs like it—the real issue is now those individuals would get credit for the necessary licenses required. He told the panel American mariners are “also a very aging work force” that could aggravate the shortfall in the future.

Addressing existing requirements for mariners in support of global power projection, Jaenichen said that while the administration can meet the requirement for immediate deployment, “the first crew rotation is critical.” After four to six months, he said, there were “not enough [mariners] for sustained operations.”

He predicted “a perfect storm” after 1 January 2017, when licensing requirements change. For MARAD that means that drawing on a pool of recently retired mariners likely would not be possible. The retired mariners to remain current under the regulations would have to pay for required training out of their own pockets.

At the same time as that shortage of merchant mariners, the ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet and its subset, the Ready Reserve Fleet, also are aging—averaging almost 40 years old. Some are steam-powered, needing parts that are no longer made. In the commercial vessels in Maritime Security Program, owners see government cargo contracts—including food-aid shipment and movement of military equipment from Afghanistan and Iraq—declining, and an overcapacity of shipping globally driving prices lower.

Like the American-flagged and government-owned fleet, questions surface about the viability of service-life extension spending on training ships. For example, the training ship Empire State is 55-years-old and could cost $104 million in a service-life extension program. “I cannot guarantee spending that amount of money will” give 10 years, three years or even no more service.

Jaenichen said, “The stipend [to American ship owners] is the only place to go” to keep the U.S.-flagged fleet in operation. The administration has asked for $3.1 million per ship as a stipend. He said industry estimates that it cost $4.6 million more to operate an American ship over an international competitor last year, and the stipend this year would be $5 million.

“Industry has told us that is the right number. he entire global industry is losing money.” He added later in answer to a question that this loss of business is the prime reason American shippers either scrap vessels or reflag them. “If they are losing money, they are not going to stay” in the Maritime Security Program, which provides the stipends for up to 60 “commercially viable, military useful, privately-owned U.S.-flag vessels and crews operating in international trade.”

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Lyons, the No. 2 officer in Transportation Command, said, “We’re right at the margin of moderate [to] high risk” in terms of aging ships in the Ready Reserve Fleet and the nation’s ability to crew mariners. The Ready Reserve Fleet is made up of government-owned vessels and was created in 1976 “to rapidly deploy equipment and materiel” in times of crisis on combat to humanitarian aid operations.

Jaenichen said the nation needs 40 more ships under its flag to have sufficient mariners to meet military surge capacity.

Lyons added there are questions, based on experiences in earlier conflicts, about the willingness of foreign owners with foreign crews to go into harm’s way to deliver necessary supplies and equipment to American forces operating in combat.

Both argued against repealing the 1920 Jones Act, designed to keep American maritime industry competitive. U.S. shipyards now have 32 vessels on their books, including two roll-on, roll-off cargo ships, Jaenichen said. “If you take away the building [in American shipyards] requirement,” the effect “would be traumatic” on the maritime industrial base and “not something that can be recovered quickly.”

The Maritime Administration is hoping to release for public comment a strategic maritime assessment document in a few months. It will be the first such document in decades.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense, GovExec.com, NextGov.com, DefenseOne.com, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox