Shipping crew deficit called wartime risk

Bush's maritime chief acknowledges worries on readiness

`A very top priority'

New reserve force among proposals to ease shortage

January 13, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The Bush administration is acknowledging, after years of government denials, that the nation's ability to fight a large-scale war overseas is in peril because of a crippling shortage of manpower in the U.S. merchant marine.

William G. Schubert, Bush's maritime administrator, said in an interview that he does not believe the Pentagon could find enough sailors to operate its cargo ships if military forces were deployed for a sustained overseas campaign.

He plans to pursue several immediate remedies, including pushing for the creation of a new Merchant Marine Reserve, and said solving the manpower crisis will be "a very top priority" of his administration.

"This is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed right now -- today," said Schubert, a former merchant seaman who was sworn in just over a month ago. "We don't have time to postpone this issue any longer, or there could be some very serious consequences. I'm not very comfortable right now that we have the ability to respond to an emergency."

A series of articles in The Sun last summer showed that a shortage of U.S. merchant sailors, brought on by declines in the nation's commercial shipping fleet, would leave many of the government's cargo ships stranded in port during a crisis.

A small military force like the one currently in Afghanistan can be deployed and re-supplied with cargo planes and helicopters. But during a large campaign involving tank divisions and heavy machinery, such as the Persian Gulf war, about 95 percent of the equipment, fuel and supplies must move in ships.

The federal government keeps almost 100 empty cargo ships scattered around the country for use in such an emergency, and it plans to crew them with civilian sailors from the U.S. merchant marine. A complete activation of the 76-ship Ready Reserve Force and about two dozen other dormant sealift vessels would require more than 3,500 mariners, all of them culled from the nation's commercial shipping industry.

Despite denials of a shortage from government and military officials, the series published in The Sun revealed that the Pentagon recycles crew members, transferring them from ship to ship, giving each vessel a full crew just long enough to pass a drill verifying its readiness for war. Some mariners served on as many as five ships a year.

The series also showed that the federal government is relying on retired sailors to fill in during a crisis, even though it has no idea how many retirees are available, who they are, where they live or what qualifications they have.

Since the articles were published, leaders from the nation's merchant marine unions have acknowledged the shortages, and two senior members of Congress have introduced legislation to bolster the commercial shipping industry and reverse its decline.

`That's a good start'

But Schubert's comments represent the first acknowledgement from a federal official responsible for military sealift that the shortage exists -- and the first pledge to do something about it.

"If he's admitting that this is a big problem, then he's the first one to do so. And that's a good start," said retired Navy Capt. Robert W. Kesteloot, a former director of strategic sealift for the Chief of Naval Operations who says a growing manpower shortage was apparent at the Pentagon even in the late 1980s.

"It's about time someone over there started taking this seriously," Kesteloot said.

The Navy is ultimately responsible for military sealift, but it has little control over the crew members hired for its dormant cargo ships because they are all temporary civilian contractors, not regular employees. The responsibility to maintain and preserve that work force rests with the U.S. Maritime Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation.

Previous maritime administrators have acknowledged concerns about manpower but have all claimed that the military's cargo ships can be fully crewed. Schubert's predecessor, Clinton-appointee Clyde J. Hart, said in an interview last year: "It's a problem that should keep us up at nights, but it's not a readiness problem. We can man the ships."

But Schubert, who worked for the Maritime Administration during the gulf war and watched it struggle to crew sealift vessels more than 10 years ago, said he discounts even the agency's latest survey, made public late last year, which concludes that a sufficient supply of mariners is available.

"I'd hate to put our national defense on the line based on a statistical analysis," he said. "It was a problem 10 years ago, and the situation today has only gotten worse."

The U.S. military has always relied on civilian merchant mariners for moving supplies by sea. They are cheaper than military personnel, because they are hired only when needed. And Navy sailors aren't trained in the precise skills required to operate cargo ships -- and virtually all of them lack the necessary licenses and certifications.

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