Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, commander, U.S. Military Sealift Command (Thomas Brown / Staff)
Operating 112 non-combatant ships with civilian crews, U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC) performs a variety of missions supporting U.S. government operations. Combat Logistics Force ships supply the fleet, while Service Support ships keep them running. Special Mission ships support surveillance and anti-submarine warfare missions. Sealift ships move military cargo worldwide, and prepositioning ships store equipment in strategic locations.
Recent trends include a number of hybrid, or mixed-manning, ships, with civilian crews — many civilian mariners (civmars) employed by MSC — taking over “hotel” services, such as running a ship’s engineering or navigation departments, while uniformed, active-duty sailors handle mission needs. The former amphibious ship Ponce, converted last winter into an afloat forward staging base, now is operating in the Arabian Gulf under such a scheme.
Buzby, a cruiser-destroyer sailor who has commanded a destroyer, also is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, giving him a unique perspective on the civilian-active duty mix embodied by MSC.
Q. The Navy again is operating under a continuing resolution budget situation. Has that affected the MSC?
A. We don’t get hit as strikingly as others. We’re under the working Navy capital fund, so we get our operating expenses paid up front.
We charge per diem for our ships to operate according to the fleet’s requirements. We typically have 270 operational days [a year] for our Combat Logistics Force ships, for instance. There’s a rate that goes along with that, that includes fuel, manning, maintenance, everything it takes to run that ship, which we give to the operational commander up front, and they buy so many operational days a year. So our funding is pretty solid.
Q. And chartered ships?
A. We charter for both Transportation Command [TRANSCOM] and other DoD customers for particular missions. The Army’s Surface Deployment Distribution Command does all the liner booking to move military cargo. For instance, coming out of Afghanistan, the Army has been designated by TRANSCOM to book that cargo on to U.S. liner service back and forth.
Q. What is the path for moving equipment out of Afghanistan?
A. There are two routes, the PakGLOC [Pakistani Ground Line of Communication, leading down to Karachi] and the northern distribution network. It comes out of the northern part of Afghanistan, goes across Eurasia up into the Baltics. A very well-established second route that paid big dividends when the Pakistani borders were closed. We were able to continue the flow, actually increased the flow, thanks to that network. We used commercial carriers and operators who already had established relationships with a lot of those countries and the trans-land shippers.
Q. Where are your significant shortfalls?
A. We’re in pretty good shape right now. We’re resourced pretty well to do what we need to do.
As I look down the road, manning is a concern. And it’s not just me, it’s the entire shipping industry.
Shipping out in the commercial merchant marine doesn’t have the romance it once did, where you go around the world, visit all these great ports, get to see the world. That’s pretty much gone in the maritime industry. And it’s a pretty tough way to make a living. You’re out for a pretty long time, and it’s not quite the draw with younger generations that it once was. The pay is still pretty good.
For instance, this year I had a shortage of third assistant engineers. I couldn’t hire enough. That’s a concern because I have a big block of senior engineers getting ready to retire now. And as they retire out, I have to promote a lot of folks in, and I need people to come in behind them. And I’m not getting the numbers I’d like to get.
As I talk to other people on the commercial side, they’re seeing the same thing. A lot of young engineers are going to the oil fields; that’s where the big-dollar jobs are.
I have a concern that I’m going to be able to man to the levels I need to now, and if the Navy gives me other missions, and newer or new ships, that I’m going to be able to man those ships, even at reduced manning levels.
Q. Where do you draw most of your people from?
A. Mostly the commercial merchant marine. Many come and stay for their entire careers. About 40 percent is retired Navy or prior-service, and that’s a big plus. The average age of my mariner is about 47. That’s not a young person, but they bring, typically, 20 years of experience when they come over.
Q. You’re about to receive the first of 10 joint high-speed vessels [JHSVs]. What are the plans for these ships?
A. A lot of discussion going on about ideas for these ships. The Spearhead, the lead ship, is going to replace the Swift, the high-speed vessel we’re chartering now, swinging between Africa Command and Southern Command. As the other ships come out, I know that almost all the theater commanders have said they need at least one or two to do intra-theater lift and other kinds of missions. People are getting excited about it. It’s a very capable ship. Use your imagination, just fill the hole with a mission capability and you’re in business.
Q. The second JHSV, Choctaw County, will be delivered next year. What will it do?
A. That hasn’t been told to me yet.
Q. The Navy and MSC have instituted hybrid, or mixed, manning on several ships, with uniformed Navy and civilian mariners both operating a single ship. Is this a scheme that has a future?
A. It’s in place, in the case of the command ship Mount Whitney, for going on six years now, and on the submarine tenders, and now a form of it on the hospital ships, with the medical team. Ponce is the latest addition to the hybrid crew.
It was originally envisioned that it would be totally civmar-manned, but as we dove into the details of that ship’s mission — mine countermeasures support, actually doing mine warfare — the legal side of the house took note that these were offensive operations. And that’s the line that my civmars can’t go past. They cannot be involved in the command and control of offensive operations. They can participate in it, support it, but it takes a commissioned officer to command and control offensive operations.
And that’s why we had to go with hybrid manning on that ship. Why it’s still a USS, with an O-6 [Navy captain] in command. I have a civilian master on board, with a civilian chief engineer. My civilians run the flight deck, the well deck, and are doing it very well. With 150 or so mariners and just shy of 50 uniformed Navy personnel on board, substantially less than what that ship was originally manned by.
Personnel and fuel are the two big cost buckets, so if you can reduce any of those, you’re going to be saving money and operating that ship more efficiently. We’re actually operating that ship with a smaller crew than the Navy. We can attribute that to several different things. The level of training of my engineers — they’re a much more experienced set of engineers than the Navy just because they’ve been at it for a lot longer. They’re both the operators and maintainers.
Q. Are there active studies for potential hybrid manning for amphibious ships?
A. We did a study last summer, looking at the LSDs [landing ship docks]. It was specific to asking whether MSC can take over the engineering department.
We can run the plant, no doubt about that. The issue comes with the crossover of responsibilities between what MSC civilian engineers do and what Navy engineers do. Topside watches, standing watches on quarterdecks, being part of repair parties. In the Navy, the damage control officer is the chief engineer. In the merchant marine and in MSC, the damage control officer is the chief mate. That responsibility has to go someplace. We weren’t going to be putting any deck people on there, so there was no one who was going to be fulfilling that position per se.
In the Navy, engineers provide engineers for small boats. We don’t typically do that in MSC. People on deck do that.
The accommodations that are required for the MSC folks, the level of automation we’d need to reduce the manning such that it would make sense to do it. My people get paid more than the Navy people, so the savings come from reducing the number to get below that threshold. If you don’t reduce the number by about half, that’s the break-even point. If we can’t, it doesn’t pay to have civmars operating the ship. And we’re struggling to meet that half reduction. Could it be done? Yes. We just haven’t crossed that cost threshold to make it worthwhile. And that’s just looking at one department, engineering.
Q. You’re a serving line officer but have been with MSC for three years. What differences have you found in this culture from the active Navy?
A. The logistics side of the equation typically gets assumed away or not given its full due. Most of the Navy knows MSC to be the guys that send the shot line over and where we get the fuel, the ammo, our chow. That’s a very small segment, 40 ships out of 112. There are 20 different missions I perform for the Navy.
There’s all the special missions stuff. The tugs, the salvage, the hospital ships. All the prepositioning ships that some people get to see and operate with. Then the sealift ships that almost no one gets to see, no one really pays attention to because it’s not specifically a Navy mission. It’s usually in support of carrying Army or Air Force stuff or something like that.
There’s probably not an appreciation by your average Joe Naval Officer for all that. [Many of the missions were] once Navy, and now exist over here under MSC. It’s pretty striking how much has translated over. Even fairly senior naval officers, I don’t think, have a full appreciation for how much exists here, that’s being done by civilians now, and how critical a lot of these things are to fleet operations. It’s kind of eye-opening. We do it efficiently, but not at the expense of effectiveness. We deliver. It gives me confidence, as we go into this ax-wielding budget season, knowing we have a good model.