Merchant marine's demise endangers war readiness

First of two parts

The Cape Avinof is waiting for a war.

It is tied to a pier in Baltimore 365 days a year, full of fuel, the boilers cleaned and warmed, and the cargo holds lined with wood for loading ammunition. Its orders are to sail on five days' notice.

Part of the nation's Ready Reserve Force, the Cape Avinof is one of nearly 100 empty American cargo ships scattered around the world, waiting for a war. Without them, tank divisions can't deploy and airborne troops can't be re-supplied. The United States spends more than $350 million every year to ensure that its fleet of ships such as the Cape Avinof is ready for a crisis.

But the fleet isn't ready.

Many of the nation's military cargo ships - so critical to the national defense - could not sail in five days, or even five months, because the United States doesn't have enough seamen to operate them, an investigation by The Sun found.

The government masks the manning shortage by shuffling sailors from ship to ship, giving each vessel a full crew just long enough to pass a drill verifying its readiness.

But the American military needed more than 200 cargo ships to create the "steel bridge" that outfitted troops during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and a recent test deployment of 29 vessels used nearly every available sailor in the nation.

Federal officials acknowledge that a manpower crisis is looming, but they deny that it has arrived. They say a combination of patriotism and financial incentives will lure civilian seafarers out of retirement in an emergency.

"Can we do it today? Yes," said Gen. Charles T. "Tony" Robertson Jr., commander in chief of the U.S. Transportation Command and the Pentagon's top transportation official. "Can we do it tomorrow? To be determined."

But in its investigation, which included interviews with more than 150 current and former military planners, federal regulators, maritime union officials and merchant seamen, the newspaper found that the shortage is already a threat to national security. And early next year it will get worse.

"Are there enough people to sail all of those ships today? The answer to that is truly no," said Jerry A. Aspland, a past president of the California Maritime Academy, one of six state colleges around the country that train merchant mariners. "We could never send all those ships to sea, and everyone in the country should be worried about that."

Among The Sun's findings:

  • The government's own preparedness drills show that the United States lacks the manpower to activate even one-third of its sealift fleet - and then only by sending some ships to sea one at a time with the same crew members.

  • The Pentagon expects to supply crews for its cargo ships in a crisis by hiring more than 3,000 civilians away from the commercial fleet, even though ships in the commercial fleet often can't find enough qualified employees to sail.

  • A complete activation would force the government to lure merchant seamen out of retirement. But government officials have no idea how many retirees are available, who they are, where they live or what qualifications they have. And new regulations will soon disqualify most retirees from going to sea anyway.

  • Pentagon officials have known of the shortages since the Persian Gulf war, perhaps earlier. But though the estimated size of the nation's seafaring labor pool has shrunk from about 23,000 sailors in 1990 to fewer than 15,000 today, the military's reliance on those sailors for wartime sealift has remained constant.

    'A real problem'

    "A lot of people in the Department of Defense and the Maritime Administration are wetting their lips to whistle past the graveyard over this," said John Graykowski, a former head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, which regulates merchant shipping. "They won't say it, but they know there's a real problem."

    The United States cannot fight a war - even a small one - without cargo ships. Aircraft can't handle the volume of tanks, trucks, fuel and other supplies needed to deploy U.S. ground forces overseas. The largest airplane in the U.S. Air Force, a C-5 Galaxy, can transport no more than four small tanks at a time; a ship could carry more than 1,000.

    So vital are cargo ships to national defense that the Pentagon keeps more than 30 of them loaded with military supplies, fully crewed and waiting in ports around the globe. These "pre-positioned" ships can equip a full Marine expeditionary brigade or Army heavy division - each with about 16,000 troops - virtually anywhere in the world on a few days' notice.

    But the pre-positioned ships can supply only an initial invasion or occupation force. To sustain a mobilization of any significant size or duration, such as in the gulf war, the Pentagon must activate the nation's reserve sealift ships.

    That fleet consists of nearly 100 vessels, three of them in Japan and the rest tied up in U.S. ports. Eight, including the Cape Avinof, are based in Baltimore.

    Most have small crews onboard year-round for maintenance but are otherwise empty and rarely leave port. Each must hire at least 15 additional crew members before it can sail, and some must hire 36 or more.

    Seventy-six of the ships are part of the Ready Reserve Force, maintained in peacetime by the U.S. Department of Transportation. About 20 others - the newest and fastest, mostly - are under direct control of the Pentagon.

    None of the ships is part of the Navy's surface fleet, and the ships are not operated by Navy personnel. Each crew consists entirely of civilians, hired from the union halls and dispatch centers of the U.S. merchant marine.

    The United States has fought every major war by using civilian crews on cargo ships, and military officials say the nation is prepared to do it again. The Pentagon frequently tests its reserve sealift fleet by ordering the ships to activate, hire crews and put out to sea. Only twice in the past decade has a ship missed its deadline, each time by a few hours.

    What those tests do not show is that the Pentagon recycles crew members from one ship to another. It rarely activates more than eight ships at a time, allowing some sailors to serve on as many as five drills a year.

    The Cape Avinof hired 27 crew members during a test activation last year. Mariners came from California, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas - anywhere the unions could find them.

    For Bobby Adams, an able-seaman from Houston, the Cape Avinof drill was his fourth in a little more than a year. Between regular jobs on commercial ships, he worked three two-week stints on Ready Reserve Force ships in New Orleans and Texas before joining the Cape Avinof. Each ship sailed just long enough to declare itself ready for war.

    His schedule was not unusual. Sterling Adams, an engine room worker from Louisiana, helped activate three ships in the Gulf of Mexico in the year before he joined the Cape Avinof. Eric Williams, a deck worker from California, activated two ships in San Francisco, then flew straight to Baltimore.

    "It's good money," said Williams. "As long as they pay me to fly out there, why not?"

    The shuffling between ships is routine.

    The Cape Race and the Cape Ray, two Ready Reserve Force ships in Virginia, sailed with the same captain during successive activation drills over the winter.

    Ships share crews

    George Mazzola, a shipping buff from District Heights who sails for the Seafarers International Union, estimates that he has worked on two dozen activation drills in the past decade. An experienced able seaman such as Mazzola might earn $1,400 or more for a seven-day drill, including overtime. A licensed engineer or mate can make more than $2,000.

    "They're great little jobs," Mazzola said. "I call them candy."

    Government officials acknowledge that the vessels share crew members but deny that the practice is widespread and say the drills are designed primarily to test the condition of the ships.

    For evidence that the nation could provide crews for the ships in a crisis, they point to a drill in September 1998 during which 29 vessels went to sea simultaneously. More than 700 temporary crew members were hired, and the exercise was declared a success.

    That drill "exemplified ... the readiness response of U.S. merchant mariners to crew the surge fleet," said then-maritime administrator Clyde J. Hart, in testimony before Congress.

    But if anything, the test exposed the sealift fleet's limitations.

    At least three ships - the Alatna, the Chattahoochee and the Nodoway - never found full crews. The ships, all tankers based in Tsuneishi, Japan, had to share crew members and go out to sea one at a time, according to men who worked on them.

    "Three crews were supposed to go, but they couldn't get enough people," said Paul Garber, a deck officer from Texas who served on one of the ships. "They just used the guys they had and sent the ships out one at a time."

    Other ships in the exercise borrowed sailors from the full-time crews on ships that had not been activated.

    As the exercise ended, and all 29 ships were reporting a successful activation, Hurricane George churned past Florida and forced vessels in the Gulf of Mexico to scurry out to sea to avoid damage.

    According to Coast Guard inspection reports, two reserve sealift ships that did not participate in the exercise, the USNS Algol and the USNS Regulus, had to leave the port of New Orleans "minimally manned" - without enough crew members to conduct an adequate lifeboat drill.

    A month later, the Coast Guard found the U.S.-flagged tanker Valiant sailing near Japan with a crew that included four sailors licensed in the Philippines, one from Poland and three Americans lacking the proper qualifications. The ship was on a full-time charter to the federal government, hauling cargo for the Military Sealift Command.

    The size of the United States' reserve sealift fleet changes often as vessels visit shipyards or serve on temporary deployments, but on a typical day 90 or more ships might be sitting idle, waiting to be called up. Yet the activation of 29 ships three years ago used nearly every available sailor in the country.

    "It was very painful, no question," said retired Vice Adm. James Perkins, head of the Navy's Military Sealift Command at the time.

    "They just had to go out to the sea buoy and back, and that was only, what, one-third of the fleet?"

    If the United States went to war today and the Pentagon activated all of its reserve sealift ships, it would need to hire 3,594 sailors, mostly from merchant marine unions around the country. About 900 sailors already work on the ships year-round. Federal officials say finding the rest is not a problem, though they question how long they could keep the positions filled in a crisis.

    "I do worry that in a long-term conflict we won't have sufficient mariners," said Vice Adm. Gordon S. Holder, commander of the Military Sealift Command. "But I can man the ships today."

    The U.S. Maritime Administration estimated in February that 14,417 mariners worked on oceangoing ships in the United States and that the commercial fleet kept 6,351 of them at sea at one time. That left 8,066 crew members for use in a military emergency.

    The men and women who sail American cargo ships for a living laugh at that kind of logic because it ignores some of the basic realities of life at sea.

    Merchant seamen are all volunteers, for one. Many would be unwilling to spend what little time they get ashore working for the Pentagon, particularly if the work is dangerous.

    Also, many sailors have regular jobs ashore. They work on cargo ships only sporadically to augment their income and can't commit to the months-long deployments that the reserve fleet would require in wartime.

    Specialized jobs

    Mariners also perform specific tasks, requiring specific training, so supplying a ship with a crew demands more than simply an adequate number of bodies.

    Much of the work on a ship's bridge, for instance, must be performed by a licensed mate, with training equivalent to a four-year degree. Most deckhands must be "able seamen" with at least three years of sea time. Engineers need engineering licenses, and their training must match the power plant on the ship - diesel or steam.

    A job in the merchant marine bears little resemblance to a job on land. Sailors live on the ships, working seven days a week, and rotate on and off every few months. A typical merchant seaman works four months at sea, then gets two months on shore, so a ship might need 1 1/2 to 2 people for each job.

    And the employers rarely decide whom to hire - the unions do. Shipping companies "order" sailors from a union, and the union decides which qualified employee gets the job, usually based on seniority and the amount of time since a mariner last worked at sea.

    The Pentagon plans to provide crews for its reserve sealift ships the same way private companies do - by ordering sailors from the unions. It can't raid the commercial fleet outright because merchant vessels need to continue operating. So the military expects to fill its ships largely with sailors taking their two-month break on shore, asking them to spend a year or more at sea without relief.

    None of this was a problem during World War II and the Vietnam War, because the U.S. merchant marine was a major force in global shipping for most of the 20th century, with plenty of available workers. At its peak in 1950, the United States had 3,492 oceangoing cargo vessels and 166,000 laborers for crews.

    Fleet still shrinking

    The U.S. merchant marine is less than one-tenth that size today. And it gets smaller every year.

    The government's surveys determined four years ago that 6,889 sailors were available to work on sealift ships, fewer than it says are available today.

    The Maritime Administration conducted a mock activation drill for 63 Ready Reserve Force ships in May, asking the unions for names and phone numbers of potential crew members. Officials then contacted enough people on the lists to gain "a high level of confidence" that the ships can be manned, according to a report on the drill.

    But the drill included only Ready Reserve Force ships, not the newer, Pentagon-controlled ships that are always the first to be activated.

    And union officials say privately that the lists of crew members were inflated with office personnel, elderly retired seafarers and scores of others with no intention of going to sea.

    Only 75 percent of those contacted were qualified and willing to work, according to the report. The Maritime Administration destroyed the lists for privacy reasons once the test was finished.

    "I think, unfortunately, a lot of our national policies are like this - they're based on assumptions that are never tested," said Graykowski, who resigned as maritime administrator in November.

    Shortages since gulf war

    Pentagon officials have known of staffing shortages at least since the Persian Gulf war, when the activation of 79 ships so strained the civilian labor pool that mariners as old as 81 were called back to service.

    Several reserve ships never left port during the war; others were delayed waiting for adequate crews. Licensing requirements were waived, and crew members were allowed to sail with fewer qualifications. Still, many ships sailed short-staffed.

    By the start of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, the union halls were empty and the labor pool was exhausted. The Pentagon activated its last few ships by hiring sailors out of the Great Lakes, where the fleet was temporarily idle because of ice.

    Military planners often boast of the "steel bridge" during the gulf war - a string of cargo ships, one every 50 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. But conditions for sealift at the time were ideal. The military had modern ports and friendly harbors, and the ocean was safe. And still it took allied forces nearly six months to amass the equipment and supplies needed to invade Iraq.

    Vice Adm. Paul Butcher, then deputy commander of the U.S Transportation Command, said shortly after the war ended, "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."

    'Serious manpower problem'

    Robert W. Kesteloot, a retired Navy captain and former director of strategic sealift for the chief of naval operations, said, "It was real clear, even back in the 1980s, that we had a serious manpower problem.

    "I think people are worried, but nobody wants to talk about it. The government doesn't want to admit that it has a readiness problem, and the unions don't want to admit that they don't have enough people."

    Four years after the gulf war, a study commissioned by the Navy revealed that the labor shortage was growing, particularly among the able seamen who make up the bulk of a crew's skilled work force. The study stopped short of predicting a manning calamity, but its author says the situation was probably direr than reported.

    "It appeared to us at times that we had come up with the wrong answer for our customer, and we were told to recompute the figures," said Thomas F. McCaffery, the consultant who conducted the study.

    Retirees no solution

    And the problem is getting worse. One pool of potential manpower - retirees - is drying up because of new international training requirements that will force retired sailors to attend classes to maintain their qualifications, often at a cost of several hundred dollars.

    The Pentagon relied heavily on retired merchant seamen during the gulf war, but today many retirees are letting their licenses and other qualifications expire rather than comply with the new training standards, which will become mandatory in February. Federal officials don't know how widespread the problem is because the government has no idea how many retirees there are and which of them are qualified, capable or willing to go to sea.

    "The commercial fleet is shrinking, more people are retiring, and now people who retire are losing their qualifications," said Perkins. "It's a serious problem that needs to be addressed immediately with some very creative thinking."

    Despite the warnings, the military has maintained its reliance on civilian seafarers for sealift and even tried to increase it.

    The federal government continues to build $314 million cargo vessels and expects to have 19 of them - each requiring at least 26 civilian crew members - by 2004. The new ships are larger and more efficient than older cargo ships in the federal fleet. The government recently retired 14 ships in the Ready Reserve Force, saying a 76-vessel fleet is adequate because the new vessels can make up the difference.

    But the government is keeping the retired ships in mothballs for emergencies. And according to a 1994 Department of Defense review, the Ready Reserve Force needs 142 ships to meet the demands of a large-scale conflict.

    "I think there is a fair amount of, if not denial, at least a lot of people looking at this problem through glasses with a very heavy rose tint to them," McCaffery said.

    "The bottom line is that fixing the problem is going to cost money, and nobody wants to step up and say they'll take money out of their budget to do it - the Navy won't, and the Department of Transportation won't."

    Fixing the problem is not easy for the Pentagon because the labor shortage stems primarily from the economic troubles of the nation's commercial shipping industry.

    American cargo ships have all but vanished from the oceans, replaced by lower-cost competitors with Third World labor.

    Once the world's largest fleet of commercial vessels, the U.S. merchant marine has dwindled to 220 vessels in active trade. The new maritime power is Panama, with 4,621 ships in its registry last year.

    As the American fleet has shrunk, and as job prospects for mariners have disappeared, fewer people are committing themselves to the years-long process of getting the Coast Guard qualifications necessary to work at sea.

    As a result, every major union in the U.S. merchant marine is desperate for workers.

    "It's an industry-wide problem," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, which represents American shipping companies on the Great Lakes. "We're having very, very serious difficulty finding qualified, good people."

    One vessel, the 665-foot U.S.-flagged tanker Asphalt Commander, wants to leave the U.S.-flagged fleet because it can't find crew members. After scouring union halls around the country for third assistant engineers, the ship was boarded by Coast Guard inspectors in Wilmington, N.C., and caught sailing understaffed - without a third assistant engineer.

    The ship's owners have petitioned the Maritime Administration and Congress for permission to re-flag with another country, allowing it to hire foreign sailors.

    "They made it clear to us that they had checked all the union halls and there weren't any engineers available," said Lt. Cmdr. Rick Raksnis, head of the Coast Guard's inspections unit in Wilmington.

    "We told them that wasn't acceptable and they had to find someone. They eventually did."

    Citations from the Coast Guard are rare, but the labor shortage is common in cities, on ships and in unions around the country.

    The recruitment problem is so dire that the Military Sealift Command gives $1,500 signing bonuses for new workers on ships it operates full time. Still, some mariners are kept at sea for nearly a year at a time because no qualified workers are available to relieve them.

    Even the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy can't always persuade its graduates to go to sea. The federal academy, which requires a congressional appointment to attend and offers free tuition, exists to create licensed engineers and deck officers for the commercial fleet. But fewer than 45 percent of its 218 graduates last year took seagoing jobs - and that at a time when unfilled positions are plentiful.

    Some graduates joined the military. Others got waivers from the Maritime Administration allowing them to work on shore for shipping companies, port operators or in other maritime-related positions. The agency has pledged to grant fewer such waivers.

    "We find an enormous demand for our students right now, but a lot of them want to work ashore," said Rear Adm. Joseph D. Stewart, superintendent of the academy.

    "I don't think an awful lot of people who apply here do so because they want to go into the merchant marine."

    Kevin Egleston, an able seaman from Miami, said, "Companies call me up at home now asking me to ship out. They can't even fill the regular jobs.

    "If they had to crew up those [Ready Reserve Force] ships, I don't know where the guys would come from."

    The Pentagon has two alternatives to activating its reserve sealift ships in wartime: It can commandeer the U.S.-flagged commercial fleet or charter foreign-flagged ships.

    But federal officials don't like those options.

    The Pentagon often charters commercial ships, but it has resisted compelling them into service because many vessels that tried to return to the private sector after the Vietnam War found they had been replaced by foreign competitors. If that happened again, the country's commercial shipping industry might disappear.

    And though the Pentagon can use foreign ships - during the gulf war, the United States chartered 182 foreign vessels for sealift - they can be a perilous alternative in wartime.

    Reluctant foreign crews

    Several foreign crews refused to sail into the Persian Gulf in 1991, once forcing the Military Sealift Command to transfer cargo from one ship to another. Crew members on a Bangladeshi vessel abandoned their ship in San Francisco rather than sail into a war zone. A Japanese freighter refused anything but "benign cargo," ultimately agreeing to haul prefabricated buildings.

    Last summer, commandos from the Canadian Navy had to seize the cargo ship GTS Katie off the Grand Banks when the ship's Russian captain refused to enter port because of a payment dispute. The vessel was returning from Kosovo loaded with 590 military vehicles and 390 containers of weapons and ammunition, nearly one-tenth of the Canadian Army's supply of such equipment.

    "We need a fairly robust, certainly healthy, U.S.-flag fleet to do the [Department of Defense's] business," said Robertson, the Pentagon's top official in charge of sealift. "When a crisis occurs - I mean a real knockdown, drag-out crisis - for the country to rely on foreign-flag carriers is something we wouldn't want to do."

    And so the federal government spends $350 million a year on a fleet of empty ships.

    Ships such as the Cape Avinof.

    Pat Wright captained the Cape Avinof when it went to sea last year. He has spent most of his career sailing petroleum tankers and loves going to sea. The adventure, the solitude.

    But Wright, 47, has a wife and four children in Newport News, Va., and his industry is dying. So instead of going to sea, he works the steadiest job left in the U.S. merchant marine - he sits in port, waiting for a war.

    Wright is a permanent chief mate on the Cape Race, a Ready Reserve Force ship in Portsmouth, Va.

    'No way'

    On deck last fall, he was asked whether he thinks there are enough sailors in the United States to crew all of the nation's sealift ships during a war. He laughed and gave the answer that most merchant mariners give: "No way."

    "The whole concept behind keeping these ships here is based on the assumption that you have a viable merchant marine, which creates enough jobs so that there are people available to crew the ships when they're needed," he said. "And we don't have much of a viable merchant marine anymore.

    "Nobody seems to realize it, but if there's no merchant marine, our military doesn't go anywhere."

    Tomorrow: Once the world's dominant cargo fleet, the U.S. merchant marine has nearly vanished.
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