* Program ensures U.S.-flagged ships available for military
* Celebrity captain among those asking Congress to act
* "We could lose our pants," says union official
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Oct 10 An American merchant marine
captain made famous by a Tom Hanks movie after being kidnapped
by Somali pirates warned on Thursday that looming U.S. budget
cuts could sink part of a program that keeps U.S.-flagged ships
ready to ferry military supplies and aid around the world.
Richard Phillips, who was held hostage after Somali pirates
seized his vessel in 2009, is backing a campaign to halt the
budget cuts, saying they could reduce by a third the size of the
60-strong U.S. commercial fleet that regularly carries cargo for
His ship, the Maersk Alabama was carrying U.S. food aid when
it was boarded by the pirates.
Captain Steven Werse, an official at the International
Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, the union that
represents U.S. commercial ship officers, said the example of
the Maersk Alabama should show the importance of the program.
"Unfortunately, we're under attack. What the pirates could
not take away from the captain and his crew, the Congress could
take away," he said. "The Maersk Alabama is one of the vessels
that is part of the 60-ship Maritime Security Program."
"Everyone understands belt-tightening. It's just that we've
had our belt tightened to the point where we could lose our
pants," he said.
The Maritime Security Program run by the U.S. Department of
Transportation spends $186 million annually to ensure the 60
ships are at the ready to carry cargo for U.S. troops at war and
other government uses. The subsidy per ship is $3.1 million this
year, according to congressional testimony.
Data released by the captains at a news conference said that
during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, vessels enrolled in the
security program carried 95 percent of Defense Department cargo
shipped by sea to the region, from tanks to food.
The Maersk Alabama is one of the vessels potentially
affected by the cuts.
Phillips was held hostage in a lifeboat after the pirates
seized his vessel and attempted to hold it for ransom.
A five-day standoff with a U.S. Navy ship ended when snipers
shot and killed Phillips' three captors on the lifeboat.
"Captain Phillips," a movie about the incident starring Tom
Hanks, opened in U.S. theaters this week.
Phillips said he didn't view himself as a hero and
downplayed the incident, quipping: "We've always dealt with
piracy. It's ... the second oldest profession we deal with in
the Merchant Marine."
Werse said some $12 million could be cut from the Maritime
Security Program under automatic budget cuts due to go into
effect this year, which would eliminate four ships from the
Similar cuts, which would further reduce the fleet, are
expected in subsequent years unless Congress acts to stop some
$500 billion in automatic reductions to projected defense
spending over the next decade.
Eliminating ships from the program could also force the U.S.
military to rely on foreign-flagged vessels to deliver hardware
and supplies during wartime, raising security and safety issues,
the captains said.
"Our companies need support," Werse said. "If this program
goes away, there's an estimated cost of capital investment by
the DoD (Department of Defense) to replace these ships of $13
billion. This is a cost-effective program."
The U.S. Merchant Marine comprises fewer than 500 American
flagged, civilian-owned ships. In the past it has been called
upon to serve as an auxiliary to the Navy in wartime. The
Maritime Security Program supports about 2,700 maritime jobs.