A Maritime Perspective of Surface Force Projection Challenges and Maritime Community’s Response

Aug 17, 2020 | DTJ Online, Surface Force Projection Conference

RADM Mark H. Buzby, USN (Ret.), Administrator of the US Maritime Administration, spoke during the Surface Force Projection Virtual Conference on July 29, 2020. The conference was presented by the National Defense Transportation Association (NDTA) and Christopher Newport University’s Center for American Studies (CNU CAS), in collaboration with MARAD, the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), and the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).

Reflecting on the conference theme, Enabling Dynamic Force Employment Through Global Port Readiness, Buzby said that “to do that, it really takes a strong maritime industry across the board.” He described several key elements that collectively strengthen the maritime industry to support national and economic security requirements: port and infrastructure investments, shipyards and the US industrial base, mariner education and training, domestic offshore energy production, Jones Act shipping, international shipping and global logistics, sealift recapitalization and readiness, and the response to COVID-19.

He reported that MARAD is very pleased with the relationship it has with America’s 16 strategic ports. These ports, which primarily serve as economic gateways, maintain constant readiness for the deployment of US military forces worldwide. Despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Buzby was unaware of any port closures and commended the remarkable response of the ports which kept commercial and military cargo moving.

Congress has provided excellent support to the ports industry. One way they have done this is through the authorization of The Port Infrastructure and Development Program. In its inaugural year, the program made 15 awards of grants ranging from $10.5 to nearly $44 million. In total, $280 million was awarded. Many of the improvements made through these funds helped to enhance intermodal capability and connectivity at the ports. Now in its second year, the program is expected to award $220 million. Small shipyards are also receiving financial support aimed at improving their infrastructures, modernizing, and increasing efficiency.

Education and training of the maritime workforce are essential facets of MARAD’s mission. But, attracting young people to the industry is a challenge. “Where we used to just focus on Kings Point and the six state maritime academies, we’re really finding that we have to focus much earlier and much lower, down to the high school-level and even earlier,” said Buzby.

The Jones Act, which turns 100 this year, remains under attack by critics. However, those negative remarks are not gaining much traction. It appears that Congress well understands the benefits of the law. The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored how critical it is for the US to have control of its own supply chain and the movement of vessels around the country.

“Internationally, MSP [the Maritime Security Program] really was critical again during this COVID crisis for keeping a large portion of the American Merchant Marine American. In many cases, the three legs that most international shipping relies upon—cargo preference cargo, commercial cargo, and the Maritime Security Program stipend—in many cases, they lost two of those three legs, and the MSP stipend was kind of it. So, I think again that proved its worth and the necessity to have such a program which quite frankly is a real bargain,” said Buzby. He added that the program, which has been reauthorized by Congress until 2035, “is a key part of our sealift program that we rely upon to ensure we have assured access to enough sealift for this country.”

The other piece related to safeguarding assured access is the government-owned fleet, which is currently in need of recapitalization. The ships in this fleet average 46-47 years of age, and are increasingly unreliable. MARAD is working on specific recapitalization programs and plans with Congress, the Navy, and US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM).

COVID-19 has been a great challenge to every segment of the maritime industry. For ports, cargo volumes fell sharply. “By most estimates, we’re going to be probably another year or two to really fully recover back to a level of business that we enjoyed—which was quite high—before the onset of COVID,” said Buzby. “Certain elements of the industry have been hit harder than others. Containers have been doing probably better than most, heavy lift and breakbulk took some pretty heavy rolls, ro-ro probably the heaviest roll in terms of impact, and that’s slowly beginning to come back.”

He credited the ability to keep the industry moving and capability available throughout the pandemic to the level of cooperation and focus of everyone in the industry. In addition, maintaining an open dialogue among all parts of the industry facilitated timely actions. That cooperation and communication will continue. Buzby closed by thanking the audience for their efforts during the crisis, which preserved the capability to move US forces around the world in times of crisis and to keep the economy strong in times of peace.

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