Concern appears to be growing about the declining tonnage of the U.S. merchant fleet. Consensus is spreading that the formerly highly touted "Fifth Arm of Defense" is hardly that anymore. Indeed, there is great doubt that the merchant fleet of the United States, in a military contingency, could assume the supportive role in Navy and Army operations that was so highly effective and often logistically decisive in past military engagements.

According to the latest figures published by the U.S. Maritime Administration, the active U.S. merchant fleet, as of July 1, 1986, consisted of 385 ships - about 300 short of what the experts consider would be an adequate number of vessels for defense support purposes in time of war.Recognizing this shortage, the U.S. government has long decided to build up its "National Defense Reserve Fleet" which, also as of July 1, 1986, has already 176 (out of a total of 213) "merchant type" ships. Government, military and economic leaders profess that they don't know where the other 140 to 150 vessels could come from if needed in a hurry. Increasingly they look to foreign flags to possibly satisfy their demands.

It seems that nobody reads statistical reports. The same Marad publication that gives the status of the active merchant fleet, also lists the number of inactive (laid-up) vessels: a total of 352 ships!

Granted that many of these ships are old or otherwise unsuitable for the purpose of military support. But 66 of them are tankers, most of these laid-up

because of the oil glut, seven are bulk carriers, and most important, 42 are what the report calls "intermodal" ships - containerships and roll-on/roll- off carriers that cannot be older than 15 to 18 years at most, simply because intermodalism has been with us hardly longer than that.

So, if we want to increase our merchant fleet, simply to satisfy defense requirements, why not take a good look at this huge pool of inactive ships laid-up in ports and yards around the country?

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