National Defense Role

Maritime Industry & National Security

America’s reliance upon its merchant marine, ports, shipyards, and maritime industries for both trade and defense has been constant since colonial days. After several decades of continuous decline of its merchant fleet and maritime industrial base, the United States stands at a pivotal crossroads at the beginning of the new millennium.

The U.S. merchant marine — long a symbol of “Yankee” vitality, innovation, and seapower — is in a position to continue to decline and be in jeopardy, as was the case until recent years, or progress further with continued recognition and reliable advances made in partnership with federal policymakers. Nonetheless, the merchant fleet that ruled the waves at the end of World War II is a mere sliver of its former might. Carrying no more than one to two percent of America’s oceanborne foreign trade in 2008, U.S.-flag vessels handle a small fraction of total world seaborne commerce.

This decline is especially troubling for national security reasons. Billions of dollars have been “invested” in government-owned vessels to carry U.S. military equipment and material to overseas contingencies — costly ships that lie idle in peacetime. When called up, these government-owned vessels rely on private U.S. civilian mariners to activate and crew the vessels. In recent years, these reserve ships and their active merchant marine counterparts, manned by highly skilled and motivated U.S. citizen-seafarers, have served the nation well — from Haiti, to Somalia, to the Persian Gulf, to Bosnia and Iraq.

However, a portion of the scarce public resources that have been allocated largely for inactive ships could be more effectively used elsewhere as the United States seeks to define its place as we transition from the post-Cold War world to the Age of Global Terrorism.

“The most practical and least costly solution to the total sealift problem is a viable U.S. Merchant Marine. We must move forward to renew its vigor and restore it to its traditional position as an active partner in this nation’s defense forces.”

Chief Officer of the U.S. Transportation Command General Duane Cassidy

In addition to its national security role, the American merchant marine is important for U.S. economic strength. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration (Marad), about 20,000 U.S. citizen-mariners are employed in oceangoing jobs, and thousands more work in shoreside activities. The U.S.-flag liner companies, for example, alone account for some $8.5 billion in revenues annually and pay taxes in the hundreds of millions of dollars — much more than the subsidies they receive. Every dollar spent on U.S.-flag service stays in the United States and does not contribute to the bloated current accounts imbalance with other countries. Furthermore, without a viable U.S. merchant marine, American foreign commerce would be dependent exclusively on foreign-flag ships.

From both economic and national security perspectives, U.S. domestic shipping — the Jones Act trade serving more than 90 percent of the United States and annually carrying nearly one billion tons of cargo on our coastal and inland waterways — is also a critical element of the nation’s intermodal shipping system. The Jones Act stipulates that vessels engaged in the domestic trades must be U.S. owned, built and crewed. The coastwise, domestic ocean, Great Lakes, and inland waterways fleet moves nearly 40 percent of the nation’s domestic freight for less than three percent of the national freight bill. The private investment in domestic shipping is nearly $20 billion, which generates more than $10 billion in annual revenues, and fuels America’s economy while supporting national security needs. The U.S. domestic shipping fleet comprises 5,603 towboats and pushboats, 19,536 dry cargo barges, and 5,405 liquid cargo barges; also included are 1200 supply boats and 123 mobile offshore drilling units (MODUs) currently in U.S. waters serving the U.S. oil and gas industry. Of the nearly 26,000 miles of commercially navigable inland waterways, 11,000 miles are significant for domestic commerce. Non-self-propelled combinations of barges pushed by a single tug dominate the commercial cargo trade on the inland waterways. A highly efficient, environmentally responsible, and safe mode of freight transportation, each barge carries as much cargo as 70 tractor trailer trucks or 16 rail hopper cars — a typical dry cargo tow of 15 barges carries as much freight as 1,050 large semi tractor-trailer trucks or 216  rail cars + 6 locomotives The domestic shipping industry’s vital support to national security needs in crisis, contingency and war continues to be addressed both inside and outside government.

Although the U.S. merchant fleet and its related industries continue to lead the world in commercial innovations, there will be no easy or inexpensive way back should we fail to heed these danger signals. In short, we must act now to preserve the U.S. merchant marine — the people, ships, and systems that are ready to respond when needed.

We must act now to preserve the merchant marine

“Our success in a major regional contingency will depend upon the delivery of heavy equipment and the resupply of major ground and air elements engaged forward. Sealift is the key to force sustainment for joint operations, and we are committed to a strong national capability.”

Defense Logistics Agency

Military Sealift Command

The Military Sealift Command is the Navy’s operating agency for ocean transportation. The MSC is responsible for providing strategic sealift and ocean transportation for all armed services, as well as other U.S. government agencies. MSC controls 173, including the Ready Reserve Force (RRF), non-combatant, civilian crewed ships worldwide consisting of barge-carrying ships, breakbulk ships, tankers, and specially configured ships.

These 31 vessels provide supplies to the combatant fleet, i.e., food, fuel, spare parts, munitions, mail, and includes 15 replenishment oilers; 12 cargo/ammunition ships; and 4 fast combat support ships.

These 15 ships provide services to the combatant fleet, i.e., towing, rescue/salvage, forward-deployed submarine maintenance support, etc., including 4 fleet ocean tugs; 4 rescue and salvage ships; 2 hospital ships; 2 submarine tenders; 1 cable-laying/repair ship; 1 command ship; and 1 afloat forward staging base. Note: Both the CLF and the Service Support Force include government-owned, civil service operated ships.

25 special mission ships provide operating platforms and services for a wide variety of U.S. military and other U.S. government missions such as oceanographic and hydrographic surveys, underwater surveillance, missile tracking, acoustic surveys, and submarine and special warfare support. The program includes 9 submarine and special warfare support ships; 6 oceanographic survey ships; 5 ocean surveillance ships; 3 missile range instrumentation ships; 1 navigation test support ship; and 1 sea-based X-band radar ship. Note: The Special Mission, Prepositioning, and Sealift Programs include both government-owned and contractor-owned ships and are crewed by commercial mariners (all civilians, but non-federal employees).


The National Defense Reserve Fleet is a government-owned collection of vessels originally established in 1946 to absorb surplus vessels used during World War II and intended for activation during national emergencies. As of January 31, 2014, the NDRF fleet totaled 121 vessels, including 46 vessels in the RRF, 36 (retention vessels) in long-term storage, and 24 ready for disposal or being prepared for disposal and 15 custody vessels. Older vessels in the NDRF, including retired RRF and Navy vessels, are being systematically scrapped. NDRF vessels have been used as museums, transferred to state agencies to be sunk as artificial fish reefs, and used for military and civilian training. The deep lay-up vessels in the NDRF are maintained in three reserve fleet sites: James River Reserve Fleet at Ft. Eustis, VA; Beaumont Reserve Fleet at Beaumont, TX; and Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet at Benicia, CA.


The Ready Reserve Force component of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, managed and administered by the Maritime Administration, is maintained in a state of readiness for activation in 5 days, with one vessel PETERSBURG, maintained in a state of readiness in 10 days to meet the surge requirements typical of the early stages of military operations. When activated, RRF ships come under the operational control of the Military Sealift Command. As of February 2014, there were 46 vessels in the RRF including 35 roll-on/roll-off vessels, 2 heavy lift or barge carrying ships, 6 auxiliary craneships, 1 tanker, and 2 aviation repair vessels.

The Maritime Administration contracts with private sector managers for RRF maintenance and repair services, activation, manning, and operation. On July 27, 2005, the three-year procurement effort to obtain ship management services for the RRF program was completed. Twenty-one contracts were awarded to nine successful bidders for the management, maintenance and repair, activation, operation and deactivation of 54 RRF vessels. The total contract award exceeded $2.3 billion over a 10-year performance period; the $2.3 billion figure includes options for extension for good performance. Innovation was the keynote of this procurement; it was the first performance-based service solicitation issued by the Maritime Administration and was the first major all-electronic solicitation in its history. Currently, there are 7 Ship Managers under 19 contracts managing a total of 48 ships. The total estimated contract value is $1.3 billion. In addition to the contracts awarded in 2005, the Maritime Administration awarded five Ship Manager contracts in 2011 that included Fast Sealift Support Ships and two awards in 2012. All of the awards will expire in 2015. MARAD is currently planning for the release of the 2015 solicitation.

Readiness of RRF vessels is verified through random no-notice activations and scheduled activations for military cargo operations and exercises. This program has experienced a total of 214 vessel activations since 1990. Sea trials not only prove the condition of the ships, but also provide a training opportunity for merchant mariner crews and permit RRF management companies to observe crew performance.

RRF ships and their crews have provided an unprecedented level of support to the Armed Forces since November 2002 for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom with more than 45 ship activations, logging over 5,446 cumulative days of service. RRF ships continued to support the more routine exercises and prepositioning required by the Department of Defense during the same time period.

The RRF was also called upon to provide humanitarian relief to the Gulf coast in the aftermath of the 2005 Hurricanes of Katrina and Rita 5 RRF vessels provided logistic relief to the region’s emergency response teams, logging 866 days of service in the effort. In addition, the RRF provided 5 vessels to support international relief efforts in response to the Haitian earthquake (2010), and provided 153 days of service in support of Operation Unified Response. Most recently the RRF provided support to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts with the activation of RRF vessel WRIGHT for 44 days of service in Staten Island, New York in November/December 2012.


The 26 ship fleet,crewed by private citizen mariners, includes 9 large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ships; 4 government-owned tankers, 3 dry cargo ships, 1 high speed vessel, 5 roll-on/roll-off ships, 2 high speed transports, and 2 joint high speed vessels. The Sealift Program provides high-quality, efficient and cost-effective ocean transportation for the Department of Defense and other federal agencies during peacetime and war. The program manages a mix of government-owned and long-term-chartered dry cargo ships and tankers, as well as additional short-term or voyage-chartered ships. By DOD policy, MSC must first look to the U.S.-flagged market to meet its sealift requirements. Government-owned ships are used only when suitable U.S.-flagged commercial ships are unavailable.


The Prepositioning Program is an essential element in the U.S. military’s readiness strategy. Afloat prepositioning strategically places military equipment and supplies aboard ships located in key ocean areas to ensure rapid availability during a major theater war, a humanitarian operation or other contingency. This program includes 13 Maritime Prepositioning Ships (container, roll-on roll-off and mobile landing platform ships); 8 Army Prepositioned Stocks (roll-on/roll-off and container ships); 2 Dry Cargo/Ammunition ships; 2 Air Force Containers; and 2 Offshore Petroleum Distribution Systems. These vessels are ready to deploy on short notice to initially support military forces in the event of a contingency; crewed by civilians employed by companies under contract to the MSC; the ships are located in such areas as the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and Guam; prepositioning ships include long-term chartered commercial vessels, activated Ready Reserve Force ships, and government-owned ships.