Strategic Sealift’s Merchant Mariner Problem

Strategic Sealift Topic Week

By Geoffrey Brown

The first time I heard about Strategic Sealift was during my orientation as a civilian employee at U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), three months after I started the job, thanks to COVID-19. The orientation highlighted sealift as the unique differentiator between the U.S. military and its rivals, the reason for our global position, and a signal of our commitment to our allies abroad. Sadly, neglect over the last decades has seen this pillar of U.S. military strength begin to crack. At present, the dominant topic of conversation surrounding sealift is recapitalization of the fleet. According to Army General Stephen R. Lyons, “Our sealift fleet is able to generate only 65 percent of our required capacity, and is rapidly approaching the end of [its] useful life.”1 Furthermore, this issue is part of a larger downward trend, as noted by former U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) official Rear Admiral (Rear Adm.) Buzby in 2020: “Last year, there were 81 ships in the commercial fleet. Today there are 87, but that’s still down from the 106 ships available in 2010.”Compounding the problem, China is adding the equivalent of an entire U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP) fleet every year.3

Recapitalization is clearly an urgent issue, vital to readiness and future national security in a multipolar future. However, this long-term neglect of sealift goes further than the ships in the fleet; the readiness of the Merchant Marine is also in question. Rear Adm. Buzby stated publicly that the Merchant Marine is at least 1,800 officers short of what would be necessary in wartime.4 Furthering the problem is the lack of places on a dwindling number of ships, leaving 1,100 merchant marine academy graduates worrying about their future job prospects.5 Given that the average age of a merchant mariner is 47, it is clear that this manpower problem will only get worse if left alone. Undoubtedly, having enough sailors to man sealift ships is an issue just as critical as the recapitalization of sealift ships, and any effort that ignores merchant mariners will likely fail in the end.

Merchant Mariners are Essential Personnel

The underlying problem with manpower and readiness in the Merchant Marine is that neither U.S. Congress nor the Department of Defense (DoD) recognize merchant mariners as essential personnel. The mariners who operate the merchant fleet sustain both the American population at home and our troops abroad. They are essential to the American economy and warfighting enterprise. Currently, there is major congressional acknowledgement of the need to recapitalize the sealift fleet to be able to transport enough troops and materiel to sustain combat operations overseas. But while Congress has allocated money to buy used ships and build new ones, it has made no effort to acknowledge and bolster the labor force required to man and operate these ships.

The three main issues merchant mariners face because of this lack of recognition are: 1) unequal work status when compared to Navy or federal civilian employees; 2) non-existent training for wartime scenarios; and 3) burdensome bureaucratic procedures to obtain all required licenses, documents, passports, and training. The various departments involved in these procedures (State, Transportation, Defense, and Homeland Security) have different renewal timelines, medical requirements, training courses, etc. The overwhelming complexity of these procedures can result in mariners losing out on job opportunities and income, which in turn can lead to dissatisfaction among the ranks. If the dissatisfaction is enough, mariners leave the Merchant Marine to seek employment in another industry—or worse, to sail foreign flag.

This dissatisfaction is causing dangerous reductions in manpower and readiness, not only for the Merchant Marine, but also the Navy as a whole. Merchant mariners crew the auxiliaries of the Navy, supporting the military at sea and on land with fuel, ammunition, and supplies. They crew 61 ships in MARAD‘s Ready Reserve Force and MSC‘s Sealift Force, and a further 60 commercial ships in the MSP. To further emphasize their contribution, MSC’s 5,383 mariners crew 20 percent of the 301 ships in the U.S. Navy. Sealift operations require approximately 30 commercial and/or military ships daily to move DoD freight around the world. With expectations that nearly 90 percent of military equipment would be deployed via sealift in a major conflict, the importance of merchant mariners would be even higher in wartime.6 Merchant mariners are the foundation of our nation’s ability to deploy and sustain our military abroad, and their expertise is irreplaceable. 

Diverse Group, Diverse Problems

At the most basic level, merchant mariners can be divided into licensed or unlicensed mariners. This divide is akin to enlisted or officer in the military. Licensed mariners typically come from the maritime academies or worked their way up as unlicensed mariners—known as hawsepipers—serving significant time at sea and passing certain training courses. Beyond these ranks, mariners are classified based on their work to support the DoD enterprise, as Civil Service Mariners (CIVMARs), Contract Mariners (CONMARs), or Strategic Sealift Officers (SSOs). CIVMARs make up 80 percent of MSCs workforce, and their main role is to support the Navy. CONMARs are hired by private companies and contracted by the U.S. government to man government-owned or contracted ships. SSOs are licensed mariners who join the Navy with the purpose of having a cadre of reserve merchant officers ready for mobilization in the event of war. Generally, the idea is for SSOs to serve as advisors to civilian crews and ensure proper coordination between merchant vessels and the Navy during wartime operations. It is worth noting that SSOs can also be CONMARs and CIVMARs. All three groups of mariners have their own roles to play, which presents unique challenges to manpower and readiness planning.  

Each of the three mariner groups have their own structural hurdles that bear on on their recruitment and retention. For example, a CIVMAR‘s deployment schedule is not set. Instead, they are given a minimum four-month requirement to sail with an almost guaranteed extension for their billet. Every billet is manned to 1.3 personnel instead of the industry standard of 2.0 personnel. The result is constant deployments with little to no opportunity to take leave, delays in relief for crews (in some cases up to 90 days), and possibly losing overtime pay for taking ten or more consecutive days of leave at any time during deployment (see COMSCINST 12451.1 of 3 Mar 2020, section 4a). Meanwhile, normal federal civilian employees enjoy flex work schedules, weekends at home, have holidays off, and can schedule days off in advance, while Navy sailors typically do not face back-to-back deployments. Pay, leave, and work conditions for CONMARs are set by the private sector. While this generally means their schedules are better than CIVMARs, they are reliant on state of the U.S. maritime industry, which currently suffers from criticism of the Jones Act and unions, as well as the loss of subsides for shipyards.

As reservists, the SSO community struggles more with readiness than manpower. For example, SSOs often work as CONMARs or CIVMARs for their regular job. If war breaks out and a CONMAR SSO is filling a critical position on a commercial ship, keeping the supply of essential cargo coming into the United States during wartime, pulling them will leave that ship worse off. In the case of war, many of the mariners with the necessary skills, sailing experience, and licenses needed to man sealift ships are already doing necessary work and are unavailable. It is possible to send mariners slotted in relief positions to crew sealift ships, but this would only be viable short-term, as it would take away the opportunity for mariners to rotate ashore. Unions, MSC, and the SSO community itself are responsible for their own numbers, and the overlap between positions is not considered. The U.S. Coast Guard database is the best place to find the true numbers of available mariners, but the bureaucratic Gordian Knot of who is responsible for them and in what context remains a significant challenge.

Burdensome Bureaucracy

The most important actors involved in the readiness of the Merchant Marine are MARAD and the U.S. Coast Guard. MARAD is in charge of all maritime academies, their curriculums, and advocating for mariners (though they have faced criticism in this role6). The Coast Guard is responsible for licensing, certifications, and safety. Since the Coast Guard moved from the Department of Transportation to Homeland Security, it has grown to incorporate additional security aspects, such as background checks. But the Coast Guard still treats mariners as transportation workers, requiring them to have Department of Transportation (DoT) drug tests, medical screenings, and identification cards called a TWIC, all in addition to DoD requirements. This made sense when the Coast Guard was part of DoT, but it is not anymore; mariners work for either the DoD or private industry, not DoT (i.e. MARAD). Unless things change, mariners will continue to be subjected to redundant requirements.

Finally, even when enough mariners are available to man sealift ships, training remains a challenge. Merchant mariners would greatly benefit from training in damage control, secure communications, serpentine routes, avoiding mines (Q-routes), and joining a convoy before they arrive on sealift ships. However, any chance for them to take these important courses disappeared when DoT shut down the Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS) that offered them. This means that, outside of the military training SSOs receive from the Navy, merchant mariners are missing vital skills that would help them survive and be effective in wartime. Undoubtedly, this means that the readiness of merchant mariners for war is questionable. While some might argue they are noncombatants and do not need it, WW2 proves otherwise. The Merchant Marine suffered a higher death rate than any of the other service branches in WW2.5

This gets to the heart of what the Merchant Marine has faced since its inception and continues to face today. Merchant mariners are not valued or treated the same way as members of the U.S. Navy, even when they face the same challenges and threats during war. The mariners of WW2 waited 40 years until in 1988 before they were recognized as veterans through a lawsuit.1 However, this did not change anything for the mariners that came after them.  So what do we have to offer them in return when we ask them to go to war? If they are injured or die in military operations, what is in place to support them and their families? With the exception of SSOs, who receive support and benefits as U.S. Navy Reservists, the answer is unclear. 

Readiness Numbers and New Efforts

The most recent data available on merchant mariner readiness is disturbing (see graphic below). Mariner readiness was rated as amber in 2016 and 2017, which means the Merchant Marine is suitable for initial activation, but not for sustained operations. However, viewing mariner readiness in terms of percentage, a 15 percent increase in manpower would have been needed in 2016 to achieve wartime readiness, while a mere 1.4 percent drop would have meant the United States was no longer capable of an initial sealift activation. 2017 was even worse. Despite adding 488 mariners for 10 new ships that year, the Merchant Marine was only 0.8 percent from falling into the red. It is important to note that both ship numbers and the number of mariners considered in this math are constantly in flux. Still, the thin margin between amber and red is concerning. The Merchant Marine is a voluntary service, and there is no existing legal authority or mechanism to conscript people into service as mariners.8 Therefore, real doubt exists about how many would be willing to sail in wartime. A margin of 0.8 percent is unacceptable. 

A graphic from a 2016 MARAD presentation. Reproduced with permission. (Click to Expand)

The good news is that MARAD is painfully aware of the situation. According to MARAD’s USTRANSCOM Liaison, John Reardon, the direction for MARAD from the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act is to develop a strategy for mariner training and retention.9 This effort is in its early stages and being spearheaded by DoT’s Volpe Center in consultation with USTRANSCOM, MSC and a host of other stakeholders. Furthermore, MARAD’s Office of Maritime Labor and Training will be updating mariner figures twice a year, every year going forward. These are two two steps in the right direction, but more still needs to be done to rectify sealift‘s merchant mariner problem, starting with a clear understanding of who is responsible for carrying out reforms.


Merchant mariners are essential personnel to America’s economy and warfighting enterprise. While one could argue they are contractors, or mere transportation workers, and therefore do not deserve a more significant status, this argument ignores that merchant mariners operate up to 20 percent of Navy vessels. Furthermore, no contractor or transportation worker has paid the price that merchant mariners have paid in past wars and may pay again in future wars, or has a legal precedent that recognizes a time when they were veterans. Mariners feel they deserve more, they do deserve more, and the fact we cannot recognize them is a factor in how unattractive becoming a mariner has become as a career. Fixing some or all of these issues, removing some of these hurdles, will take a whole government approach. However, if we cannot fully crew the ships we have available, how can we crew the ships we need in war?

A special thanks to Nicholas J. Adema (U.S. Coast Guard Licensed Master, Unlimited, Upon Oceans and Lieutenant Commander, Strategic Sealift Officer, U.S. Navy Reserve), Joshua Morgan Hunt (Chief, Governance Branch, USTRANSCOM J4-PG), and John Reardon (U.S. DoT MARAD Liaison to USTRANSOM) for taking the time answer my questions and pointing me in the right direction for further research. This article would not exist without them.

Geoffrey Brown is an analyst in USTRANSCOM’s J1 Manpower and Personnel Directorate. Previously, he won USSTRATCOM’s 2019 General Larry D. Welch Deterrence Writing Award for his article on India’s Goldilocks Dilemma, later published in the Summer 2020 edition of the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs.



[9] Author’s personal correspondence with MARAD’s Liaison to USTRANSCOM, John Reardon.

Featured Image: An academic awards ceremony at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA photo via Facebook)

4 thoughts on “Strategic Sealift’s Merchant Mariner Problem”

  1. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Geoff Brown. Your article is directly on point. As a CAPTAIN in the SSO program (SELRES) I wholeheartedly applaud you and the folks you interviewed. I surely hope those above our pay grades read this and take action now.
    Again, many thanks!

  2. Firstly, quit calling skilled ratings “unlicensed”, it implies they don’t jump through similar certification hoops as officers. Secondly, recreate the US Maritime Service and transfer the SSOs to it and add ratings. Also allow those who have gone ashore to keep an emergency credential and allow them to hold an unpaid status in the USMS until age 70, provided they remain in good health and allow themselves to be subject to recall.

  3. Very complicated. Not sure that the Chinese or Russians would bother too much with a chess game war if it breaks out; now that coronavirus looks like beng with us for years. We have to plan, that is obvious, but desperate global communities and economies are not interested in militaries with the future looking so dark …too say the least.
    Politicians have confused the science.
    Yes we need to simplify and not get tangled up in crystal ball scenarious.

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