Tabletop exercise refines Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement activation process

Each stage increases the percentage of total ship capacity enrolled in VISA that must be made available, starting at 15 percent in stage I, 40 percent in stage II, and 50 percent in stage III or 100 percent of capacity enrolled in MSP, whichever is greater. (USTRANSCOM graphic illustration by Michelle Gigante)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. – Defense, government, and maritime industry representatives held a table top exercise (TTX) to activate commercial ships to support the Department of Defense (DOD) during a national emergency.

More than 80 representatives from DOD, the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD), commercial sealift carriers, and maritime labor gathered virtually last month for the TTX to talk through an activation of the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). The agreement, which has never been activated, is an emergency resource designed to provide the department with sealift capacity necessary during a crisis or contingency.

Sealift plays a critical role in almost every large scale deployment of U.S. military equipment. U.S. Army General Stephen R. Lyons, United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) commander, recently highlighted this in his address to the American Bureau of Shipping Annual Member and Advisory Council Meeting last November.

“When our Nation goes to war, so does the maritime industry,” he said, “With 85 percent of military forces based in the continental United States, nearly 90 percent of our military equipment is expected to deploy via sealift in a major conflict.”

Sealift is essential not only in crisis, but in everyday operations, with approximately 30 commercial and military ships on any given day moving freight around the world in support of DOD.

USTRANSCOM, along with its sea and land components, Military Sealift Command (MSC) and Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), and in coordination with MARAD, manages a strategic sealift portfolio of commercial and government owned ships. These ships are operated by U.S. Merchant Mariners, ensuring preparedness for any scenario to move DOD resources anywhere around the world. The privately-owned U.S. merchant ships enrolled in VISA are one element of the broader portfolio. The Maritime Security Program (MSP), a government retainer program for internationally trading ships, is another element of the commercial fleet, as the ships included in MSP commit 100 percent of their capacity and supporting intermodal capabilities to VISA.

“All told, VISA represents almost all of the U.S. flag commercial dry cargo fleet,” said Tim Boemecke, Commercial Sealift Program manager, USTRANSCOM Intermodal Division in the Strategic Plans, Policy and Logistics Directorate. “Many of these ships already provide day to day freight movement for the Department through either the Universal Services Contract operated by SDDC or through full ship charter contracts executed by MSC.”

When the need for large-scale, contingency sealift develops, DOD will generally first turn to its fleet of prepositioned vessels in place around the world and then rely on organic surge capacity provided by both MSC and MARAD. As the organic fleet is activated and mobilized, the enterprise also seeks voluntary U.S. and foreign flag commercial capacity to meet increased contingency demand.  If sufficient capacity is not generated through these volunteers, VISA activation is the next option available.

“In the event of a contingency, VISA provides assured access through pre-established contracts for ship capacity and supporting intermodal capabilities that industry partners provide,” said Boemecke. “In most cases, the immediacy of the contingency response often requires ships operating in global trade to immediately discharge commercial cargoes and pick up military cargo.”

Should the USTRANSCOM commander, with approval from the Secretary of Defense, activate VISA, the ships would incrementally come under the operational control of MSC, through three stages.  Each stage increases the percentage of total ship capacity enrolled in VISA that must be made available, starting at 15 percent in stage I, 40 percent in stage II, and 50 percent in stage III or 100 percent of capacity enrolled in MSP, whichever is greater. In an instance where stage III is reached and there is still more demand, the Department of Transportation would move to requisition the capacity required from additional U.S.-owned or flagged ships.

“Our partners at MARAD are involved throughout the entire process,” said Boemecke. “Especially so at stage III, where they take on the role of allocating sealift capacity to USTRANSCOM, in an effort to minimize the disruption to the national economy as many of the ships committed to stage III provide domestic service between U.S. ports.”

In exchange for their commitment to VISA, U.S. flag carriers receive priority preference for award of DOD peacetime cargo over non-VISA participants. The agreement is authorized under the Defense Production Act of 1950, which directs federal departments and agencies that are responsible for national defense acquisition to continually assess “adequacy of productive capacity and supply” and “foster cooperation between the defense and commercial sectors.”

While the agreement has been in place since 1997, and the concept of its activation and the capability it brings has been often discussed in other exercises, government and industry identified a need for a clearer understanding of just what it would look like if VISA was actually activated.

After one such exercise, Turbo Challenge 2018, USTRANSCOM, MSC, SDDC, and MARAD worked together to build a step-by-step VISA activation guide. The guide clearly identified the roles and responsibilities that would allow implementation of the agreement from normal peacetime operations, through multiple phases to a full activation for use by the DOD, and then deactivation of the agreement to return ships to normal commercial operations.
During the five-hour table top exercise this January, the government presented the activation guide and walked step by step through the process while soliciting input from industry.

“It was our opportunity, in an effort of transparency, to share the process from the government perspective with the major sealift carriers who would provide that wartime capacity,” said Boemecke.

From Boemecke’s perspective, the TTX was a huge success, with the government team taking note of feedback offered by the participants to improve the VISA Activation Guide.  Recommendations ranged from clarifying certain agreement provisions to highlighting the need for added touchpoints with industry, and possible expansion of future TTXs to include more elements of the deployment and distribution cycle such as port operations.

Lessons learned from the exercise were shared with government and industry executives at the biannual VISA Executive Working Group (EWG) held virtually Feb. 11, 2021.

“The table top exercise highlights the value of our relationship with industry and the dedication of all parties involved to provide the strategic sealift our nation would need in a contingency,” said U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Dee L. Mewbourne, USTRANSCOM deputy commander, who co-chaired the working group. “While we haven’t had to activate VISA, we’re in a better place should the need arise.”

USTRANSCOM exists as a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing. Powered by dedicated men and women, TRANSCOM underwrites the lethality of the Joint Force, advances American interests around the globe, and provides our nation's leaders with strategic flexibility to select from multiple options, while creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.

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