Shortage of civilian sailors could stunt U.S. war readiness

By Robert Little

The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The Cape Avinof is waiting for a war.

It is tied to a pier in Baltimore 365 days a year, full of fuel, the boilers cleaned and warmed, and the cargo holds lined with wood for loading ammunition. Its orders are to sail on five days’ notice.

Part of the nation’s Ready Reserve Force, the Cape Avinof is one of nearly 100 empty American cargo ships scattered around the world, waiting for a war. Without them, tank divisions can’t deploy and airborne troops can’t be resupplied. The United States spends more than $350 million every year to ensure that its fleet of ships, including the Cape Avinof, is ready for a crisis.

But the fleet isn’t ready.

Many of the nation’s military cargo ships — so critical to the national defense — could not sail in five days, or even five months, because the United States doesn’t have enough seamen to operate them, an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found.

And in its investigation — which included interviews with more than 150 current and former military planners, federal regulators, maritime union officials and merchant seamen — the Sun found that the shortage is already a threat to national security.

The government masks the manning shortage by shuffling sailors from ship to ship, giving each vessel a full crew just long enough to pass a drill verifying its readiness.

However, the American military needed more than 200 cargo ships to create the "steel bridge" that outfitted troops during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and a recent test deployment of 29 vessels used nearly every available sailor in the nation.

Fixing the problem is not easy for the Pentagon because the labor shortage stems primarily from the economic troubles of the nation’s commercial shipping industry.

Federal officials acknowledge that a manpower crisis is looming, but they deny that it has arrived. They say a combination of patriotism and financial incentives will lure civilian seafarers out of retirement in an emergency.

"Can we do it today? Yes," said Gen. Charles "Tony" Robertson Jr., commander in chief of the U.S. Transportation Command and the Pentagon’s top transportation official. "Can we do it tomorrow? To be determined."

"Are there enough people to sail all of those ships today? The answer to that is truly no," said Jerry Aspland, a past president of the California Maritime Academy, one of six state colleges around the country that train merchant mariners. "We could never send all those ships to sea, and everyone in the country should be worried about that."

Among the Sun’s findings:

  • The government’s own preparedness drills show that the United States lacks the manpower to activate even one-third of its sealift fleet — and then only by sending some ships to sea one at a time with the same crew members.

  • The Pentagon expects to supply crews for its cargo ships in a crisis by hiring more than 3,000 civilians away from the commercial fleet, even though ships in the commercial fleet often can’t find enough qualified employees to sail.

  • Pentagon officials have known of the shortages since the Persian Gulf War, perhaps earlier. But though the estimated size of the nation’s seafaring labor pool has shrunk from about 23,000 sailors in 1990 to fewer than 15,000 today, the military’s reliance on those sailors for wartime sealift has remained constant.

    The United States cannot fight a war, even a small one, without cargo ships. Aircraft can’t handle the volume of tanks, trucks, fuel and other supplies needed to deploy U.S. ground forces overseas. The largest airplane in the U.S. Air Force, the C-5 Galaxy, can transport no more than four small tanks at a time; a ship could carry more than 1,000.

    The nation’s reserve sealift fleet consist of nearly 100 vessels, three of them in Japan and the rest tied up in U.S. ports. Seventy-six of the ships are part of the Ready Reserve Force, maintained in peacetime by the U.S. Department of Transportation. About 20 others are under direct control of the Pentagon.

    None of the ships is part of the Navy’s surface fleet, and the ships are not operated by Navy personnel. Each crew consists entirely of civilians, hired from the union halls and dispatch centers of the U.S. merchant marine.

    The Pentagon frequently tests its reserve sealift fleet by ordering the ships to activate, hire crews and put out to sea.

    What those tests do not show is that the Pentagon recycles crew members from one ship to another. It rarely activates more than eight ships at a time, allowing some sailors to serve on as many as five drills a year.

    While government officials acknowledge that the vessels share crew members, they deny the practice is widespread and say the drills are designed primarily to test the condition of the ships.

    For evidence that the nation could provide crews for the ships in a crisis, they point to a drill in September 1998 during which 29 vessels went to sea simultaneously. More than 700 temporary crew members were hired, and the exercise was declared a success.

    That drill "exemplified … the readiness response of U.S. merchant mariners to crew the surge fleet," said then-maritime administrator Clyde Hart, in testimony before Congress.

    But at least three ships — the Alatna, the Chattahoochee and the Nodoway — never found full crews. The ships, all tankers based in Tsuneishi, Japan, had to share crew members and go out to sea one at a time, according to men who worked on them.

    If the United States went to war today and the Pentagon activated all of its reserve sealift ships, it would need to hire 3,594 sailors, mostly from merchant marine unions around the country. About 900 sailors already work on the ships year-round. Federal officials say finding the rest is not a problem, though they question how long they could keep the positions filled in a crisis.

    "I do worry that in a long-term conflict we won’t have sufficient mariners," said Vice Adm. Gordon Holder, commander of the Military Sealift Command. "But I can man the ships today."

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