Tag Archives: Merchant Marine

Admiral, I Am NOT Ready For War

The following article originally published on gCaptain and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain)

“It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war.” -John F. Kennedy

As has been the case before every major world conflict a majority of citizens believe that peace will persist indefinitely and, as a civilian myself, I tend to agree that a large-scale war with a major superpower like China or Russia is unlikely. Regardless of my views, the United States military is spending billions to prepare for war against China in the hopes that being fully prepared for war is the most effective means of preserving peace.

This article is not intended to support or speak out against the U.S. military’s efforts to prepare for a war against China and it is not to discuss the wisdom of my nation’s military decisions. It is only written with one purpose. That purpose is to acknowledge two absolute facts today: that the U.S. Military is preparing for war and I, an American merchant ship captain, am not ready. 

What Is The U.S. Merchant Marine

“The U.S. Merchant Marine is in every war plan that I review, I guarantee you, because you’re going to be the fourth arm of defense.” -Former U.S. Secretary Of Defense James Mattis.

Members of today’s United States Merchant Marine (USMM) do not wear uniforms, they do not cut their hair short, they are not active duty military, and only a few are in the U.S. Navy Reserve. They do not get veterans benefits, special privileges, government healthcare or retirement pay. They have no special right to carry weapons on land or enter most military bases without special permission. They are civilians. 

Some members of the merchant marine wore uniforms while they attended maritime academies that must, by federal statute, follow military traditions. Others have never worn a uniform of any kind. Yet the importance of the merchant marine in past military successes is undeniable and all of today’s military flag officers admit they play a central role in all future war plans

But what is the Merchant Marine?

The truth is that despite having worn the uniform of a U.S. Merchant Mariner in college, despite having been a proud member of the U.S. Merchant Marine for over 20 years, and despite having risen to the rank of Captain… I’m still not sure what the Merchant Marine is. Yes, I have a strong understanding of its role in commerce and national defense, but I only have the foggiest of clues what the U.S. Merchant Marine is. 

As a journalist I have asked this very question (what is the U.S. Merchant Marine?) to our nation’s leadership, I have asked our Merchant Marine Veterans, award-winning historians, and the highest ranking U.S. military officials. Each has answered my question with a slightly puzzled look and vague statements about our role in national defense. 

In 1938 congress established the United States Maritime Service (USMS) to answer that question and established uniform standards, training requirements, and structure. Those regulations still exist and the USMS lives on today. We have a Commandant, we have Admirals and Commodores, and we have our own service academy, but not much else. 

Am I a Captain in the U.S. Merchant Marine? Absolutely! What is my role or rank in the US Maritime Service? Am I allowed to wear a uniform? If so, can I wear my navy medals on it? Do I salute? Does anyone salute me? Where do I report if war breaks out? Who at the USMS can I call with questions? 

Answer: I haven’t got a clue.

Equipment Versus People

“Remember, terrain doesn’t wage war. Machines don’t wage war. People do and they use their mind!” –Col. John Boyd, USAF

While the status of mariners in the USMM and USMS is vague and nebulous the status of ships is well-defined. Currently 81 U.S.-flagged ships sail internationally and our fleet of reserve ships are battered, old, and wholly insufficient for war. “Our sealift fleet is able to generate only 65 percent of our required capacity” said Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, Commander, U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), last month. “And is rapidly approaching the end of [its] useful life.” 

U.S. Maritime Administrator (and USMS Commandant) Rear Admiral Mark Buzby has made no secret of our need to build new ships and refurbish our fleet. The problem is that ships are expensive, take years to design and build, and do not capture the nation’s imagination like a new destroyer does. Most merchant ships are ugly but absolutely essential because there is simply no other way to move equipment and materials into theaters of war overseas. 

Nearly everyone in the United States military and Merchant Marine, including myself, readily agrees that we need to do more to support domestic shipbuilding. That said, everyone secretly knows another fact that few are willing to admit publicly. The fact is that in a large-scale war against China the United States can take the ships we need or demand them from our allies.

What we can’t demand is that foreign sailors man these ships and sail them into combat. For that we will need strong allies and highly competent and well-trained American sailors. 

Today’s American merchant sailors are well-trained and experienced but we are lacking skills in the latest technology and, as the number of U.S. flagged ships decreases, so do our numbers. According to Adm. Buzby the USMM is about 1800 mariners short of the numbers needed to do sustained sealift operation using today’s reserve assets (which are also insufficient).

If we can’t fully crew the ships we have available, how can we crew the ships we need? The answer is, I don’t know.

Are Mariners Prepared For War?

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”–Archilochos

During WWII the USMS invested enormous resources in training merchant mariners for war. Large training facilities were built across the nation and both naval and civilian instructors worked together to teach sailors how to survive the dangers of war. 

Not long ago USMM officers could enroll in basic classes on subjects like avoiding mines, joining a convoy, and secure communications. Then MARAD shut down the last school that offered these courses. Today a small percentage of U.S. Merchant Mariners receive basic military instruction as part of the Navy’s Strategic Sealift Officer program. This program however, lacks a cohesive structure, objective, and scope. And it is only open to those willing to join the Navy Reserves. 

Others that sail on ships contracted by the military take some basic classes including firearms and CBRD (Chemical Biological Radiological Defense) but the scope of these classes is limited to basic self defense.

Personally I attended four years of school at a merchant marine academy, sailed on ships for ten years, spent thousands of hours studying for U.S. Coast Guard Examinations, sat in hundreds of hours of post-graduate classroom instruction and demonstrated my knowledge and experience in  myriad of ways before earning a license to master the world’s largest ships.

Yet in all those years of study there are some questions I never learned the answers to:

How do I join a military convoy?

How do I share information with Naval Intelligence?

How do I contact a naval vessel on a secure line?

How do I navigate a minefield?

Will zig-zagging help me avoid modern submarines?

What do I secure for radio silence?

How do I darken ship to naval standards?

The answer to all these questions (and countless more) is, again, I don’t have a clue.

In recent months the U.S. Navy has been honest in telling mariners that, in the event of a major war with China or Russia, the U.S. Navy is going to be busy with combat operations and we can not expect naval escort. What they don’t tell us is that they also have no plans to train us to defend ourselves. 

Am I, as a captain in the USMM ready to sail my ship into contested waters? 

The answer is I am fully ready to sail my ship anywhere, even into conflicted waters, everywhere except into large-scale war. 

Will I Take Command Of A Ship During War?

“American needs to do its best for all our veteran families” –R. Lee Emery

I am convinced the nation will need the help of my fellow American ship masters but how many of us will join the war effort?

Based on historical evidence and the level of patriotism and will of today’s Merchant Marine most experts believe that, in times of war, a majority will answer the call. 

But is this true? During WWII President Roosevelt made a promise to all Merchant Mariners that they would receive full veteran status after the war. WWII mariners, however, did not receive any official veteran status for 40 years after the war and are still fighting for full veteran status today

Personally I can not answer for my fellow merchant mariners. I can only answer for myself. As an American I believe it’s my duty to serve my nation during a major crisis and I would absolutely sail into harm’s way. But why? The reason is I am a father and I want my children and grandkids to grow up in a free country and have the opportunity for a happy life. But that’s also the rub.

If war broke out tomorrow and I was killed or injured in the service of my nation who would take care of my family? Would my children be able to go to a Veterans Hospital if they got sick? Would they be eligible for any scholarships? Would they receive any financial compensation from the government?

Would they even be able to fly the gold star with a blue edge flag outside their house? The flag that represents a family member who died during military operations? Would my wife even be eligible to join veteran family support groups?

The answer to these questions is…I don’t know.

And so is the answer to the question of my willingness to captain a merchant ship into the next war… I don’t know.

A Message To Commandant Buzby

Commandant Buzby, many thanks for your tireless and continual effort over the last year to support the U.S. Merchant Marine. We American merchant mariners are truly grateful. Personally I would like to thank you for inviting me to Washington to review my criticism of MARAD’s efforts. Your efforts are making a difference and I thank you. 

That said, the next fight will not be about the number or condition of our ships or the strength of our enemy. We can not out build the new manufacturing nations. We only have one option to win the next war and that is by focusing on people.

To prepare this nation please prepare me and my fellow mariners. Let us train with the navy at no cost, ask the nation to subsidize not just ships but officer training, bring back the USMS, and let us know we are wanted by issuing DD214’s to all U.S. mariners who served in combat zones.

If the Navy continues to marginalize and ignore our needs then our nation will lose, but convince the military to help us train and make us feel like part of the team…and we will help the country win. 

Time is not on our side, we must do this now. 

A Message To Admiral Moran

To Admiral Moran, as our soon-to-be Chief of Naval Operations, do not let war be the reason we start working together. We can’t wait that long. Admiral Buzby and MARAD are working tirelessly to prepare the USMM for war but they do not have your budget, your influence, or your ability to mandate immediate change… and the civilian companies our Merchant Mariners work for today are just not going to prepare mariners for a full-scale conflict. Most don’t believe a full-scale conflict will ever take place. 

The ball is in your court. Please help us so that when you need our help we are ready. 

Captain John Konrad is the founder and CEO of gCaptain and author of the book Fire On The Horizon. John is a USCG licensed Master of Unlimited Tonnage, has sailed a variety of ships from ports around the world, and is a distinguished alumnus of SUNY Maritime College.

Featured Image: Atlantic Ocean (Oct. 17, 2005) — The Military Sealift Command (MSC) underway replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn (T-AO-198) underway in the Atlantic Ocean. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Sinews of War

Fleet Admiral King – probably thinking about the challenge of getting from A to B.

I don’t know what the hell this “logistics” is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.

– Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King to a Staff Officer, 1942

Carting around beans and bullets has never much interested me until recently. Of course, the Military Sealift Command has been on my mind due to the recent engagement of a suspicious vessel by the USNS Rappahannock. I’ve also been reading more about the Falklands War after my conversation with Scott Cheney-Peters on TheRiskyShift.com‘s “Debrief” and recently found an out-of-print book from the 1960s titled Conflict and Defense: A General Theory with a lot of smart things to say about military might. Finally, Undersecretary of the Navy The Honorable Bob Work has been weighing in on forward basing of ships over at Information Dissemination. Though they seem unconnected, all of this has led me to the following conclusions:

  1. You can’t claim to be a Navalist without having an interest in logistics. When we talk about future fleet composition, we’re not spending enough time talking about how we will support our combat ships and how many/what types of replenishment and pre-positioning ships we need.
  2. If you’re looking for a single measure of national power, the size of a country’s merchant marine is a good place to start, but:
  3. The globalization of the shipping industry both affects this last measure and may make large conventional wars less likely.

The Falklands War is a clear example of what Scott calls “The Tyranny of Distance.” The further a state has to go to get to the fight, the less combat power they will be able to apply in that fight. Part of the reason Argentina decided to invade the Falklands in the first place was that they believed that they were so far away from Britain, whose military power (and some would argue, national power) was on the decline. Few believed the British could sustain military operations so far from home – and with good reason. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) could only muster 22 ships with around 120,000 tons combined displacement to sustain a naval task force, a brigade of Royal Marines, an army brigade, and other ground, air, and special operations forces.

The famous RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 converted for wartime service under “Operation Corporate.” Photo: Andy Shaw.

One of the reasons for Britain’s success was the rapid signing of the Requisition of Ships Order of 1982 and the launch of “Operation Corporate” – the rapid conversion of civilian ships to aid the RFA. Virtually overnight, Britain quintupled its replenishment and sealift tonnage. These ships were indispensable to the war effort, allowing the British to concentrate far more military strength in the Falklands theater than many outside observers anticipated. This is why I think a country’s merchant marine is a critical measure of national power – military forces rarely invest enough in logistics capabilities during peacetime. Once a crisis erupts, countries with robust merchant fleets can quickly convert them for wartime use. Great powers need to respond globally, and sometimes that will require surging logistics forces during a crisis.

The United States operates under the tyranny of distance every day. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become insensitive to our logistics forces – we rely on them so often. And we have such a professional and robust force in the Military Sealift Command that the merchant marine becomes an afterthought. But our merchant marine has shrunk drastically since the 1940s. It’s telling that the United States lost 733 merchant ships greater than 1,000 tons displacement in World War II – our current merchant marine stands at only 393 ships according to the CIA World Factbook. I’m not advocating for a return to a 6,000 ship merchant marine, but this historical perspective should spur us to ask the question: do we need more sealift capability in reserve? What kinds of policies might increase our merchant fleet? And comparatively, when we talk about China, we rarely note that it has the largest merchant marine of any great power at 2030 ships.

Going down the rabbit hole further, I find it interesting that our National Defense Reserve Fleet – the ships in “mothballs” – is shrinking significantly. According to a report published in May, the US Maritime Administration is planning to dispose of 34 of 142 ships, with the potential for more down the road. Most of the vessels being disposed of are some kind of bulk carrier or tanker.

Forward basing definitely mitigates some logistics challenges. According to Conflict and Defense by Kenneth Boulding, a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, forward bases can actually reverse the tyranny of distance – so powerful is their influence. Students of Mahan know this argument well. Forward basing is also the sensible posture to assume in times of austerity, allowing more operational use to be had from a smaller number of ships without completely burning out equipment or people. But we must consider the future of our logistics capability, particularly the reserves from which we might surge during a crisis.

Finally, a thought on globalization: with the rise of multinational shipping companies and the prevalence of flags of convenience, I think that conventional wars between great powers – particularly invasions across the seas – might be far less likely. In this sense, the decline of national merchant marines might offer some security advantages. Famed international relations theorist John Mearsheimer coined the term “the stopping power of water.” With countries less able to mobilize the logistics capability to transport large numbers of ground troops, great powers (like, perhaps, the United States and China) will be less able to invade one another.

What do you think: does the United States need more logistics forces? Should the United States seek to grow its merchant marine? How? What does China’s large merchant marine say about its national ambitions? This is a conversation worth having…

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.