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Government and maritime industry executives discuss readiness

Army Lt. Gen. John Sullivan, U.S. Transportation Command deputy commander, provides opening comments during the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement Executive Working Group March 16, at The National WWII Museum, in New Orleans. (U.S. Transportation Command photo by Rob Wieland)

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SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Officials from the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Transportation (DOT), and executives from the U.S. maritime industry met in New Orleans last week to discuss wartime readiness and strengthen their strategic relationships.

“When our nation goes to war, so too does the maritime industry,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Sullivan, deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM). “Maintaining an adequate fleet of seaworthy ships is critical to TRANSCOM’s ability to deploy forces in a major conflict, as nearly 90% of U.S. military equipment would move by ship.”

Sullivan led the executive working group, where he was joined by senior leaders from the Maritime Administration, Military Sealift Command and executives from U.S. commercial sealift carriers.

The group is a subcommittee under the National Defense Transportation Association, where its members look at how the DOD can improve its global transportation enterprise — specifically sealift and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA). 

VISA is a partnership program between the U.S. government and maritime industry. The agreement was established in 1997 to provide the DOD with assured access to commercial sealift and intermodal capacity to support emergency deployment and sustainment of U.S. military forces. Intermodal capacity includes dry cargo ships, equipment, terminal facilities and intermodal management services.

Sullivan expressed appreciation for the historic contributions delivered by merchant mariners, saying that, “U.S. Merchant Mariners are the backbone of our maritime capability. The qualified mariners you employ are the lifeblood we rely on to power our strategic sealift portfolio.”

USTRANSCOM, in coordination with MARAD, manages a strategic sealift portfolio of commercial- and government-owned ships. These ships are operated by U.S. Merchant Mariners, civilians responsible for moving the DOD’s strategic resources worldwide, whether in peacetime or conflict. 

The privately-owned U.S. merchant ships enrolled in VISA are one element of the broader portfolio. The Maritime Security Program, a government retainer program for internationally trading ships, is another element of the commercial fleet, as the ships included in the program commit 100% of their capacity and support to VISA.

On any given day, approximately 30 commercial and military ships are providing support to the DOD, moving strategic resources and materiel worldwide, Sullivan said. “Sealift is essential not only in crisis, but in everyday operations.” 

“Eighty percent of the 62 voyages supporting the delivery of aid and supplies to Ukraine were conducted by our commercial partners,” Sullivan said. “While the air numbers [sorties flown] are larger, the largest volume has travelled by sea.”  

When the U.S. needs large-scale, contingency sealift, the Defense Department will first turn to its fleet of vessels prepositioned around the world. If additional surge capacity is still necessary, the DOD will request support from MSC and MARAD. As these fleets mobilize, the enterprise will also seek aid from U.S. and foreign commercial partners who can provide resources voluntarily. If the need for surge sealift is too great, the DOD can activate VISA, a capability that has never been used since its creation.

Should the USTRANSCOM commander, with approval from the Secretary of Defense, activate VISA, the ships would come under the operational control of MSC through a three-stage process. Each stage increases the percentage of total ship capacity enrolled in VISA that must be made available, starting at 15% in stage I, 40% in stage II, and 50% in stage III, or 100% of capacity enrolled in Maritime Sealift Program, 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.

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 the ‘90s, 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 activated.

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.

Editor's note: All of the photos from this event are available at: https://flickr.com/photos/ustranscom/albums/72177720306852642

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