Fleet Size, Personnel Shortages and Cybersecurity Remain Top Concerns for Maritime Forces
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Leaders of the three naval services and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) cited similar concerns of the need to modernize and expand to adjust to the growing threat of cyberattacks and to recruit and retain talented personnel from the shrinking pool of eligible young Americans.
Speaking at the opening panel of the 2018 Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition on April 9, the number two officers of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, the Navy’s top requirements officer and the MARAD administrator cited the problems stemming from the past funding shortages and their plans to address the resulting problems.
Perhaps the most alarming report came from retired Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby who said his Maritime Administration “was at the ragged edge of being able to support our sealift mission,” which is critical to sustaining the armed services in any major conflict.
Buzby said MARAD was short 1,800 qualified civil mariners needed to operate its daily support services and to crew the reserve sealift ship that would be mobilized in a conflict. He also noted that MARAD operated the largest fleet of outdated steam-powered ships in the world and much of its other ships were in urgent need of replacement or life extension.
But Buzby said MARAD was working on a three-pronged effort to modernize that ancient fleet, by buying recently retired commercial ships, updating some current vessels and then building new ships, which probably would go into the prepositioning squadrons or other active components before moving into the reserve force. He said Congress was aware of the problems and appeared ready to help with the funding and new authority that would be required.
Buzby also expressed concern about the proposal in Congress to end the Jones Act requirement of using only U.S.-flag ships for moving cargo between American ports, warning that would eliminate the peace-time jobs of the mariners needed for the wartime missions.
Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Glenn M. Walters said the Corps was focusing on increasing personnel for its cyber force and other information warfare missions, improving its long-range fires, command and control assets, and ensuring its supply lines in the Pacific.
Walters noted the problem all the services have in trying to increase personnel when only 29 percent of military-age Americans are qualified to serve. Gaining and retaining cyberwarriors is particularly challenging due to the demand in industry, he said. That may require the Corps to impose the kinds of obligated service requirements now applied to aviators.
Vice Adm. William R. Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for Warfare Systems, had similar concerns for cyber vulnerabilities, and the need to improve current readiness and future capabilities and capacity. He said the primary immediate focus was on readiness and adding capability to increase the lethality of the surface fleet. Then the Navy would work on increasing capacity by growing the fleet toward the goal of 355 ships.
He also cited the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine as the top acquisition program.
Adm. Charles D. Michel, Coast Guard Vice Commandant, noted the rising demand on his force from surging narcotics trafficking and instability in Latin America. But Michel cited the positive signs of the new national security cutters and initial funding for the first of the four planned Arctic icebreakers.
Asked if the Coast Guard could take advantage of block buy authority for the icebreakers, Michel said the funds provided in the last two budgets and proposed for fiscal 2019 would more than pay for the first icebreaker, possibly setting the stage for a block buy.
Michel said the Coast Guard was working with the commercial shippers on information sharing on cyberthreats and was addressing both physical and cybersecurity at U.S. ports through its port captains.