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Maritime Security Program

The U.S. Merchant Marine as the fourth arm of defense

The Maritime Security Program (MSP) is a true rarity in modern American governance: a successful arrangement benefiting workers, taxpayers, and the national defense all in one package. The program, created by the 1996 Maritime Security Act, allows the Department of Defense to call upon a fleet of active U.S.-flagged and crewed commercial vessels during times of war or emergency to increase capacity for transporting military cargoes.

Through the MSP (and its companion Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement for logistical support), the U.S. government enjoys significant savings and flexibility in comparison to the costs and logistical headaches of maintaining a full time reserve sealift fleet at taxpayer expense. By ensuring program vessels are U.S.-flag, U.S.-crewed, the government doesn’t compromise its readiness or security needs by relying on untested foreign operators. The program has been so successful in meeting the U.S. military’s needs that it has been expanded under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The original MSP fleet consisted of 47 vessels, which was expanded in 2003 to 60 vessels.

The 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act created the Tanker Security Program (TSP) and Cable Security Fleet (CSF). The TSP will cover 10 U.S.-flag tanker vessels, ensuring that the military’s energy needs can be met at a moment’s notice. The CSF provides for two U.S.-flag vessels to install and maintain submarine cables.

These two additional programs didn’t fall out of the clear blue sky, however. MTD’s allies in the maritime industry and in government fought for them. A bipartisan coalition in Congress first advocated for the CSF in early 2020, when they included the program in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The 2020 NDAA also mandated a report on the feasibility of what would later become the TSP. The political pressure and deal making that went into creating these programs were a years-long undertaking in themselves.

Each year, MSP’s private operator stipends must receive congressional approval and each year defenders of the maritime industry have stepped up to the plate. As the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan came to a close, some tried to argue against the necessity of funding the MSP, let alone expanding the MSP fleet. However, the cloud of uncertainty spreading over world affairs in light of the unjust Russian invasion of Ukraine – along with other foreign military adventurism in Africa and the South China Sea – underscores that military readiness cannot be left to chance.

There simply is no knowing when the next major geopolitical conflict will require a rapid U.S. response. If and when that moment comes, we know that the MSP fleet has the skill and agility to answer the call.

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