Larger cargo fleet sought

Decline of U.S. ships seen as a threat to war on terror

Tax, regulatory breaks

November 24, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

A senior member of Congress says that a shortage of cargo ships and civilian sailors could imperil the war on terrorism if large numbers of American tanks and troops are needed overseas.

U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, has submitted legislation to Congress calling for tax cuts and regulatory changes to salvage the United States' withering merchant marine. Typically given little regard in peacetime, the merchant marine is the nation's primary means of moving military supplies during a war.

"If this conflict goes on into the new year, we're going to need supply lines that will severely test our ability to provide sealift," said Oberstar, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "My concern is that with the decline of the U.S. merchant fleet, we don't have the resources to do it."

Oberstar's bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the Transportation Committee. It would lower the costs of operating American-flagged cargo ships by largely exempting them from income tax, easing design and safety restrictions and lowering insurance costs. The goal, Oberstar said, is to lure ships back to the U.S. fleet so that more are available to transport American commerce in peacetime and military supplies in wartime.

American troops fighting in Afghanistan have so far operated only in small teams, capable of being deployed and supplied by aircraft. But if a larger, division-sized force is called on, deployment would only be possible by sea. And if the conflict approached the size of the gulf war of 1991, the Pentagon would soon exhaust the available American ships and sailors.

The Pentagon plans to charter commercial ships for sealift, but the federal government also owns nearly 100 cargo ships, most of them now sitting empty in American ports. Before the Pentagon can use any of those ships, it must hire crews from the unions of the U.S. merchant marine.

In a speech submitted to Congress, Oberstar noted a series of articles in The Sun in August showing that the U.S. merchant marine lacks a sufficient number of qualified sailors to operate those government-owned ships in a crisis.

The shortage stems from the decay of the American shipping industry, in which ships can cost more than $4 million more to operate than their foreign competitors because of the taxes and regulations imposed by the federal government. The U.S.-flagged cargo fleet has shrunk from nearly 3,500 ships after World War II to roughly 250 today. Since the gulf war, when sailors in their 70s were called out of retirement to activate the government's cargo ships, the nation's available pool of sailors has shrunk nearly 40 percent.

"Not only will we not have sufficient ships to move our war materials; we won't have enough trained sailors to operate the laid-up fleet of government-owned ships that the Department of Defense is depending on to transport our tanks and heavy equipment when they are mobilized," Oberstar said in his speech.

Officials in the shipping industry applaud the bill, noting that similar changes in the United Kingdom led to a 40 percent increase in the British commercial fleet. But they are skeptical, given Congress' frequent opposition to anything that smells of corporate welfare.

"This is ground-breaking stuff," said Joe Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, an organization of American ship owners. "But we're at the beginning of the process, and who knows what will happen."

The Pentagon is already using cargo ships to support the war in Afghanistan. At least one merchant ship has re-supplied the Air Force with ammunition, according to the newspaper Stars and Stripes. Two other American ships, both pre-loaded with Air Force and Marine Corps supplies, left port on classified missions shortly before the war began, according to officials with the unions that operate them.

And according to reports in a European trade publication, the Pentagon has chartered foreign tankers to haul jet fuel and made queries about shipping ammunition and helicopters.

But that kind of activity is not unusual, even during peacetime. The war in Afghanistan has, so far, shown no signs of requiring the all-out "steel bridge" of cargo ships that strained the nation's shipping resources during the gulf war.

"They haven't needed to call up anything else - it hasn't been that kind of conflict," said Clinton Whitehurst, a merchant shipping specialist with the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University.

But that could change, Whitehurst said. If the Pentagon decides to put a larger, well-equipped force inside Afghanistan - and particularly if the war shifts into another conflict with Iraq - all of the tanks, food, fuel and supplies that those troops need would have to move to the region in ships.

"Airlift can't do the job," Whitehurst said. "You need to activate that sealift."

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