The Merchant Marine, a fleet of U.S.-flagged ships with American crews that are privately owned, deliver cargo for the government -- for a fee. During World War II, Merchant Marine vessels known as Liberty Ships dodged German U-boats, to deliver crucial supplies.
Now, 60 Merchant Marine ships carry military cargo, but Merchant Marine Capt. Don Marcus* said up to a third of them could be lost because of the automatic budget cuts scheduled for next year, cuts known as sequestration.
"It’s a situation of unintended consequences and blind cuts that could slash capacity at a time of potential conflict -- and actual conflict," Marcus said.
Marcus said Merchant Marine ships carried more than 90 percent of the cargo for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary, said the U.S. will not be fighting any more big ground wars that require lots of cargo shipments. If he were back at the Pentagon, he said, he’d go along with the Merchant Marine cuts.
“I don’t want to do it but if I had to do it could I live with it,” he said.
If that happened, the Navy would have to pick up much of the slack, and that would be expensive, said retired Adm. Mark Buzby. By some estimates, it would cost $13 billion to replace the Merchant Marine ships. But Buzby said the Merchant Marine ends up being an easy target for budget cutters, because of little public support.
“People see 18 wheelers on the highway, they see trains going by, but few people venture into ports," he explains. "Few people see ships sailing at sea.”
But that could change, thanks to a new Tom Hanks movie in which he portrays a Merchant Marine captain attacked by pirates. The movie premiers October 11, when Congress is still likely to be wrestling with sequestration cuts.
*CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Don Marcus. Marcus is a working captain, and head of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots. The text has been corrected.