China’s Fleet Strength Stresses Value of USMMA Pipeline for SSO Force

China’s maritime buildup, both military and commercial, is an increasingly major concern for U.S. policymakers. It seems another news article appears each week that further validates the threat that China’s maritime strength poses. This recent article in Popular Mechanics reports on a new study conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) that concluded China’s growing Navy could nearly double in tonnage by 2030. And, as the article points out, Navy vessels are only a part of China’s formula for superior maritime strength: “China’s success at sea has been largely contingent upon China’s irregular sea forces. China uses private vessels, maritime militia, and Coast Guard ships to take and hold territory. They have, to date, been China’s most disruptive element at sea, and a critical enabler of China’s conventional naval forces.”

Articles like these should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. and help the nation prioritize how it spends its national-defense dollars. Of particular focus must be our maritime posture, not only the size of our Navy but also the merchant fleet that provides the logistical support for any protracted war.

A viable sealift capacity depends not just on enough vessels, but also on a sufficient number of highly qualified, militarily-obligated Merchant Mariners to operate them. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) is the key source for the human capital required to operate those vessels. Founded in 1943 to provide the qualified, federally obligated Merchant Marine officers who execute the sealift aboard these commercial ships, USMMA currently supplies 80 percent of the officers in the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO) Force.

USMMA is the only federal academy that educates and graduates licensed Merchant Marine officers. USMMA is also the only maritime school in which 100 percent of graduates both earn a Merchant Marine license and incur an obligation to serve their country for eight years.