What is the True Maritime Deficiency that Plagues DOD Readiness?
By Lieutenant Commander Bradford Eastman Strategic Sealift Officer Force, Licensed Third Mate
What is the true maritime deficiency that plagues Department of Defense (DOD) readiness? The answer to this question may be a mystery to some because readiness is defined by the role one plays in an organization. Who, or better yet, what, should define readiness; is it even a standalone metric? A metric is only useful if measurable, but what are the critical components that sum to characterize maritime value to the DOD and define its readiness? Is there one or many? If there are many, is one proportionally more significant than the other? The single metric usually considered first is ship capacity, but there may be more than meets the eye when you peel back the deck plates and survey the industry through the eyes of the mariner.
Although DOD’s mission has adapted with time and circumstance, one staple remains true: mobility has always (and will continue to be) the foundation to execution. The DOD has one mission and one mission only to “provide a lethal joint force to defend the security of our country and sustain American influence abroad,” as stated by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. This mission places a heavy burden on maritime assets which account for 90 percent of all DOD cargo lift. Such a dependency would obviously call attention to capacity. But behind the capacity is the heartbeat of the maritime industry—its mariners. Without them, nothing moves. Mariners ensure the safe, efficient passage of cargo from origin to destination and remain a single point of failure for guaranteeing the readied state of the DOD and its ability to project and sustain power around the globe.
Nothing moves until something happens, and in no instance could that be more true than within a maritime-based operation, as the US Merchant Marine (mariners) are the single element in the maritime ecosystem that actually facilitate underway movement. Maritime plans without a full spectrum consideration for the mariner could impose unnecessary risk into operational objectives and should therefore be considered as an equal component to capacity when measuring DOD maritime readiness. Similar to capacity, the US Merchant Marine should be assessed at the most granular level, as everything from license and/or rating to ship class familiarization could make the difference in operational effectiveness.
Contrary to popular belief, mariners are not a ubiquitous commodity; for example, at the highest level of classification is licensed versus unlicensed. Ships are required to crew with both. There are then different classes of licenses such as Master to Third Mate on the deck side and Chief Engineer to Third Assistant Engineer on the engine side. The more complicated distinction between the two is the licensing process.
Engineers require significant underway time on specific propulsion systems to qualify for the licensing evaluation process. Without time underway on a specific propulsion system, an engineer is unable to achieve such an endorsement as a licensed credential. This may appear to be a minor detail on the surface, but with few steam vessels still operating in the US commercial fleet (and all to be phased out in the very near future), there is extremely limited opportunity to obtain or even retain the skills for this dated and delicate type of plant.
This risk continues to grow when considering the number of organic ships the DOD relies on for lift that are equipped with steam propulsion plants. The declining numbers of licensed steam engineers and the lengthy training pipeline for initial credentials and upgrades pose another dimension of risk to DOD maritime readiness. Is such a reliance on steam propulsion vessels combined with declining engineers required to crew such capacity an acceptable risk?
This risk of mariner compatibility to emerging needs not only exists today, but will continue to grow in severity if left unaddressed. The maritime industry is ever-changing with more challenging operating environments, declining cargo volumes, and aging ships. If there was ever a time to further examine and redefine maritime readiness, the time is now. Vessels are continuing to be asked to do more with the same crew and skills. Responsibilities such as security, technology updates, and increased communication requirements are straining the limits of today’s mariner to operate in tomorrow’s environment. The US Merchant Marine is diverse in skill and experience, but the continuous threat to mariner availability and relevant skills required for DOD support continues to exist.
Probably the most relevant skill to operating in today’s environment (whether commercial trade or in support of national defense) is operating in a contested environment. The mariners of today and even those being groomed for the future are largely unequipped to operate in this space. This space, although defined on a macro perspective, is ever-evolving and requires a framework for definition and training.
Mariners must be equipped with the maritime skills to continue operations within such an uncertain yet navigable environment. Again, it may be assumed that as a mariner, this skillset was translated to the modern professional from those who have taken con before. But, the skills have been lost over time for maneuvers such as convoy operations.
Do mariners of today have the skillset to operate convoy operations such as performed during World War II? Does the DOD have additional requirements for civilian mariners? The translation from commercial mariner to mariners crewed for DOD utility in a contested environment may not be the same. Is there focus on defining and training to the gap? Most importantly, the environment has evolved and the question that should be asked is: what are the new skills US mariners require to combat this new threat to vital sea lanes and be an enduring asset to the DOD?
The US Merchant Marine and particularly its mariners can no longer afford to be a secondary consideration. The mariner must be an equal thought in harmonizing commercial trade, national defense and the holistic looming contested environment. Maintaining the localized view (capacity only) poses risk to the DOD mission, as well as a thriving US Merchant Marine. The decision to join forces has already been put in place with key DOD Organizations and commercial industry, but the focus must be equally divided between assured access to capacity and utility of the mariner. The future must hold a holistic maritime assessment, viewing DOD maritime needs as an ecosystem of requirements, all requiring universal attention. This strategy will expose risks and lead to a path that supports not only the needs of DOD sealift, but also retaining a current and ready US Merchant Marine capable of maintaining the needs of the US economy.