Maritime History

The History of the Maritime Industry

The Massachusetts Bay colony launched its first sea-going vessel in 1631. By 1638 the first American shipyard had been established near Portland, Maine, employing 60 men. Along the Atlantic seaboard, the ocean and its tributaries quickly became highways of commerce for a fledgling country. Although dependent upon a triangular trade with England before the Revolution, trade acts and wars soon focused America’s attention elsewhere.

The year after the 1783 Treaty of Paris confirmed the United States’ independence, the New York merchant ship EMPRESS OF CHINA crossed the Atlantic and rounded the Cape of Good Hope, bound for Macao and Canton to open up the fabulously profitable China trade. Five years later, 15 American vessels called at Canton on a single day. During the same period “Yankee Mariners” visited Baltic, Mediterranean, and African ports, and traded with West India, Sumatra, and India.

The upstart American merchant marine flourished even in the face of competition with the established maritime powers. In 1789, the new United States had 124,000 deadweight tons of shipping in its fleet. By 1800, despite French, British, and Algerian despoliation’s, the aggregate American tonnage was more than 667,100 tons. Ten years later, nearly one million tons of shipping sailed under the American flag, bound for ports in every corner of the globe.

This valuable and growing trade had to be protected. Attacks by Barbary pirates as well as French and British warships and privateers — armed merchantmen — resulted in a loss of some 600 ships and about $20 million before Congress, finally outraged, in 1800 raised the first U.S. Navy under the federal Constitution. In this early period of our history, the American merchant marine was a formidable “auxiliary” that at times outperformed its commissioned Navy counterparts. Privateers were a critical element of U.S. sea power in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In 1776, the colonies had only 31 public ships, and only one of these actually survived the Revolution. Five years later the Americans had 449 privateers mounting 6,735 guns. These armed merchant vessels were responsible for three-quarters of the 800 British vessels, valued at $24 million as prizes of war that were captured during the first two years of the conflict. During the War of 1812, 515 U.S. privateers took 1,345 British ships.

There was legislative protection as well. One of the initial acts of the first session of the first Congress under the new federal Constitution of 1789 was a bill to impose a tariff on imports. Two laws of 1789 applied lower duties on imports carried on American vessels and levied higher tonnage and port charges against foreign ships. Later, the Navigation Act of 1817 forbade the importation of goods from any foreign port except in U.S. vessels or vessels of the country from which the goods were imported. As a result, in 1826, U.S.-flag merchant vessels carried 92.5 percent of America’s foreign trade. More importantly, the 1817 Act completely excluded foreign vessels from the U.S. coastal trade, or cabotage. Both elements were reactions to similar and sometimes more far-reaching prohibitions imposed by most of America’s trading partners.

“…as a branch of industry [our navigation] is valuable, but as a resource of defense, essential. Its value, as a branch of industry, is enhanced by the dependence of so many other branches upon it. In times of general peace it multiplies competitors for employment in transportation, and so keeps that at its proper level, and in times of war, that is to say, when those nations, who may be our principal carriers, shall be at war with each other we have not within ourselves the means of transportation, our produce must be exported in belligerent vessels, at the increased expense of war-freight and insurance, and the articles which shall not bear that, must perish on our hands. But it is as a resource of defense that our navigation will admit neither neglect nor forbearance. The position and circumstance of the United States leave them nothing to fear on their land-board and nothing to desire beyond their present rights. But on their sea-board they are open to injury, and they have there, too, a commerce which must be protected. This can only be done by possessing a respectable body of citizen-seamen, and of artists and establishments in readiness for shipbuilding.”

Thomas Jefferson
1793 Message to
U.S. House of Representatives

Such assistance boosted U.S. shipbuilding and ocean-borne trade. On the eve of the Civil War, the United States led the world in marine architecture, shipyards, and seamanship. The American fleet was nearly equal in tonnage to Great Britain’s, but superior in average size, speed, and profitability — especially the North Atlantic “packet” service and the “clipper” ships of the long-haul trade between the United States and the Far East. In 1860, the high-water mark of the nation’s merchant marine, the value of U.S. seaborne trade totaled more than $926 million, of which two-thirds was carried on nearly 2.4 million tons of vessels sailing under the American flag.

But the United States had already turned inward in search of its manifest destiny on the continent, and an inability to grasp technological change in maritime affairs accelerated the decline of the American-flag merchant fleet. Steam propulsion and iron hulls had already begun to replace sail and wood before the Civil War, but U.S. shipbuilders and operators clung to their graceful wooden clippers. (One hundred years later, however, it was the United States that led a global technological and structural revolution in merchant fleet operations.) During the war, U.S.-flag shipping suffered greatly from Confederate commerce-raiding. The result…only one U.S. shipping line remained in trans-Atlantic operation at the end of the century. The Spanish-American War and the voyage of President Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet showed the lack of a modern U.S. merchant marine was a serious problem. Despite protective tariffs and subsidies, only 782,517 tons of American shipping engaged in world trade in 1910, carrying less than nine percent of the total tonnage of U.S. ocean-borne foreign commerce. Still, nearly 6,670,000 tons were being used in the exclusive U.S. coastwise traffic. An ominous harbinger of future developments, as much as $270 million had already been invested by American operators in ships flying the flags of competing foreign countries.

The Last Century

As a result, the United States, with about four percent of the world’s steamships, entered World War I woefully unprepared to carry troops, equipment, and material to the fight.

The Shipping Act of 1916 hurriedly put in place a mechanism to build desperately needed ships, but the Great War ended before most could be delivered. In early 1917, only 61 shipyards — 24 of them capable of building wooden vessels only — operated in the United States. A year later, with promises of $3 billion in government ship orders, 341 shipyards boasted 1,284 launching ways. Production ultimately quadrupled pre-war rates, but nearly one-third of the ships built under the 1916 Act were begun after the Armistice was announced. Throughout the next decade, ships that had cost as much as $400 per ton to build were sold for as low as $14 per ton.

“I present to the Congress the question of whether or not the United States should have an adequate merchant marine. To me there are three reasons for answering this question in the affirmative. The first is that in time of peace, subsidies granted by other nations, shipping combines, and other restrictive or rebating methods may well be used to the detriment of American shippers…. Second, in the event of a major war in which the United States is not involved, our commerce, in the absence of an adequate merchant marine, might find itself crippled because of its inability to secure bottoms…. Third, in the event of a war in which the United States itself might be engaged, American-flag ships are obviously needed not only for naval auxiliaries, but also for the maintenance of reasonable and necessary commercial intercourse with other nations. We should remember the lessons learned in the last war….”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
4 March 1943

Incensed about the lack of wartime shipping readiness and the country’s peacetime inability to compete against foreign fleets, Congress passed legislation intended to develop a sound U.S.-flag merchant marine. Both the Jones Act of 1920, which requires vessels engaged in the domestic trades to be U.S. owned, built and crewed, and the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 established the role of the U.S. merchant marine as a naval auxiliary and an instrument of national economic policy. But no matter how much assistance had been provided, U.S.-flag performance continued to decline. In 1920, the 16 million tons of registered U.S. shipping carried about 52 percent of the nation’s seaborne trade. By 1939, U.S.-flag shipping tonnage had declined by one-quarter and carried only 22 percent of America’s maritime commerce. “Closed” shipping conferences, rapacious discrimination against U.S. exporters and ship operators, lower-cost foreign-flag operations, and the Great Depression ate away at America’s own market share.

The early months of World War II were “déjà vu all over again.” Losing 519 ships in the first 180 days of hostilities, the United States was proven once more to be ill-prepared for war. An emergency shipbuilding program was hastily organized, and eventually more than four million Americans were building ships for victory. By September 1945, some 5,000 cargo and troop ships — and more than 1,500 warships — had been built. One historian recounted that the “invasion of Normandy in June 1944 alone had kept 1.5 million tons of shipping busy.” Estimates of World War II logistics concluded that six tons of cargo space per man were required for establishing beachheads and thereafter one ton per man per month was required for maintenance.

” …it is necessary for the national defense and for the proper growth of its foreign and domestic commerce that the United States shall have a merchant marine (a) sufficient to carry its domestic water-borne commerce at all times, (b) capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency, (c) owned and operated under the United States flag by citizens of the United States insofar as may be practical, and (d) composed of the best equipped, safest, and most suitable types of vessels, constructed in the United States and manned with trained and efficient citizen personnel. It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States to foster the development and encourage the maintenance of such a merchant marine.”

Merchant Marine Act of 1936

But the U.S. merchant marine paid a higher price relative to their numbers than any branch of the military save the Marine Corps: 733 U.S.-flag merchant ships were sunk and 5,638 American merchant mariners were lost in all theaters during the war — representing more than 10 percent of all Allied losses (5,150 Allied merchant ships, 21 million tons of shipping sunk worldwide). At the end of the war more than 5,500 ships comprising about 40 million tons of shipping — 60 percent of the world’s merchant tonnage — were operating under the U.S. flag, an increase of 43 percent since 1939.

“When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the merchant marine.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, USA 1944

Intent on assisting the war-ravaged economies of Europe and Asia in the immediate post-war years, Uncle Sam’s largess was confirmed in the Merchant Ship Sales Act of 1946. Some 5,000 government-owned cargo vessels of all types — Liberty and Victory cargo ships, tankers, coastal/special-purpose ships, and passenger vessels were available to U.S. citizens and allies alike. It proved to be a merchant marine “Marshall Plan” that provided the foundation for explosive growth in other countries’ merchant fleets. The U.S. Maritime Commission, by the end of 1948, had disposed of more than 2,000 ships and placed many of the rest into the National Defense Reserve Fleet created two years earlier as insurance against some future need. Although the active U.S. merchant fleet still had 3,644 ships in 1948, two maritime historians noted that the 1946 act “laid the groundwork for many of the problems U.S. operators had in maintaining any reasonable amount of the market share — even in the U.S. trades. Even more than the creation of a strong foreign-owned merchant fleet, the 1946 Act set the foundation for a whole new concept — flags of convenience….” Manned with lower-cost crews, receiving operating subsidies and other generous preferences, and often operated under regulatory regimes much less restrictive and costly than in the United States, these erstwhile American ships soon put intense pressure on the U.S.-flag fleet.

At the same time, more and more U.S.-owned ships were being “reflagged” to countries offering their “flags of “convenience,” which, in addition to economic-security issues, raised concerns about this “effective U.S.-control” fleet’s responsiveness to military requirements. Between 1946 and 1950, about one million tons of American shipping capacity were approved for transfer to foreign flags.

No real sealift problems were experienced during the Korean War (1950-1953) other than the need to re-mobilize forces so soon after the post-World War II stand-down. During this conflict, some 31.5 million tons of war material were shipped from U. S. ports to Far East destinations. Of this amount, 95 percent were ocean shipments. Eighty percent of the shipments were carried aboard privately owned U.S.-flag vessels, with the remaining 15 percent assigned to Military Sea Transportation ships. Significantly, all of the vessels involved in this massive, sustained logistical sealift were crewed by civilian American seafarers. About 700 ships were activated from the National Defense Reserve Fleet for services to the Far East, as well as to meet emergency shipments of coal to Europe during these first years of the Cold War. From 1953 on, however, the downward spiral of the U.S.-flag merchant marine continued. By the early 1960s, the U.S. merchant marine confronted the twin problems of extensive block obsolescence of the World War II Victory and Liberty-class merchant vessels and lackluster performance in the carriage of U.S. oceanborne foreign commerce — from more than 20 percent to just 5.6 percent in 1969 — in the face of increasingly fierce competition from abroad.

The Vietnam War (1965-1973) resulted in full demand for the active merchant marine to transport 65 percent of the dry cargo commodities to support our war efforts in Vietnam. The remainder of the dry cargo was carried aboard Government-owned vessels and required mobilizing 172 World War II era Victory ships from the National Defense Reserve Fleet crewed by some 15,000 U.S. merchant mariners. However, this proved to be no more than a brief interlude in the merchant marine’s contraction since the 1860s. Although the vast majority of military shipping movements experienced no problems, several foreign-flag ships refused to carry U.S. cargoes to the war zone.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, U.S.-owned, foreign-flag ships did not respond to the need to carry cargo to Israel. In fact, the government of Liberia issued a decree specifically prohibiting its flag fleet from participating in the resupply of Israel. These instances raised doubts – – How reliable would foreign-flag and the so-called “effective U.S.-control” ships be in the future?

“During the Yom Kippur war, the Egyptians nearly overran the Israeli forces. They were pushed back to their borders across the Sinai. And in the first 30 days, they used up the ammunition that they had stored for 6 months. We had an agreement with the State of Israel to provide ammunition and supplies. And so we looked around for our ships. Our ships were busy. So we looked to American citizens. There were hundreds of American citizens who owned ships registered in foreign lands, like Liberia and Panama. Most of the ships registered in Liberia and Panama belong to Americans, hundreds of them. So we called upon them to say that we had an emergency and we must supply the Israeli forces, please provide your ships, make them available to our Defense Department. Mr. President, do you know how many ships responded? Do you know how many loyal American citizens responded? Zero. Zero…. See, what happened during the Yom Kippur war, Saudi Arabia sent word to Liberia and Panama and told the Liberian and Panamanian government [sic.], “If ships in your register are used to carry cargo to Israel, we will consider this an unfriendly act.” That is why zero.”

Senator Daniel Inouye (Hawaii)
29 September 1995

During the next quarter-century, an intermodal “revolution” saw vertical and horizontal integration of rail, truck, and water-borne transportation “modes” and many other dramatic technological innovations generated by the U.S. maritime industry. American carriers pioneered the design, construction, and operation of specialized ships, containerization, double-stack rail cars, specialized containers, electronic equipment identification, satellite tracking and in-transit visibility, and highly integrated, just-in-time, door-to-door services that significantly reduced inventory and warehousing costs for American industry.

Although operational efficiencies were dramatically enhanced and despite the further infusion of shipbuilding funds (as a result of the Merchant Marine Act of 1970), by 1990 American-flag ships carried just four percent of the country’s seaborne commercial tonnage. U.S. ship owners had continued to “flag-out” their ships to take advantage of less onerous tax and regulatory systems and lower crew costs offered by foreign registry. On the eve of Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, which validated the need for massive strategic sealift capabilities in the post-Cold War era, the active, privately-owned, oceangoing U.S.-flag merchant fleet comprised 377 ships of 17.8 million tons capacity.  Now, as our forces are engaged in the global war on terrorism and as tens of thousands of our troops are based in Afghanistan and Iraq, we maintain less than 131 commercial ships in our deep-sea fleet capable of providing military support.

In addition to the nagging flags-of-convenience issue, throughout the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Defense Department planners worried about the remaining U.S.-flag fleet’s ability to meet its national security missions. Increasingly, the merchant marine comprised of highly efficient container ships, barge carriers, and LASH (Lighter Aboard Ship) vessels that had questionable “military utility.” And while the new Roll-On/Roll-Off (RO/RO) ships were seen as having the potential to carry any sort of military vehicle, increasingly scarce were the older, less efficient, but self-sustaining break-bulk ships that could meet the varied transportation needs of the military: carrying tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, helicopters, trucks, ammunition, and all of the stuff — “beans, bullets, and black oil” — needed for war.

U.S.-Flag Merchant Marine, 1955 – 2010
Total Active Fleet, Average Deadweight Tonnage


Year* Number of Ships Average DWT
1955 1,075 12,648
1960 1,008 13,976
1965 948 15,454
1970 793 18,166
1975 580 25,910
1980 578 36,521
1985 477 44,434
1990 408 50,909
1995 316 47,411
2000 282 44,000
2005 231 41,575
2010 221 43,199

*Dates as of January 1; Vessels of 10,000 DWT or greater; Includes Great Lkaes carriers
Source: U.S. Maritime Administration

Thus, U.S. Navy and Maritime Administration programs during the 1980’s saw $7.4 billion “invested” to upgrade the government’s rapid-response sealift forces and to ensure that whatever U.S.-flag shipping was available would be capable of handling military cargoes. The goal was to have three squadrons of 13 Maritime Prepositioning Ships for Marine Corps equipment; 11 Afloat Prepositioning Ships for Air Force, Army, and some Navy needs; eight (former Sea-Land) Fast Sealift Ships; as many as 140 ships in a Ready Reserve Force; hospital and other specialized ships; cargo discharge systems; and a variety of sealift “enhancement” programs for the active merchant fleet. The intent was to ensure the speedy movement of U.S. military equipment, munitions, provisions, and fuels to support rapid-deployment forces and sustain combat in forward areas where U.S. or allied bases were not available. In essence, Washington had all but given up on relying upon the operating merchant marine as the nation’s “fourth arm of defense.”

Since the Cold War

Two world wars and numerous crises during the Cold War confirmed the critical role of the U.S. merchant marine in military strategies.

From World War II on, some 95 percent of all-military equipment and material sent to crisis and combat theaters was carried by sea. The nation’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 — the first post-Cold War crisis-conflict — dramatically confirmed the need for the merchant marine to satisfy defense requirements, and underscored the compelling demand for dramatic solutions to ensure these requirements will be met in the future.

Operation Desert Shield — from August 7, 1990 through January 15, 1991 — was the fastest movement and build-up of combat power across greater distances than at any other time in history. Operation Desert Storm — 15 January to 10 March 1991 — sustained the more than 540,000 U.S. forces in the theater until Iraq’s will was broken. General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command, noted “It was an absolutely gigantic accomplishment, and I can’t give credit enough to the logisticians and transporters who were able to pull this off.” During these seven months of intense activity, two principal needs were met by the nation’s sealift resources:

  • Surge shipping of military unit equipment and prepositioned material — the initial, high-volume, rapid movement of main battle tanks, assault vehicles, artillery, helicopters, trucks, and immediate combat provisions to “marry up” with troops and aircraft flown to the theater.
  • Sustainment shipping to resupply U.S. and coalition forces to meet daily consumption and build up reserve stocks while sustaining combat.

In Desert Shield/Desert Storm, more than 350 ships in more than 500 voyages supported the multilateral coalition, delivering an average of 42,000 tons of cargo each day. (During all of World War II, an average of 28,000 tons per day was carried by thousands of vessels.) At the height of the shipping activity, there was a ship every 50 miles — a “steel bridge” — along an 8,000-mile sea lane between the United States and the Persian Gulf. U.S-flag ships — both privately owned and government vessels operated by U.S. companies — manned by U.S. citizen-seafarers carried 79 percent of all seaborne cargoes. Sealift accounted for 85 percent off all dry cargo transported to the war zone. More than 6.1 million tons of petroleum products and 3.5 million tons of dry cargo were carried to the Persian Gulf in seven months; more than 3,500 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, and 1,000 helicopters; hundreds of heavy weapons and artillery; 200,000 tons of ammunition; three Navy field hospitals; nearly 33 million square feet of unit equipment…

“Since I became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I have come to appreciate first-hand why our merchant marine has long been called the nation’s fourth arm of defense…. The American seafarer provides an essential service to the well-being of the nation, as was demonstrated so clearly during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.”

General Colin Powell, USA
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gulf War Sealift

Gulf War Sealift

The government’s Fast Sealift Ships — operated by private U.S. companies and manned by American merchant-marine crews — did the work of 116 World War II breakbulk Liberty vessels and at speeds that averaged greater than 27 knots.

The first Fast Sealift Ship to arrive in theater, the USNS CAPELLA, delivered nearly 15,500 tons of cargo on its initial run, equal to 300 C-5 Galaxy strategic airlift aircraft flights over the same distance. Seventy nine Ready Reserve Force vessels manned by more than 3,000 volunteer U.S. merchant mariners carried 21 percent of all dry cargo, one-third of all military unit equipment, and, despite some frustrating difficulties in the initial mobilization, achieved a 93.5 percent reliability level, exceeding Defense Department expectations. Nearly 80 percent of the RRF ships were late in breaking-out, with ships broken out later in the crisis averaging 10 days longer to get on line than those in the first three months. Significantly, the 21 previously activated ships averaged 8.2 days to activate while the 53 ships not previously activated averaged 18 days. More than half of the RRF ships were steamships over 20 years old, which presented problems with regard to their material condition, especially propulsion piping and boilers. Of the 79 Ready Reserve Force ships activated, only 21 had ever been broken-out and tested, and some had never been operated in the 14 years before the “Storm.” Based upon limited pre-war planning, the government estimated that it would take less than a million dollars per ship for a real-world breakout; in reality the average cost was about $1.8 million.

The “Flight” of the USNS CAPELLA, August 13 – 17, 1990

Charter and shipping agreements with private sector, U.S.-flag intermodal shipping companies, provided flexibility and quick response to changing requirements and provided transport of 1,006,100 tons of dry cargo in more than 37,000 individual containers carried by 66 principal U.S.-flag containerships (43 ships that operated under subsidy and 23 unsubsidized ships) in about 260 individual voyages; another 40 voyages of foreign-flag feeder ships took cargoes from major intermodal ports to the Persian Gulf.

The USNS CAPELLA delivered nearly 15,000 tons of cargo in her initial run, equal to 300 C-5 Galaxy sorties over the same distance

There were some difficulties in getting the charter and shipping agreements on line, primarily because there had been no prior planning for all elements — not just the ships — of the U.S. intermodal shipping infrastructure. But it highlighted the great potential for such container services to meet both surge and resupply shipping needs of the military. Indeed, the experience convinced the Military Sealift Command to explore “. . .new and creative approaches with the American maritime industry to lessen the reliance on foreign ships in the future.”

Another 22 U.S.-flag dry cargo ships (nine of which received operating subsidies) and ten tankers were time-chartered by the Military Sealift Command to carry cargo in support of the Command’s worldwide operations and Desert Shield/Desert Storm. By the war’s end, the Military Sealift Command had chartered 182 foreign-flag ships that made 253 voyages. Several countries, including Saudi Arabia and Japan, actually donated 15 ships and space on two others to assist in the sealift effort. While overall service was good, and these ships accounted for 19 percent of all dry cargo carried to the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations, several foreign-flag ships balked at entering the Persian Gulf.

  • The crews of the CORAL (Bahamian flag) and JADE BAY (Greek) either were convinced that the dangers were sufficiently low or were replaced, allowing the voyages to be completed.
  • The crew of a third ship, the TRIDENT DUSK (Qatar), could not be convinced or replaced in a timely manner, requiring the Military Sealift Command to transload the cargo to another ship outbound from Saudi Arabia, the CANADIAN FOREST (Panamanian), which delivered the cargo.
  • The German master of a ship under charter to American President Lines, the EAGLE NOVA (Cyprus), did not want to “endanger” his crew and refused to take on cargo destined for Damman, Saudi Arabia; APL replaced the EAGLE NOVA with a U.S.-flag ship, the PRESIDENT BUCHANAN.
  • A Bangladeshi vessel chartered to the Military Sealift Command, the BANGLAR MAMATA, was delayed in getting underway from San Francisco when 27 crew members deserted the ship to avoid sailing to the war zone; MSC canceled the charter for “non-performance.”
  • One of the donated foreign-flag ships, the KEY SPLENDOR (Japan), experienced crew-related difficulties during her second voyage to the Gulf. Only the intervention of the Japanese Government and the Japanese Seamen’s Union eventually cleared up the problem.

Such complications caused General Hansford Johnson, then-Commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, to remark in April 1991 that “it worked okay this time but what if foreign governments don’t go along with the operation [the next time]? After all, only the United Kingdom supported our raid on Qadhafi in 1986. France would not let us fly overhead.” General Johnson’s assessment a few months earlier was even more telling. As the fighting raged half a world away in mid-February 1991, he emphasized that no American “ship has been delayed for lack of crew…I have heard of no one who decided not to go or who wanted to get off when times got tough. That’s not true of the foreign ships.”

It also proved more expensive to use the foreign-flag chartered vessels. U.S.-flag ships cost an average of $122 per ton of dry cargo delivered. For the foreign-flag ships, the average cost was $174 per ton. The U.S. ships also tended to be larger and faster than their foreign counterparts. On the average, a U.S.-flag ship carried 23,290 tons of dry cargo; a foreign ship, 3,600 tons. Ironically, both U.S.- and foreign-flag charters were much less expensive than the daily operating costs of a U.S.-government ship from the laid-up Ready Reserve Force.

The Gulf War identified numerous valuable lessons and exposed glaring deficiencies. Vice Admiral Paul Butcher, then-Deputy Commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, in mid-February 1991 remarked that this time the United States enjoyed “the best seaports, the best airports…. If you take away any of those equations, you’ve got a hell of a mess and the shortfalls in airlift and sealift would have been exposed.” Without the availability of foreign-flag sealift, moreover, Butcher concluded that “It would have taken us three more months to complete the sealift ourselves.”

One more time, the crisis-conflict proved that sealift is an integral element of U.S. “power-projection” forces. The demand for the government’s shipping services increased from about 135 ships worldwide on 6 August 1990 to a peak of 308 ships in mid-January 1991. Although more than 4,200 additional U.S. citizen-seamen were available for the Gulf War sealift, and ultimately some 9,800 American merchant mariners served the nation, the projected decline in American-flag active merchant marine billets has led the Military Sealift Command and the Maritime Administration to investigate ways to increase the pool of trained mariner crews. And, the increased use of U.S. flag commercial services — ships, crews, and the entire intermodal system — is critical to any merchant marine/sealift “get-well” program that the Administration and the Congress put in place for the 21st Century.

In the 1992 Operation Restore Hope effort in Somalia, the government chartered the services of five U.S.-flag deep-sea vessels. Two years later in Haiti, 20 charters were issued for assorted U.S.-flag vessels and other marine equipment including four crewboats, seven tugs and nine barges.

During the NATO Balkan engagement, the Military Sealift Command executed 31 vessel charters. The majority of these contracts consisted of single voyage charters within the immediate Mediterranean area, and as such were predominately awarded to regionally-based foreign-flag carriers. However, five dry cargo and four tanker charters were awarded to U.S.-flag carriers.  Ironically, Great Britain had to depend upon U.S. heavy- lift vessels to move their armor destined for the Kosovo crisis across the English Channel as they did not have ready access to capable vessels.  Following the hostilities, sensitive Canadian military equipment was hung up for weeks on its transit back to North America as the chartered foreign-flag vessel it was stowed on became embroiled in a financial dispute between its owner and charterer.  The Canadian military eventually had to helicopter troops onto the ship and seize it in order to obtain their equipment.

“Strategic sealift is the maritime bridge to ensure that heavy ground forces are delivered and that all land-based forces are supported and resupplied in a conflict.”

Secretary of the Navy John Dalton
September 1994

Iraq and Afghanistan Conflict Sealift

Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom also tested the capabilities of the American merchant marine, however the military’s experience from the Gulf War and subsequent improvements in coordination and support for the U.S. maritime sector, most notably through the military’s acquisition of the large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off fleet or LMSR program, the Maritime Security Program (MSP) and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) which has led to more capable and seamless seaborne logistics in support of the war fighter.

According to the Military Sealift Command, the primary movement of cargo for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was accomplished by the large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ships (LMSRs). These vessels have a carrying capacity of 300,000 square feet per ship.  MSC acquired these ships as a result of its recognition of deficiencies during Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991. The LMSRs, as confirmed by the MSC, performed exactly as designed, assuring the timely arrival of vast amounts of combat equipment and supplies in theater. The MSC surge capacity during OIF also included the workhorse fast sealift ships (FFSs) and the RRF’s roll-on/roll-off ships. Logistical insights gained during the first Gulf War persuaded military transporters and logisticians to recommend numerous improvements to the RRF ships making them more efficient and effective transporters for the war in Iraq. The knowledge and experience of the private sector contractors managing these vessels, along with their citizen-mariner crew members and officers aboard the vessels, further enhanced the success of this complicated and critical mission.

Ninety-two percent of cargo moved in Operation Iraqi Freedom between January 1, 2003 and August 1, 2004, approximately 45.8 million square feet, was carried aboard U.S.-flag vessels and moved through 11 of the 14 strategic ports. Over 7,600 mariners sailed aboard various ships in support of the effort, including 3,900 commercial mariners, and nearly 3,800 civil service mariners.

Notably, as all the sea transportation requirements were defined for OIF, MSC was once again reminded of the importance of commercial charters. The commercial market was able to cover spikes in demand that could not be met by government-owned ships.

One of the best examples of the fulfillment of the promise of the collaboration between  the Military Sealift Command and the private industry sector is MSC seeking early commercial support and calling upon Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), a VISA participant and Jones Act Roll-on/Roll-off (Ro/Ro) vessel operator in the domestic Alaska trade, to charter one of their civilian-crewed, coastwise commercial ships to move heavy tanks, vehicles, and armaments to the main operational port in Kuwait.

The TOTE SS NORTHERN LIGHTS was among the first cargo vessels to reach Kuwait following the call for deployment in preparation of the Iraqi offensive. The vessel, its management, officers, and crew continued to support U.S. troops in the Iraq conflict for more than two years while under charter to the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command.

Towards the end of its charter, in a letter to TOTE, U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) Commander General Norton A. Schwartz cited the “superior support” of the unlicensed and licensed mariners as well as that of the company and its officials. Furthermore, General Schwartz wrote:

“Since 18 February 2003, six weeks after the start of the deployment of forces to Iraq, SS NORTHERN LIGHTS was under charter to MSC. She continuously operated in support of U.S. forces since that time, never missing a commitment. No other ship, government-owned or commercial, has operated as long in support of these critical operations. During the charter period SS Northern Lights made 25 voyages and 49 port calls…. She carried 12,220 pieces of military gear totaling 81,000 short tons and covering over 2 million square feet. Those statistics clearly demonstrate the value that the U.S.-flag shipping industry brings to the Defense Transportation System. At 200,000 square feet of cargo space, this ship has nearly the capacity of the Fast Sealift Ships, has speeds approaching those of the Navy’s Large, Medium Speed RoRo ships, and had a perfect record of reliability. Having this asset enabled us to improve readiness by keeping ships of the Ready Reserve Fleet available for other contingencies as needed. You and your team of professionals showcased the U.S.-flag industry at its best.”

Through mid-2006, civilian-crewed, U.S.-flag military support ships delivered more than 79 million square feet of cargo to the Iraq and Afghanistan theater of operations. This equates to 838,000 SUVs that, if lined up bumper-to-bumper, would stretch to nearly the 2,413 miles from New York to Seattle. Additionally, U.S.-flag ships delivered more than 7.8 billion gallons of fuel to U.S. forces.

In total, the U.S.-flag merchant marine delivered 90 percent of all cargo to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of that, 84 percent was carried aboard U.S.-flag commercial vessels enrolled in the Maritime Security Program (MSP) and Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) programs. The cargo transported included unit equipment such as tanks, helicopters and MRAPs to food, medical supplies and beverages. A major determining factor is economics, delivering these supplies by sea is only 10 percent of the cost of delivering them by air. Between 2004 and 2009, the government saved some $2.9 billion in transportation costs by effectively combining sea and air movements. To replace the MSP and VISA capabilities would cost the government an estimated $70 billion – $13 billion to replace the vessel fleet ($17 billion if the Jones Act vessel fleet is included), $53 billion to replace the intermodal infrastructure, and some $1.7 billion in annual maintenance and operating expenses would be incurred.

Emergency Relief Efforts

The resources of the U.S.-flag maritime industry have also been deployed to provide immediate relief to unanticipated national and humanitarian emergencies.

The 7.0 Richter Scale earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 impacted some three million lives, including an estimated 230,000 deaths, 300,000 injuries and a million left homeless. Some 250,000 residences were destroyed along with 30,000 commercial buildings. The United States joined the international relief effort, providing 25 commercial U.S.-flag ships and 1,000 mariners as a component of the initial response. The April 20, 2010 blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform prompted the deployment of more than 3,600 U.S.-flag vessels ranging from large commercial ships to skimmers,shrimpers, fishing trawlers and recreational vessels properly equipped to contribute in the massive oil cleanup efforts.

In 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria.  The American maritime industry was ready—-it was their families, their employees, and their communities that were suffering and they were ready to help.  In anticipation of the island’s needs, the domestic American maritime industry stowed approximately 3,000 containers filled with goods in port terminals prior the the hurricane’s landfall.  During the response, domestic maritime companies moved 9,500 containers of goods in Puerto Rico to help the territory and its residents with the recovery.  In the immediate aftermath, one sate -of-the-art large container ship arrived on Sunday with over 35 million pounds of cargo–the equivalent carrying capacity of 1,900 cargo planes.  Investment in the island, employment of Puerto Ricans in the maritime industry, and other efforts continue as the island rebuilds.