WWW.SEAPOWERMAGAZINE.ORG SEAPOWER / MAY 2016
Jones Act dry cargo vessel carriers and other U.S.-flag
carriers are eligible to enroll voluntarily, and MSP vessels
comprise more than 80 percent of VISA enrolled capacity.
VISA participants get priority preference based on level of
commitment when bidding on DoD peacetime cargoes.
The program provides a two-fold benefit. While U.S.-flag
carriers accrue an economic gain from peacetime cargo
opportunities, strategic readiness is enhanced due to the
relatively seamless transition from commercial operations
to a wartime logistical footing by retaining as much as
practicable the ongoing relationships and processes utilized with trusted commercial sealift providers.
The enactment of legislation in October 1996 to
authorize MSP implementation was timely and fortuitous given the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and
during the years that followed. Sealift support for the
military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq was notably superior to what the government and the maritime
industry were able to accomplish during the first Gulf
War. To begin with, the government fleet had been significantly upgraded with the construction of 19 large,
medium-speed roll-on/roll-off vessels to enhance surge
and prepositioning capabilities.
To better complement those assets, the Ready Reserve
Force (RRF) had been radically transformed with the
acquisition of newer roll-on /roll-off (Ro/Ro) ships. Also
with respect to the RRF, vessels were able to achieve
more timely activation deadlines due to the implementation of numerous readiness initiatives — all made
possible by significantly enhanced funding levels within
the Navy’s National Defense Sealift Fund. However, the
most significant improvement was the upgrade of capability and readiness available from the U.S.-flag international commercial fleet and a fortified civilian mariner
pool made possible by the MSP and VISA.
Every element of the sealift effort to support OEF/
OIF was superior to sealift operations in 1990-91. In
the early stages of simultaneous military operations, the
government-controlled surge sealift components operated efficiently, and cargo volumes were large enough
that it was necessary to involve MSP vessels in liner
services from the outset. As the years of fighting wore
on, the value and effectiveness of MSP was proven by
the expanded role of the U.S.-flag commercial fleet to
provide sealift support and the sustained liner service
delivery of military cargoes. The militarily useful criteria
used during MSP enrollment had rendered the vessels to
be effective for the mission, and this became especially
true with the reauthorization of MSP to 60 vessels effective Oct. 1, 2005. Expansion of the program from 47
to 60 ships allowed MARAD, in consultation with U.S.
Transportation Command, to increase the number of
MSP-enrolled Ro/Ro vessels from eight to 14 to further
enhance MSP’s operational capability.
Throughout OEF/OIF, the DoD’s reliance on MSP
vessels grew. To support military operations in 1990-91,
the U.S.-flag commercial shipping industry contributed
21 percent of the dry cargo lift. In comparison, the
percentage share of OEF/OIF dry cargo transported by
U.S.-flag commercial ships over extended periods grew
to 49 percent from 2001-06; 77 percent from 2006-08;
and 95 percent from 2009-10. Through 2010, U.S.-flag
vessels in commercial service carried 57 percent of the
total sealift, and 99 percent of it moved on MSP vessels
in liner services. Only 3 percent of OEF/OIF cargo
moved on foreign-flag charters, compared with the 23
percent in 1990-91.
It is widely understood within the DoD that commercial sealift is a significant bargain from a budgetary
standpoint. The alternative would call for a larger
federal investment in sealift infrastructure (vessels and
related equipment) for DoD to acquire, maintain and
operate. The cost to replicate vessel capacity and intermodal systems equivalent to MSP-sourced capability
has been estimated to be $65 billion.
Annual funding for the 60-vessel MSP retainer in
recent years has been $186 million through fiscal 2015.
Authorized funding for fiscal 2016 was increased to $210
million as part of the National Defense Authorization Act
for that year, and authorized funding levels were further
increased as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act,
2016, as follows: $299.997 million for fiscal 2017; $300
million for each of fiscal 2018, 2019 and 2020; and $314
million for fiscal 2021.
Even at recently increased levels, the MSP investment remains sound. It could be viewed as inexpensive
insurance in the context of defense spending — and
cost-effective, given the benefits achieved with respect
to jobs and capability. For that relatively modest price,
the taxpayer — through the DoD — gains access to a
modern, militarily useful commercial fleet as well as
access to its global intermodal transportation network.
The programs provide defense planners the security of
knowing that sufficient sealift capability is assured and
available, if and when needed for military conflict or for
national emergencies. n
James Caponiti became president of the American Maritime
Congress in March 2014. He joined the organization as its executive director in October 2011, after more than 38 years of service
with the federal government. The preponderance of his career was
served with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime
Administration, having last held the post of assistant administrator.
“A Point of View” is a Seapower forum wherein experts and
analysts express their views on a variety of thought-provoking
topics. The views expressed here are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Navy League of the United States.