Healthy Maritime Industry Vital to National Security

By Duncan D. Hunter
The old saying of “he who rules the seas rules the world” is still relevant. Throughout history, the strength and power of navies and commercial maritime fleets have made nations great. America is no different.

Our national security and economic interests are inextricably linked to the seas.

Approximately 75 percent of U.S.-international commerce moves by water, and the volume of international trade is expected to climb as the world economy rebounds. The U.S. maritime industry employs more than 260,000 Americans, providing nearly $29 billion in annual wages and accounting for more than $100 billion in annual economic output. 

Beyond the important contributions to our economy, a healthy maritime industry is vital to our national security. Throughout our history, our nation has relied on a strong shipyard industrial base and robust fleet of U.S. flag commercial vessels crewed by American merchant mariners to build naval assets and carry troops, weapons and supplies to the battlefield. 

In World War II, U.S. shipyards built nearly 6,000 sealift vessels to resupply our forces on the battlefield and allied civilian populations in their homes. The merchant marine sailing these vessels paid a high price, as 733 ships were sunk and 5,638 merchant mariners were lost. During Operation Desert Storm, more than 350 U.S. flag vessels delivered an average of 42,000 tons of cargo each day. At the height of the activity, there was a ship every 50 miles — a “steel bridge” — along an 8,000-mile sea lane between the United States and the Persian Gulf. During Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, U.S. flag commercial vessels transported 63 percent of all military cargos moved to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Over the course of these and other conflicts, we have learned that we cannot rely on foreign flag vessels to resupply U.S. troops defending our nation on foreign battlefields. 

During World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, certain foreign nations refused to allow vessels flying their flags to move cargo for the United States and our allies. During Operation Desert Storm, the United States led a worldwide coalition with almost unlimited access to staging areas, modern ports and infrastructure, and to vessels and crews of many nations. Even then, however, some foreign flag vessels and crews refused to enter the Persian Gulf or carry coalition cargo.

Our history has proven how vital it is that we maintain a robust fleet of U.S. flagged vessels to carry critical supplies to the battlefield, a large cadre of skilled American mariners to man those vessels, and a strong shipyard industrial base to ensure we have the capability to build and replenish our naval forces in times of war. 

Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, the U.S. flag fleet sailing in the international trade has shrunk from over 800 vessels to less than 85 today. Nine vessels left the U.S. flag in the last year alone. The U.S. flag fleet now carries only 2 percent of the world’s cargo tonnage. 
Over the last three decades, we have also lost more than 300 shipyards and thousands of jobs for American mariners.

While U.S. shipyard and sealift capacity declines, rival nations are growing. Over the last decade, China has become the world’s leading shipbuilding nation.

The number of Chinese shipyards has grown to more than 1,600, a majority of which are state run. Shipyard capacity is so great in China that the government recently announced a plan to reduce the number by pushing out dozens of privately owned yards.

Chinese sealift capacity is also expanding.  There are currently over 2,000 commercial vessels operating in the international trade under the Chinese flag. The number of Chinese flag vessels has grown by nearly 500 in the last eight years. The majority of these vessels are operated by state-run corporations.

The decline in U.S. shipyard and sealift capacity coupled with the growth occurring in countries such as China has serious ramifications for national security. For the sake of our national and economic security, we need to reverse this trend. We cannot fight and win a war if we cannot resupply and transport our war fighters.

Much of the decline the U.S. maritime sector has experienced is the result of an uncompetitive global playing field.  Many foreign nations provide direct subsidies to their shipyards and to vessel operators flying their flags. 

These countries lack modern laws to protect workers and the environment.  These countries also impose little, and in some cases, no tax obligation on companies operating vessels under their flags.  Making the situation worse, the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world and one of the world’s costliest regulatory environments.

Congress and the administration need to work closely with the maritime industry and labor on ways to revitalize our merchant marine and shipyard industrial base. Fortunately, efforts are currently underway at the Maritime Administration to develop a National Maritime Strategy that will hopefully include clear recommendations for Congress to strengthen the U.S. merchant marine and shipyard industrial base.  In the interim, my Coast Guard and maritime transportation subcommittee is reviewing legislative proposals from maritime industry and labor, as well as other stakeholders to improve the competiveness of the flag fleet, reduce regulatory burdens on U.S. vessel operators, and incentivize shipbuilding in the country.

If U.S. shipyards and vessel operators cannot compete in time of peace, they will not be there to serve our nation in times of war.  If we want to remain a world power capable of defending ourselves and our allies, we must work together to revitalize our maritime sector.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., has served in Congress since 2009.

Topics: Homeland Security, MaritimePort Security, Shipbuilding

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