Maritime security fleet grows

3 cargo ships are renamed, reflagged as U.S. vessels in Dundalk ceremony

September 30, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Three commercial cargo ships traded in their Norwegian and Swedish flags for the Stars and Stripes - and picked up the new American names Courage, Honor and Integrity - during a ceremony in Baltimore yesterday as part of a federal effort to lock up enough domestic vessels to haul military gear overseas during wars and emergencies.

Without enough of its own ships to ferry goods, the government has encouraged the commercial ocean lines to reflag and supplement its fleet. The three ships, owned by American Roll-On Roll-Off Carriers of Montvale, N.J., also known as ARC, are the most to be reflagged at one time, the company and government officials said.

"It's a good deal for the government," said Raymond Ebeling, president and chairman of ARC before the renaming ceremony at the port of Baltimore's Dundalk Marine Terminal, where the company and its Scandinavian sister line Wallenius Wilhelmsen are the biggest customers. "They have the right to come take the ship when they need it."

Ebeling said it's also a good deal for ARC. The company gets a $2.6 million subsidy per ship to offset the cost of more expensive U.S. crews and it gets a steady stream of government businesses.

ARC will add the three new ships to the five it already operates. They will be filled with military goods and reconstruction equipment, and when there is room, the ships will also carry regular commercial cargo such as cars and farm equipment to regularly scheduled destinations.

The ships have contracts under the U.S. Maritime Security Program, which was recently expanded to 60 vessels from 47 by Congress.

The contracts went to 11 companies and run from tomorrow through 2016.

Defense officials were facing a problem because the number of U.S.-flagged vessels and crews were dropping because of regulations for workers and security that had made foreign ownership easier and cheaper.

The government tries to avoid contracting with foreign-flagged ships for sensitive military cargo.

Officials argued to Congress that there weren't enough active military ships, or so-called Ready Reserve ships - empty vessels docked around the nation and world that have no crews.

Only some of those ships are now being used by the military because there aren't enough American seafarers to crew them all.

The commercial ships have crews and regular routes that can be altered to fit the government's needs.

ARC will now sail five ships to Europe and three to the Mideast. All the ships will call on Baltimore, bringing "a lot of extra business," Ebeling said. A spokeswoman for the port said it was too soon to tell how much more business would come. The ceremony yesterday was held in the cargo hold of the Integrity, a 13-year-old, 653-foot-long "ro-ro" ship.

It can carry equipment that can roll on and roll off the ship, such as farm and construction equipment. The hulking ship did not move as the wind blew outside and the rain came down. Three model anchors were christened in place of the three ships in front of a group of port officials, port-related businessmen and members of the military that will rely on the commercial vessels.

Defense officials said the ships will not only be used for military purposes but for humanitarian operations. The ships, for example, have been used to quickly bring aid to victims of natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami last year.

"This is a critical expansion of our nation's maritime capabilities," said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, which manages global air, land and sea transportation for the Defense Department. "This is how the vast majority of things get moved."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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