From the military’s perspective, there is no doubt that America’s national and economic security remain dependent on a strong U.S.-flag Merchant Marine.
That message was delivered emphatically to the Maritime Trades Department Executive Board during its two-day meeting in Houston by the deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), the national president of the Navy League of the United States, and a retired Navy rear admiral currently serving as superintendent of Texas A&M Maritime Academy.
USTRANSCOM Deputy Commander Vice Admiral William Brown and Texas A&M University at Galveston CEO Rear Admiral Robert Smith (USN) (Ret.) addressed the board February 13 while Navy League President James Offutt spoke the following day.
All three speakers stressed the importance of supporting laws and programs that allow America to maintain a strong sealift capability – primarily the Jones Act, the Maritime Security Program (MSP), and cargo preference including Food for Peace. They also focused on the efficient, respectful and productive partnerships that exist between the U.S. commercial maritime sector and the military. The trio stressed the need to maintain a robust shipbuilding capability.
Brown represents the agency that oversees global transportation for the Defense Department (DOD). He said his organization “relies on the sage counsel of people like (MTD President) Mike (Sacco) and the rest of the team. I really am here to say thank you to all of you.”
He continued, “In the military, over 90 percent of our DOD requirements travel by the sea. It’s quite important to us. We are a nation that relies on the maritime industry as a critical component of our country’s economy as well as our national security. It’s your efforts today, and day in, day out, across the industry that allow us to meet war fighter requirements. From crewing the merchant fleet to the impressive shipbuilding efforts in our U.S. shipyards, your collective effort across the enterprise makes us viable and ready….
“It’s American ships and American seafarers who have always come through for us in times of peace, war or national emergency,” Brown added. “We shouldn’t expect anything different in the years ahead. We will continue to rely on the people who build these ships and man them as their crew. And I am reminded that they are often in harm’s way themselves. We’re grateful for those sacrifices and we’re grateful for the sacrifices their families contribute as well.”
Brown provided an overview of USTRANSCOM and an update on current operations, including ones involving the Cape Ray (deployed to assist in disposing of Syrian chemical weapons) and the Maersk Peary and Maersk Illinois (sailing for the annual Operation Deep Freeze mission in Antarctica).
The agency’s commercial partners are vital, Brown stated.
“Our supply chain at TRANSCOM is a worldwide, interdependent enterprise reliant on infrastructure,” he explained. “We can also operate where we don’t have infrastructure. No other country in the world has the capabilities that we have, and the commercial maritime industry plays a huge part in our supply chain – in our success – and again, we thank you very much.”
He described the MSP as critical to preserving readiness by helping maintain a pool of mariners and ships. Brown said USTRANSCOM leaders are encouraged by the Maritime Administration’s (MarAd) efforts to establish a national maritime policy. Not doing so would lead to further decline of the U.S.-flag fleet, which “puts not only our mission at risk but our nation, and this is unacceptable.”
He repeated a comment made by Gen. William Fraser, commander of the agency, when he addressed the MTD convention in September: “‘You are the backbone of our success.’ Well, nothing has changed, and this fact will become even more evident in the future.”
Offutt had a distinguished military career as a weapons systems acquisition manager and a pilot, which included flying more than 200 combat missions during four Vietnam tours of duty (which brought a standing ovation from the board as well as the general audience). He now heads an advocacy organization that promotes not just the military sea services but also the U.S. Merchant Marine.
He told the audience he grew up in the strong union town of Pittsburgh and felt right at home with the MTD crowd.
The Navy League, Offutt, said, “wants to be the trusted partner of the maritime industry and MarAd…. Not only is a strong naval presence necessary for our defense, but it’s integral to our commerce…. The U.S.-flag (commercial) fleet, just like the Navy, is necessary for national security and economic prosperity.”
He echoed a point made by other speakers: As fewer military cargoes are available because of reduced operations in the Middle East, our nation cannot afford to let commercial resources dwindle.
America also must keep its guard up, Offutt said.
“Our active enemies are as numerous and committed as they were at the peak of the recent Middle East conflicts,” he said. “If anything, America’s ability to respond to threats will have to intensify as our enemies’ center of gravity and activities disperse outside the focused areas where we have operated for the last few decades.
“Remember, we’re an island nation. We’re dependent on our trade and on our seafaring group to protect us.”
He discussed the American military’s current and projected needs, and concluded that meeting those requirements depends on a viable U.S. Merchant Marine.
“There’s a phrase: presence with the capability to engage,” Offutt explained. “That’s the primary requirement and the strength of our sea services. Presence is achieved through global movement of our ships that provide diplomacy, humanitarian assistance or combat capability. It’s imperative that we fund an aggressive shipbuilding program and modernization program. A sustained maritime superiority is paramount to supporting the U.S. economy.”
U.S. sealift capabilities “depend on having a sufficiently large fleet of U.S.-flag merchant marine vessels in ocean-going service with skilled U.S. maritime labor to crew each of those ships,” he added.
He also said America must strengthen its cargo preference laws, and maintain the MSP and Jones Act.
“The Navy League supports a sealift capability that remains ready to support our nation should its resources be required for crisis or war,” Offutt said. “We will continue to work each day to make sure that elected officials and the American public understand what the sea service needs to accomplish this, and the implications for our national security if they are unable to maintain that readiness.”
Although Smith now works in an academic setting, his background includes significant Navy assignments such as serving as deputy commander of the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC); commander of MSC Europe during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm; and work at USTRANSCOM.
“I am first and foremost for the American fleet,” he stated. “It’s absolutely vital for this country’s strategic interest to reinvigorate, to have a maritime strategy and build the American fleet. I don’t have all the answers, but I know one thing: If we do not maintain our influence on the high seas, this country is going to recede. Seventy percent of the globe is ocean…. We have to build the American fleet, and there’s a defense element to it.”
He said America will fall victim to myriad problems if we cannot enforce the right of safe passage on the high seas.
Smith also spoke about helping develop a maritime strategy that builds up the fleet.
“It really is important that we have the ability to build ships with American labor and American expertise, and to keep our shipbuilding capacity,” he said. “All of this is important for the future of this country. We really cannot have a strong defense without a strong economy, and we can’t have a strong economy without a strong national defense. It works hand in hand.”
He concluded, “I’m thankful for what your organizations do, and I think believe we can have a win-win situation for everybody.”