The State of the Maritime Administration: An Interview with The Honorable Mark H. Buzby, Maritime Administrator

Aug 1, 2018 | Defense Transportation Journal

By Kimberly Huth, Director of Public Relations, NDTA

The Maritime Administration (MARAD) is the agency within the US Department of Transportation that oversees waterborne transportation. Its programs promote the use of waterborne transportation and its seamless integration with other segments of the transportation system. MARAD works in many areas involving ships and shipping, shipbuilding, port operations, vessel operations, national security, environment, and safety. MARAD is also charged with maintaining the health and viability of the merchant marine, since commercial mariners, vessels, and intermodal facilities are vital for supporting national security.1

Rear Admiral Mark “Buz” Buzby, USN (Ret.), Administrator of the Maritime Administration, is approaching the end of his first year in this position. He is committed to finding ways to enhance cargo opportunities, while also building the US flag fleet. Currently, he is focused on promoting the development and maintenance of an adequate, well-balanced United States merchant marine, sufficient to carry the Nation’s domestic waterborne commerce and a substantial portion of its foreign waterborne commerce, and capable of service as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency.

The current state of MARAD is of great concern to Buzby. In the following interview, he highlights his concerns, discusses developing MARAD’s functionality and kick-starting its strategic initiatives. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DTJ: Thank you for taking time to sit and talk with us today. It only takes about five minutes observing you to completely understand your love for the maritime industry, can you tell us where it all started and what keeps your head and heart attached to the sea?

Administrator Buzby: When I was 14 years old, I put on my very first set of dress blues; I’ve known no other life. It has been my center for as long as I can remember. As I think about my life, I wouldn’t have chosen to be anywhere else. I often think of what I would tell the future generations of young men or women considering the maritime career field. It is an opportunity to make a meaningful, significant contribution to the service of their nation. It will put them in touch with natural elements at sea. It allows a great deal of pride in their ability and candidly their inability to do it. They will be entrusted with large machinery and sailors who depend on them. It requires a methodical process, that requires patience and trust. It demands that a sailor knows the ship well and be alert to when she is not operating appropriately. In fact, I got underway on a 70-year-old Liberty ship, [SS] John W. Brown this past weekend from Baltimore, the kind of ship that won WWII. There are two of them still active, one in Baltimore and one in California. I was down in the engine room, up on the bridge steering just like a merchant sailor; it was great! I was totally in my element, like returning home after a bit too much time away. She has been preserved for historic purposes. She is one of 2,000 ships that were built to answer the shortage of merchant ships. My predecessor, Jerry Land, was directed by President Roosevelt to build a merchant marine. We had no ships to transport our troops or vital supplies. Ships were being built in months versus years.

DTJ: Can you expand on your recent comments concerning the readiness of the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) and the fleet’s ability to respond to a contested or uncontested environment?

Administrator Buzby: The condition of our RRF worries me, I had to call General McDew [Gen Darren McDew, Commander US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM)], and tell him that I have ships I can’t provide to him anymore that he’s counting on. In fact, Admiral Mewbourne, [Rear Adm Dee Mewbourne, Commander Military Sealift Command (MSC)] is supporting this assessment and telling his boss that he has ships that he is sending up to me that are no longer able to operate. The readiness decline is demanding hard decisions. The fleet ships can be fixed, but they are wearing out at a higher rate and the cost to fix them is outrageous; do we really want to dump that money into a 50-year-old ship? What we are talking about is typically steel replacement, as these ships rust from inside out. The skill to replace the rusted inside, as well as the cost of steel make it a risk versus reward decision very tough.

DTJ: During the recent NDTA Board of Directors meeting, we discussed the ports that are struggling to remain in business. As business dissolves, how do the shipyards preserve the talent required to meet the current and future needs of the fleet?

Administrator Buzby: Recently the Philly Shipyard laid off laborers and is struggling to keep the experienced talent they have. The work force is forced to look for employment elsewhere and if they do find it, they are forced to start at the bottom and often relocate their family to follow the work. The fear is that we will lose the talent and they will find other trades.

DTJ: Where do you think we can apply the lessons learned from past mistakes to the Maritime Administration?

Administrator Buzby: Probably after the first Gulf War, we realized ships were WWII vintage and were barely making it or breaking down. So in response we built the Large Medium Speed Roll-On/Roll-Off [LMSR], but that was 20 years ago. Our merchant marine is so cyclic, we build it up, then crisis is over and we start from the bottom. The solution to any contingency must include a multi modal capability. As General McDew likes to say, ‘if you want it there tonight, airlift is absolutely the best option. However, if you want a decisive combat force, it must come on a ship.’

DTJ: NDTA Committee Chairs have shared concerns about pilot, truck driver and mariner shortages. What do you attribute this to, and what do you believe is the collective solution?

Administrator Buzby: The common thread across all modes is the work requires reoccurring and long durations of time away from home and family. It entails an enormous commitment, a low level of pay for the amount of work done and that may not be commensurate to what people perceive as easier and allowing less time away from home. Additionally, these fields have a perceived decrease in the normal comforts of life—lack of connectivity to family and friends, and predictable time off. It has always been that way, but this generation places a higher value on those things. And they are a bit less willing to sacrifice those things. When I was at MSC, going on a ship and not knowing the exact day when you can walk ashore to attend very important life-events, like weddings or the birth of your child, was very important and we worked hard to improve the predictability. They want more predictability, and a bit more control of their scheduled time off.

DTJ: In addition to the predictability and more time with family, the community also feels the administrative burden has increased and can often seem to be a tipping point when deciding on a long-term career. Does this affect your mariners?

Administrator Buzby: We have reduced the crew size to reduce the cost, while increasing the administrative burden. Being a captain on a ship today requires doing work that three people used to do. In addition to the enormous responsibility of commanding a ship at sea, they also are responsible payroll, purser, manifest, or the doctor. It is not just standing on the bridge anymore.

DTJ: Where are your efforts focused?

Administrator Buzby: We must ensure the policies in place make it viable for US companies to use US flag ships to trade internationally and at a profit. The current business case does not support flying under the US flag because it supplies slivers compared to doing business internationally—the table is tilted so far against them. There is almost a $6-7 million dollar difference per-ship per-year operating cost between a US flag ship on a run and a foreign flag ship. One can only be patriotic so long with that kind of delta. If we didn’t have the Maritime Security Program paying out five-million dollars a year for those ships to stay under the US flag, which still does not cover all the delta, they would be flagging out at a much higher rate. We have about 12 ships under the US flag fleet left trading internationally that are somehow making it today. Some are under charter to MSC who are still getting paid by the government a lot of money, probably more than they would if doing it on the open market.

DTJ: You’ve mentioned your concern about our fleet’s readiness. Tell us more about that.

Administrator Buzby: The average age of my RRF ships is 46 years old, some are older. If you draw a line in the sand and say 60-year-old ships are as old as we are going operate a ship—which can be done technically, but at an enormous cost—each year gets more expensive, so we are only supplying a short-term solution to a long-term problem. For instance, the SS Flickertail State, that I had to take off line; we planned on doing $2 million worth of repairs this year which has been what it has cost to keep her going. Based on the current cost of steel, we would have had to double that to allow her to go do her mission. Money does not exist in my budget right now. The US Navy gives me $289 million a year to operate those 46 ships. That is with nine people working long, strenuous days and they are still not able to keep up. I have had to make some very tough decisions. This year I have five ships that I must dry dock because the US Coast Guard requires me to do so to stay in class. The amount of work required to keep those ships in service is double what I have in my checkbook. I had to take one off to keep the other four going. That is exactly what I said recently in my letter to General McDew: I informed him that he can’t count on that ship anymore. You ask where the root of my readiness concern lays, it is there. If a large dust up happens tomorrow and we must mobilize all the sealift ships, well I couldn’t in good conscience send that one to sea. We would have to potentially go on the open market and get a foreign flag ship to try and carry some of our stuff.

DTJ: Thank you for the interview. We sure miss you at NDTA, however, we are incredibly proud and will remain a strong partner! As our former President and CEO, we want you to know we stand ready to assist and appreciate the continued relationship. How can we help?

Administrator Buzby: Ahh thank you. NDTA is the connective tissue between the Maritime Administration and industry, and the government and industry. There isn’t a chain of command like there is in the military, there is almost a dotted line between the Maritime Administration and USTRANSCOM. We don’t work for them, but very closely with them. Our connectivity to industry and defense is through NDTA. You all help facilitate the conversation and help get word back and forth. NDTA enhances the maritime industry through engagements. We are doing a lot of work with the whole of industry, not just the Defense Department. NDTA ensures our collective industries stay in tune. I found the greatest attribute NDTA offers is when it is uncomfortable for one side or the other to take a stand, that should be NDTA talking. If there is hesitation whether to approach the other side, then NDTA is a valuable vehicle that ensures both sides get together.

1 Dept. of Transportation Maritime Administration About Us, Retrieved June 29, 2018 from https://www.marad.dot.gov/about-us/