ARE VITAL TO DEFENSEI am writing in response to Rep. William S. Broomfield's Aug. 16th article, ''The Nautical Antique Shop" (Opinion). Mr. Broomfield's essay was rife with distortions concerning the National Defense Reserve Fleet. The integrity of this vital component of our country's defense establishment may as well mean the difference between life and death for our loved ones in the Middle East during the coming months.
Mr. Broomfield, who hails from the great seafaring state of Michigan, has proposed legislation (H.R. 5118) that would mandate the sale, to U.S. salvage yards, of every NDRF vessel constructed prior to 1946. His zeal in pursuing this misguided initiative is apparently motivated by a perceived slight directed toward him by the Maritime Administration. By such vacuous reasoning the congressman seeks to decimate the sole remaining viable means of transporting arms and material to American troops in the midst of the greatest crisis to confront this nation since the Vietnam War.
Approximately 120 vessels would be destroyed under the Broomfield plan. The majority of these ships are of the vaunted "Victory" class, constructed during the Second World War as bulk cargo-carriers. While admittedly outdated for modern commercial purposes, they serve as practical options in just such a state of emergency as we face today.
The Victory ship is a shallow draft vessel capable of carrying 10,000 tons of equipment and goods at sustained speeds of 16 knots. Prior to lay-up at an NDRF anchorage each vessel's weather-sensitive deck machinery is removed and stored in its cargo hold, monthly monitored dehumidification systems are installed and the vessel's hatches and portholes are completely sealed. The Victory's interior is thus perfectly preserved.
In 1985 the Maritime Administration conducted a feasibility study by activating a single Victory ship. The "American Victory" was readied for sea in 44 days by a local shipyard working single shifts. She then underwent a successful shakedown cruise.
The cost of this project was $1.75 million. Best estimates indicate that the cost of new construction for such a vessel would exceed $50 million. Under the congressman's plan, all 120 ships would be auctioned off for approximately $33 million. The logic of such a proposal eludes me.
It is painfully clear that the thrust of Mr. Broomfield's complaint is the sale of American hulls to foreign scrap buyers. Herein lies the heart of this sordid affair.
Marad for many years has sold vessels to the highest bidder under program 510(i), through which newer ships are purchased for the NDRF with a portion of the profits. In this way the fleet is perpetually updated. What the congressman fails to understand is that overseas buyers pay an average of $150 a ton for scrap as opposed to the $32 a ton garnered on the domestic market.
It is apparent that the congressman has embarked upon a personal vendetta against the Maritime Administration. The congressman continues his lonely quest despite the dependence of our servicemen in the Persian Gulf on the capabilities of the very vessels he seeks to destroy. Given the indisputable facts of the matter, Mr. Broomfield's actions can only be described as baseless and grossly irresponsible.
James F. Schwan
National Association of
James River Reserve Fleet
Ft. Eustis, Va.
RESERVE FLEET KEPT
IN MINT CONDITION
Rep. Broomfield blasts the Maritime Administration's policy of retaining an extensive inventory of World War II vintage general cargo ships - most of them the famous Victory ships - as the backbone of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. The congressman seems to be very upset about this, since he has introduced legislation, H.R. 5118, which would require the scrapping of all Reserve Fleet ships built before 1946.
Mr. Broomfield is apparently mad at Maritime Administrator Warren Leback, and this may have motivated his actions and his public words. He has displayed a critical lack of understanding of the nature of these vessels and their state of preservation.
To those who lack maritime knowledge, a bill requiring the scrapping of all Reserve Fleet ships built before 1946 seems reasonable. After all, those ships are rusting hulks with no possible use.
Wrong! Many of the Victory Ships were placed in reserve at the end of World War II without ever having been to sea. All the remaining Victories were reactivated for use in the Vietnam Sealift from 1965 to 1970, after which they were returned to the Reserve Fleet. Although the ships are old, none has more than half a dozen years actual steaming time.
All the rest of their lives have been spent in fresh water under cathodic protection, an electrical preservation system that produces a fine layer of hydrogen bubbles on the hulls to prevent corrosion. The result is that their hulls are in far better condition than newer ships that have spent all their lives under way in salt water.
I sailed on one of those so-called "rust buckets," the Burbank Victory, in 1966. I joined the ship just before the reactivation process was complete. It had the appearance of a new ship, though it had been launched 20 years before.
So it is today. I recently had a chance to go aboard a couple of the Reserve Fleet Victory ships. The weather decks of the ships, their masts, hulls and superstructures, are covered with peeling paint and surface rust. But inside, they are time capsules from 1970! They are dry and clean.
Sensitive equipment like deck winches, lifeboats, cargo gear, etc., is stowed in a cargo hatch. Boilers, turbines, pumps and other machinery are likewise preserved from deterioration. Everything is under dehumidification. Just as the Air Force stores planes in the desert southwest, Marad preserves its ships by drying out the interiors.
The peeling paint and surface rust are swept away easily by sandblasting in the shipyard, restoring the cosmetic appearance that seems to be their detractors' major problem. As for the osprey nests on a ship in the James River Fleet, just about every large buoy or navigational beacon on Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries sports an osprey nest these days! Does that mean we should scrap all the buoys?
The great thing about these ships is their simplicity. No computers. No sensitive electronics. With minimal new communications and navigation equipment installed they will do their jobs as efficiently today as they did in 1966 and 1945.
They are also self-sustaining. This means that they can load and discharge cargo without container cranes, ramps or elaborate piers needed by most of our modern ships. Though they are small by modern standards, each can carry 10,000 tons of cargo.
Mr. Broomfield claims that these old ships are noisy and slow, making them easy targets for modern weapons. Anyone who has spent much time aboard modern diesel-powered ships will tell you how much quieter the old steam turbine vessels are.
As for speed, the 6,000 horsepower Victories left in the Reserve Fleet can steam at 15 knots, as fast as or faster than most modern tankers and only a few knots slower than most new cargo ships. A five-knot difference in speed makes little difference to a sea-skimming Exocet missile.
I understand that it costs less than $20,000 a year to maintain one of these ships and that it might take about $2 million apiece to reactivate them. Match this against the cost of building a new ship, even if we had the time and the shipyards to do it, and these rusting hulks suddenly seem like a great bargain to the taxpayer.
There is no question that reactivating some of these World War II-era ships will present problems, but by modern standards they are very simple ships to repair and operate.
I urge those detractors of the Maritime Administration to back off. Marad's employees are knowledgeable, hard-working people who know what they are doing. And right now they are very, very busy.
Brian H. Hope