Monograph: A Strategic Concept for the United States Merchant Marine

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Summary of Recommendations:

To rebuild the US’ logistics system and revitalize the US Merchant Marine, the US should:

Modernize the US Ready Reserve Force and increase its size by a third, and modernize the National Defense Reserve Fleet, over the next five years. This can be done quickly through the second-hand ship market, where the US can buy up relatively modern ships for several million dollars each.

Expand the stipend model already in use for MARAD’s maritime Security Program to include another 40 ships, while considering a tax incentive to increase US maritime competitiveness. The MSP already included 60 ships, but Congress should increase the stipend it provides and extend it to another 40 ships to ensure a greater peacetime fleet – merchant traffic fluctuates internationally, but providing a stipend to cover the costs of US flagging and operation is a self-evidently valuable investment. Moreover, considering a tax incentive that, in certain circumstances, allowed for US-flagged ships to reduce fees could, if properly implemented, maintain US market share and thereby husband merchant capacity for strategic purposes.

Contract with friendly Indo-Pacific powers to create a sustainable medium-term logistical capacity. This requires agreements with major Japanese and South Korean shipbuilders to create a bridge between today A Strategic Concept for the United States Merchant Marine and a future revamped maritime industrial base. Japan is particularly attractive because of its merchant industry’s ultra-modern LNG-fueled ships.

Initiate a long-term maritime industrial base expansion program. This will require at least 15 years, and likely longer, to execute considering the degree of atrophy within the US maritime industrial base. However, a long-term expansion of the US’ maritime construction and sustainment capabilities would have major military and economic benefits.

Seek to maintain a manpower pool of around 15,000 trained licensed mariners, around 5,000 more than exist today. As it stands, the US has no plan to fill a gap of around 2,000 mariners – from the current number of around 10,000 across MSP, VISA, and the domestic fleet – in the event of wartime operations and the need for a major logistical commitment. This increase of 5,000 mariners in the fleet will cover the baseline gap comprehensively, while also enabling the merchant marine to absorb human attrition during a conflict.

Within two years, conduct a full mobilization of the RRF (Ready Reserve Force) at least twice. The RRF is far too brittle to be relied upon in wartime in its current state. Multiple large-scale mobilization exercises will identify the issues within the RRF system, improve crew responsiveness and proficiency, and give the Navy and military in general a better understanding of how long mobilization will take during wartime.

Adopt a badly needed recapitalization plan for the US Merchant Marine Academy. This plan would involve approximately $800m to $1b over the course of a decade. The USMMA is effectively the only institution that creates SSOs for the US military. USMMA graduates form almost the entirety of the US’ strategic sealift officer capacity. It is therefore critical to ensure that the USMMA is properly funded and has state-of-the-art facilities. The plan must be initiated in the next 24 months to create an institution that, if the need arises, can train a significantly greater number of obligated merchant mariners in a much shorter time frame during a crash mobilization effort.

Protect the Academy’s mission-critical at-sea training. “Sea Year” is an integral part of USMMA education. Students spend approximately one year on various merchant vessels, immersed in hands-on training covering a wide-portfolio of technical disciplines that must be mastered. This year of technical training while at USMMA is the differentiating factor between USMMA and our civilian maritime schools as well as other federal service academies. Sea Year is the real-world training ground for future SSOs.

The Sea Year training period is so critical to developing the skills needed to operate these ships, a proficiency expected of these officers by the federal government, that Congress must ensure that Sea Year continues uninterrupted. Only a unanimous consensus of the Chairmen and Ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees should intervene in Sea Year’s operation.

Revamp the USMMA curriculum and invest in new teaching talent. The US military, and in particular, the US Navy, are lacking manpower specializing in logistics. Expanding and modifying USMMA curricular requirements, with an attendant funding increase, would begin to remedy this issue. As noted above, modernization of the USMMA’s antiquated infrastructure is essential.

Create an affiliated intellectual center that links the USMMA to the broader service academy system. The USMM must be treated as an integral part of US military power. This requires an academic link between the USMMA, the service academy dedicated to the USMM, and the rest of the US military and defense intellectual establishment. An in-house research organization can serve as this link, while also connecting to maritime industry concerns, and thereby allow the USMM to interface more effectively with the market.

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