The National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) is a fleet of militarily useful merchant ships maintained by the United States Maritime Administration, known as MARAD. These ships are designed to be ready to deploy between three weeks and three months of the time they are ordered, and they can be used for a variety of tasks ranging from troop transport to shipping of materials vitally necessary for national defense.
In the 1950s, when the National Defense Reserve Fleet reached its height, almost three thousand ships were kept in reserve; today, less than 300 ships are generally held in reserve, with less than one hundred in Ready Reserve, meaning that they are prepared for immediate use. Most ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet are stripped for long-term storage and maintained by skeleton crews, who primarily focus on keeping humidity low to prevent rust and damage to the ships.
The National Defense Reserve Fleet was created in 1946, under Section 11 of the Merchant Ship Sales Act. Under the act, the ownership of merchant ships proposed for sale or retirement can be transferred to MARAD if they are deemed potentially useful, and the ships must be periodically evaluated to determine how useful they are. When ships become obsolete or so old that they are structurally unsound, they may be scrapped or donated to individual states for use in constructing artificial reefs.
Today, ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet can be found docked in California at Suisan Bay, in Texas at Beaumont, and in Virginia at Fort Eustis. At any given time, some ships in the fleet are also actively sailing, either because they are being used on missions or because they are being tested to confirm that they are still useful and valuable. MARAD invests around $19,000 US each year maintaining each ship in the National Defense Reserve Fleet.
Critics of the National Defense Reserve Fleet point out that most of the ships simply molder away, sucking money until MARAD finally decides to scrap or donate them. However, supporters argue that the National Defense Reserve Fleet could potentially be extremely useful, and since there is no way to predict when the fleet would be needed, maintaining it is crucial, despite the fact that maintenance can be very expensive. The trimming of the NDRF has been viewed by both sides as a generally good idea, as maintaining a fleet of thousands of ships was both impractical and extremely costly.