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Maritime Maladies

​U.S. maritime security is a beast with several heads. After 9/11, there was a rush to improve port security, with more resources allocated in that area. But maritime security also requires the maintenance of an auxiliary force, the U.S. flag fleet, in case of crisis or attack. And it also requires strategic long-term planning and appropriation decisions so that future threats can be thwarted with properly functioning vessels that have not outlived their service life. 

But due to insufficient funding, some of these heads are now ailing from a lack of care and attention and a lack of nourishment due to insufficient funding, according to new research and expert opinion. 

Take, for example, the U.S. flag fleet. To facilitate national security, Congress mandated the development and maintenance of a U.S. merchant marine fleet that could be called upon to serve in times of war or national crisis. The flag fleet is crewed by citizen mariners, who usually are trained through the merchant marine academy. 

Although most ships in this fleet are privately owned, they are partially supported by the U.S. federal government in two ways. One is an annual financial stipend provided through the Maritime Security Program (MSP). The second is a cargo preference program that requires federal agencies to transport certain percentages of government cargo on U.S.-flag fleet vessels.​

But despite these two continuous means of support, the sustainability of the U.S. flag fleet is being challenged, according to a recent study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).   

First, maintaining the financial viability of U.S. flag vessels is difficult, even with the MSP stipend, because of the high cost of operating a U.S. flag vessel, according to the study, Maritime Security: DOT Needs to Expeditiously Finalize the Required National Maritime Strategy for Sustaining U.S. Flag Fleet

Operating a U.S. flag vessel currently costs the owner $6.2 to $6.5 million annually, up from $4.8 million annually in 2009. This increase makes it harder for such vessels to remain financially viable, even though the annual MSP stipend was raised from $3.5 million in 2016 to $4.9 million in 2017.

“That [operating cost] increase is due to a range of factors, primarily the rising relative costs of employing U.S. mariners as crew versus foreign crew members. For example, one MSP vessel operator indicated that labor costs for its U.S. flag vessels are projected to increase approximately 4 percent per year,” the report finds.

Second, there is now a potential shortage of U.S. citizen mariners needed to crew the U.S. flag fleet during a crisis. A recent government study estimates that 13,607 mariners would be needed for sustained operation of the flag fleet. However, the study also estimates that there were only 11,768 qualified and available U.S. citizen mariners as of June 2017. “There are enough U.S. citizen mariners to crew the reserve fleet during an initial surge, but not for a sustained activation,” the study finds.

A few years ago, Congress mandated that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which has authority over the flag fleet, issue a national maritime strategy that would propose solutions in working with flag fleet challenges. DOT has not yet issued such a strategy, so GAO recommended that it do so expeditiously. 

Meanwhile, another GAO report found that the U.S. Coast Guard lacks a strong long-term plan that could guide efforts in modernizing its fleets of cutters, aircraft, and other equipment. Given this lack of long-term vision, the Coast Guard is taking more of a short-term funding approach, driven by the annual budget process and the five-year plan. This has led to unpredictable funding and capability gaps, according to the report, Coast Guard: Improved Acquisition Portfolio Management Could Help Address Aging Assets and Capability Gaps.

So, until new acquisitions are funded, the Coast Guard plans to rely on aging assets, many of which are already past their intended service lives. For example, the current medium endurance cutters, which are often used for two-month patrols, exhausted their service lives in 2014, but they are still active. The Coast Guard does plan to replace them with offshore patrol cutters, but not until 2023, when the endurance cutters will be almost 10 years past their service expiration date.

“This short-term approach has also left the Coast Guard with a bow wave of near-term unfunded acquisition programs, putting future missions at risk,” the authors write. Since the annual budget and the five-year plan do not explicitly discuss what funding tradeoffs are being made, the effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s long-term acquisition planning will be limited until all stakeholders and have a better understanding of these tradeoffs, the study adds.

Both the flag fleet challenges and the funding issues illustrate the complexity of U.S. maritime security, which includes a range of components that all need to be well-maintained. After 9/11, another one of these components came into sharper focus: port security. New homeland security funding went toward tasks such as protecting boarding passengers, screening employees and crew, and more, says maritime security expert Hank Nolin, CPP, a Coast Guard-certified facility security officer (FSO) and a former chair of the ASIS Supply Chain and Transportation Security Council.

But another of the Coast Guard’s responsibilities is to protect U.S. territorial waters, which commonly extend 12 nautical miles from shore. In recent years, there has not been a large-scale terror attack in those waters. “We haven’t seen an attack on the maritime side of our country within our borders. It’s all been on land or in the air,” Nolin says. “For example, we haven’t seen a direct attack on any cruise ship within the borders of the United States.”

But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk of a future attack. “Who knows what type of rogue organization could be out there, planning to commandeer a ship or just sink it?” Nolin asks.  

And from the terrorist’s point of view, the amount of damage that could be done in a single maritime attack might make such a strike appealing. “If you bring down one major cruise ship, you can bring down close to 10,000 people,” Nolin explains. And that attack could be carried out with a small pleasure boat, 20 or 30 feet long, housing a group of jihadists with shoulder-mounted and surface-to-air missiles. 

“Can you imagine the impact on the American population if a cruise ship with 4,000 passengers and 1,000 staff members were attacked at 2:00 in the morning on its way to Nassau from Florida?” he asks.

Or, consider an attack somewhere in the seven-mile long channel that leads into Port Canaveral, Florida. “If a terrorist were to down a cruise ship with an attack in the middle of that strait, it would block that channel for months,” Nolin says. There’s also a nuclear submarine base in the area that would be blocked too, he adds.

Overall, Nolin says it is hard to say why terror groups haven’t attempted a U.S. maritime attack. “Sometimes I think it’s dumb luck. Other times, I think it’s good planning,” he explains.  “Or maybe the terrorists don’t feel that it is a good opportunity to make a statement.”

In the end, a smart funding strategy for the Coast Guard is important, because it has to balance the different components of the mission–well-functioning ships, effective port security, long-term needs, and more. And the possibility of a future maritime attack can never be dismissed.

“Who knows that they are not planning one now, as we speak?” Nolin says.