The Bush administration is acknowledging, after years of government denials, that the nation's ability to fight a large-scale war overseas is in peril because of a crippling shortage of manpower in the U.S. merchant marine. Mr. Schubert, Bush's maritime administrator, said in an interview that he does not believe the Pentagon could find enough sailors to operate its cargo ships if military forces were deployed for a sustained overseas campaign. He plans to pursue several immediate remedies, including pushing for the creation of a new Merchant Marine Reserve, and said solving the manpower crisis will be "a very top priority" of his administration.
A small military force like the one currently in Afghanistan can be deployed and re-supplied with cargo planes and helicopters. But during a large campaign involving tank divisions and heavy machinery, such as the Persian Gulf war, about 95 percent of the equipment, fuel and supplies must move in ships. The federal government keeps almost 100 empty cargo ships scattered around the country for use in such an emergency, and it plans to crew them with civilian sailors from the U.S. merchant marine. A complete activation of the 76-ship Ready Reserve Force and about two dozen other dormant sealift vessels would require more than 3,500 mariners, all of them culled from the nation's commercial shipping industry.
The Navy is ultimately responsible for military sealift, but it has little control over the crew members hired for its dormant cargo ships because they are all temporary civilian contractors, not regular employees. The responsibility to maintain and preserve that work force rests with the U.S. Maritime Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation. That strategy worked for decades, when the U.S. merchant marine dominated the globe and the fleet had thousands of vessels. But since 1950, the U.S.-flagged commercial fleet has shrunk from nearly 3,500 vessels to about 220. An industry that once kept more than 160,000 sailors employed now has fewer than 6,500 jobs.
Schubert said that correcting the manpower shortage would be a top priority in his administration. He plans to appoint a new deputy administrator with expertise in manpower and recruitment, and conduct a new, detailed survey of the merchant marine work force. He is considering making service on Ready Reserve Force cargo ships an element of the service obligation for graduates of the tuition-free U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. And he wants to set up a program at the academy for emergency mariner training, to counter shortages in a crisis.