On December 23, President Biden signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2023, legislation that among other things authorizes funding for the U.S. Armed Forces - to include essential U.S. maritime programs supporting defense sealift services.
Included in the passage of the NDAA was the U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act and the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) Reauthorization Act, as well as other legislation and amendments. The Coast Guard Authorization Act was introduced in September 2022 by Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). The MARAD Reauthorization Act was introduced by Senators Cantwell and Wicker in June 2022.
The combined package of legislation encompassed by the NDAA contains authorization for several key U.S. maritime programs, which directly sustain and support jobs for U.S. merchant mariners, including members of American Maritime Officers, and broadly benefit the U.S. Merchant Marine and its crucial roles in strategic sealift and national defense shipping operations. The act also contains several provisions addressing issues of high importance to U.S. mariners and the operations of the U.S. merchant fleet.
The NDAA authorizes full funding of $318 million for the Maritime Security Program (MSP) fleet in fiscal year 2023. The MSP's 60 militarily-useful U.S.-flagged ships are crewed by U.S. merchant mariners and operate in international commercial trades. The ships and their corresponding privately-owned intermodal cargo systems and networks are available to the Department of Defense for military sealift operations and in national security emergencies. The cost of the MSP amounts to a small fraction of the estimated $65 billion or more it would cost the government to replicate this sealift capacity and the intermodal infrastructure provided to the DOD by private-sector MSP participants. Some elements of the transportation and logistics networks made available through the MSP could not be duplicated by the government at any cost.
The NDAA authorizes full funding of the Tanker Security Program for 10 commercially viable, militarily useful, privately-owned tank vessels to meet national defense and other security requirements in fiscal year 2023. The NDAA also sets forth actions to facilitate the expansion of the Tanker Security Program to 20 vessels for fiscal years 2024 through 2035, and authorizes a corresponding increase in funding to meet the stipend for each vessel enrolled in the program. Like the Maritime Security Program, the funding for the Tanker Security Program will need to be appropriated each year, even though the program is fully authorized through 2035.
The U.S. Cable Security Program and its fleet of two ships is authorized at full funding for fiscal year 2023 under previous legislation establishing the program.
A section of the NDAA regarding authorization of funding for the Department of Defense stipulates: "None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act for fiscal year 2023 may be obligated or expended to retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage ... more than four Littoral Combat Ships," as well as seven specific vessels, including the USNS Montford Point (T-ESD 1) and the USNS John Glenn (T-ESD 2).
The NDAA adds restrictions to the approval of Jones Act waivers in the wake of the Secretary of Homeland Security granting two such waivers in 2022 to foreign vessels that were already loaded with cargo at the time the waiver applications were made. Prior to the enactment of the NDAA for 2023, the secretary of a department could grant a waiver to the Jones Act. The NDAA modifies U.S. Code to stipulate: "Upon determination by the President that a waiver of the navigation or vessel-inspection laws is necessary in the interest of national defense, the head of an agency responsible for the administration of such laws, may waive compliance with such laws."
The language in the NDAA, among other things, clarifies the Maritime Administrator has the sole authority in determining non-availability of qualified Jones Act vessels, and it prohibits a Jones Act waiver from being granted "for a vessel if, at the time of the waiver request under this section, such a vessel is laden with merchandise that, pursuant to the requested waiver, could be unladen at points or places to which the coastwise laws apply."
The NDAA authorizes $30.5 million for maintenance and repair of existing maritime academy training vessels, as well as $75 million in funding to support the ongoing construction of new training ships under the National Security Multi-Mission Vessel Program. These vessels will also be used in defense sealift and humanitarian crisis missions domestically and abroad.
The NDAA authorizes $112.8 million for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and $53.7 million to support the state maritime academies.
The act also authorizes a total of $30 million for loan guarantees and $3 million for administrative expenses related to the Maritime Administration's Title XI shipbuilding loan guarantee program, which eases access to commercial credit for the construction of merchant vessels in U.S. shipyards.
As part of the U.S. Coast Guard's mission of maintaining shipping channels on the Great Lakes, the law authorizes $350 million for the acquisition of a new "Great Lakes icebreaker at least as capable as Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw."
The act also provides increased financial authorization for the ongoing construction of a new large navigational lock in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., taking into account inflation and other economic factors that have increased the total projected cost of the lock since its initial authorization.
Another important element of the NDAA strengthens prevention measures for sexual harassment, assault, and retaliation at sea. This section of the act - as noted in the summary published by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee - includes provisions to improve oversight and investigation of sexual assault and harassment in the maritime industry and within the Coast Guard. It provides the Coast Guard the authority to revoke credentials of a mariner who commits certain sex crimes, it defines sexual harassment, and establishes a process for mariners to report crimes to the Coast Guard. The law strengthens Coast Guard policy to ensure victims of sexual assault are provided care as soon as possible when deployed upon a vessel, or serving in a remote location. Additionally, it expands penalties for failure to report a sexual assault or harassment at sea.
The NDAA also provides for improvements to the Military to Mariners Program, as well as to U.S. mariner credentialing. By including the Military to Mariners Act - authored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Cantwell, Sen. Wicker, Sen. Baldwin, and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) - the act requires the Coast Guard to:
- Review all current procedures for issuing credentials for applicants who are veterans and members of the Uniformed Services seeking to become merchant mariners
- Implement an Internet-based application process within two years
- Issue new regulations within two years to streamline the credentialing process to reduce red tape, including taking a higher percentage of military sea service time into account for credentialing purposes
- Add flexibility to requirements to be a credentialing instructor, and
- Require the Coast Guard to assess using the Department of Defense's SkillBridge program for helping active-duty service personnel become merchant mariners.
Addressing U.S. merchant mariner credentialing, the act includes amendments sponsored by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) requiring the Coast Guard to research and develop an electronic merchant mariner licensing and documentation system, and separately, to evaluate the means for processing and approving Merchant Mariner Credentials and to provide recommendations for expediting the credentialing process, including funding requirements to support improved processing times.