The US Merchant Marine Is a National Security Necessity

The US, once one of the world’s foremost shipping economies, has become almost entirely dependent on foreign firms to transport goods to and from its mainland. This is a vulnerability of which China is well aware. If the US does not overhaul its shipping system soon, it may be caught unprepared by a hostile naval power.

Oakland, CA – August 16, 2017: Cargo ship PASHA HAWAII HORIZON PACIFIC loading at the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest port in the United States. © Sheila Fitzgerald /

June 12, 2023 22:21 EDT

Power talks. Realistic descriptions of the buildup of military power often will convey a better sense of the likelihood of action than will a series of estimative-type judgements which fail to include the military details or reasons on which the assessment is based. To understand the capability, and to be able to view it objectively, is a prerequisite to the understanding of intent.

―Cynthia Grabo, Anticipating Surprise (2002)

Despite having the fourth largest coastline in the world (behind Canada, Indonesia, and Russia), the United States has almost no domestic maritime presence on the high seas today. The US has essentially disappeared from the world’s oceans as a commercial entity. The only trading partners to which the US has overland access are Canada and Mexico, and for seaborne commerce to its east and its west, the US is dependent on the goodwill, and the cargo holds, of strangers.

America could be left high and dry

The risks surrounding this situation are known, but rarely, if ever, discussed in the public forum. “Global Trends 2040,” published in March 2021 by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), posits five scenarios for 2040. The fourth scenario, “Separate Silos,” imagines a world in which supply chains have been frustrated to the point that nations across the globe move toward isolationism and restrict trading to their immediate geographical neighbors. In this scenario, the commercial and security interests of the United States are limited to North America; similar arrangements are to be found in Europe and Asia. Resource-rich blocs like North America, China, Europe, and Russia are at an advantage vis-à-vis developing nations due to their relative self-sufficiency. Of the five scenarios posited, this represents the best case.

In the NIC’s other four scenarios, China is portrayed as the principal catalyst of whatever shape the world happens to be taking. China’s relationship with the US is either that of a strategic adversary or of a fierce commercial competitor. In all cases, China is driving the relationship.

Curiously, these four scenarios assume that throughout the projected twenty-year development of this more-or-less adversarial relationship, the import and export of goods to and from the United States on foreign-flagged cargo ships and tankers, an ever-increasing majority of which are Chinese, will continue unencumbered and unthreatened. It is a telling and possibly unintended editorial omission for the “Separate Silos” scenario not to specifically address the role or fate of ocean transport in the broken supply chain, even though roughly 90% of the world’s goods are moved by sea.

The US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration warns of the sobering fact that China has been investing heavily in traditional infrastructure projects at home and around the world, building port facilities in Asia as well as Africa, and supporting a booming shipbuilding industry. The latest edition of Farwell’s Rules of the Nautical Road notes that “the number of vessels traversing the world’s oceans increased by 60 percent” between 1992 and 2012. A 2017 report by HSBC claims that “China’s merchant fleet has more than tripled in tonnage terms over the last decade.” According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, China leads the world in the number of ships owned—more than four times the number under US ownership—and is second in the world, after Greece, in tonnage. The US does not even make it into the top 10 on the latter list. 

Historically, a threat to a nation’s access to the sea was seen as an existential threat, an immediate and legitimate justification for war. Such a threat has been cited as a contributing factor to the US entry into World War I and to Japan’s attack on the US in World War II. In the United States today, however, we give very little thought to the maritime component of our national defense posture, and most Americans take little notice of ocean commerce until a pandemic causes colorful container ships to stack up in US ports, or an ultra-large box-carrier blocks the Suez Canal. China, on the other hand, does not appear to have a similarly uninterested view on the importance of sea lane and supply chain domination. This is a relatively new development, and it should concern us more than the NIC scenarios suggest.

The American merchant fleet has all but disappeared

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 1960 the United States had a merchant fleet of nearly 3000 oceangoing ships, comprising nearly 17% of the entire world’s merchant marine. Many of those ships in the US fleet were built for WWII and were nearing end-of-life by 1960. By 1970, the US merchant fleet had shrunk by half, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the world’s fleet. By 1980 it had shrunk by yet another half, and by 2019 the entire US merchant fleet of oceangoing cargo ships and tankers numbered only 182. By comparison, the world’s (currently) largest shipping company, Maersk Line of Denmark, owns and operates nearly 700 ships; the world’s second largest shipping company, MSC of Switzerland, owns and operates nearly 600 ships; COSCO of China and CMA CGM of France, the world’s third and fourth largest shipping companies, each own and operate between 500-600 ships. These are individual companies, each with several times the number of ships that make up the entire domestically flagged oceangoing merchant fleet of the United States.

The Merchant Marine Act (Jones Act) of 1920 states that:

It is necessary for the national defense and the development of the domestic and foreign commerce of the United States that the United States have a merchant marine:

Sufficient to carry the waterborne domestic commerce and a substantial part of the waterborne export and import foreign commerce of the United States and to provide shipping service essential for maintaining the flow of the waterborne domestic and foreign commerce at all times;

Capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency;

Owned and operated as vessels of the United States by citizens of the United States;

Composed of the best-equipped, safest, and most suitable types of vessels constructed in the United States and manned with a trained and efficient citizen personnel; and

Supplemented by efficient facilities for building and repairing vessels.

Of the above five requirements, it has been half a century since the first was even an aspirational goal. The second had been doubtful for some years, and the recent Turbo Activation test of the National Defense Reserve Fleet by the US Transportation Command in September 2019 settled the matter with disparaging results: only 40% of the ships activated were able to leave port, in stark contrast with the 80% successful activation for Desert Shield in 1990 and the 92% successful activation in 2003.

China has built up while the US slept

Cynthia Grabo notes that the buildup of an adversary’s capabilities is an indicator of his intent. Grabo is speaking of military capability and military intent. After witnessing the effects of accidental disruption of the supply chain—sudden and widespread shortages of essential items such as baby formula, medications, technology, building materials, and more—we cannot underestimate the ability of an intentional competitor to dominate and control the shipping lanes and to engage in, and win, a modern version of maritime siege warfare. We would do well to keep in mind that the objective of siege warfare is an adversary’s capitulation, not destruction. Nor is it a new idea that merchant shipping is a military capability: 

The clash of interests, the angry feelings roused by conflicting attempts thus to appropriate the larger share, if not the whole, of the advantages of commerce, and of distant unsettled commercial regions, led to wars. On the other hand, wars arising from other causes have been greatly modified in their conduct and issue by the control of the sea. Therefore the history of sea power, while embracing in its broad sweep all that tends to make a people great upon the sea or by the sea, is largely a military history.

―Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of sea power, known as the Mahan Doctrine, can be summed up as follows: Control the seas, control the world. The corollary of this doctrine is that if a nation does not control the seas, or at least its own waters, someone else will. The twin objectives recommended by the Mahan Doctrine are to achieve the first and avoid the latter. Mahan was an American naval officer, the “most important American strategist of the nineteenth century” in the estimation of military historian John Keegan. According to Mahan, one of the essential and existential missions of the US Navy is to protect the sea lanes for American commerce. Not only does this allow the United States to achieve prosperity through commerce, but this also protects us against siege by embargo.

Even if the US Navy still embraces its mission to protect the sea lanes for American shipping, the point is all but moot, since an American oceangoing fleet is all but non-existent. In a time of national crisis, assuming the US were to rebuild its merchant marine as it did in WWII, and assuming we had the trained mariners needed to operate a merchant fleet of the size needed to supply our country in crisis, it could not be assumed that the US Navy had either the mission, the capacity or the disposition to protect US shipping and sea lanes. This would mean that we would also assume extensive losses at sea, churning through even more merchant vessels and mariners. In other words: as the Mahan Doctrine would predict, the situation we have watched develop over the last 60 years has rendered the US essentially defenseless against an adversary with a superior combination of martial and merchant maritime capability.

And what becomes of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands if the sea lanes are no longer safe for American cargo? If those strangers on whose goodwill we have become dependent find it too risky to move American cargo, resupply of any one of these non-contiguous populations will be impossible. Aerial resupply is not a serious option. Roughly speaking, 1000 cargo planes are needed to move the equivalent amount of cargo of one ship. Such a feat would be unsustainable for any protracted period.

Ships are expensive to build, expensive to operate, and difficult to operate profitably. The massive buildup of cargo capacity by China is not profit-driven; it is a national security imperative for China and the key to their long-term geopolitical ambitions. For this reason, Chinese shipbuilding and ocean shipping are heavily subsidized. The continuous launching of new Chinese merchant ships, new overseas ports, and new warships of the ever-increasing PLA Navy is fully capable of performing its intended strategic role within the framework of the Mahan Doctrine.

Re-preparing the merchant fleet will be serious work

The US has a few options. It can accept the “Separate Silos” outcome and retreat into isolation and global irrelevance, or it can reduce its addiction to foreign imports to the point that China’s investment in ocean shipping becomes an albatross for the PRC. These options would entail a fundamental change in US standards of living, like those experienced on the home front during WWII. Or, as a third option, the US can compete with China for dominance on the high seas. It would require conscious national will to change the current regulatory and employment environment that makes building, owning, and operating ships under the US flag as outrageously prohibitive and unprofitable as it is. Unless US mariners are to receive the third-world wages and conditions that give competitors the economic edge, US flagged shipping will require substantial and effective subsidization.

Moreover, rather than being unionized, professional mariners would be better served, and would serve the nation better, as a uniformed service, analogous to NOAA or the USPHS Commissioned Corps. Such a measure would require radical rethinking and a cultural change for mariners, but the organizational structure already exists, and could be accomplished by expanding the role of the US Maritime Service to assume the responsibility for training and licensing of mariners that is currently distributed across public, private, and governmental organizations and regulated by the US Coast Guard. Mariners would admittedly lose the independence that draws many to the seagoing life, but in return they would have predictable income and employment as well as training, promotion, and retirement.

A crucial component of executing this third option is something that has been firmly established and operating for many decades: mariner training. Alongside the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, there are six state maritime academies (one each in Texas, Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, California, and New York) which together graduate approximately 1400 licensed merchant marine officers per year. With the notable exception of Michigan’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy, though, most of these newly licensed merchant marine officers will sail only briefly on their licenses, if at all, and in time will lose not only their licenses but also the skills they had at graduation. As was dramatically demonstrated in WWII, with the right incentive the US can build hundreds of ships with breathtaking speed. Training mariners to operate them, however, takes years, and the skills are perishable if not continually used.

Indications of the conscious national will required to effect any of the changes needed to embark on this option are not apparent at the present time. In the Commandant of the Coast Guard’s 2023 State of the Coast Guard address, Admiral Linda Fagan’s only mention of the US merchant marine was her promise to end sexual harassment on US flagged vessels. This is of course a non-negotiable goal, but, considering the dwindling size of the US flagged merchant fleet, not terribly ambitious. On the other hand, if it were part of a larger vision to revive the US merchant marine and ensure a safe working environment for the robust talent pool of mariners that will be needed, then the Commandant’s promise would be of strategic significance.

The fact that political decision-makers prefer to focus on short-term solutions to immediate problems is nothing new. Revitalizing and reinventing an industry that has been permitted to decline for over fifty years requires a long-term solution to a problem that most Americans will not recognize until it is upon them. By the time they do, any likely solution will entail great cost and sacrifice. The US has a small window of opportunity to prevent the “Separate Silos” scenario, and possibly the others that project the US on its heels by 2040. Ruling the waves is hard and sometimes dangerous work. It requires investment and regulatory facilitation at the national level. Above all, it requires recognition of its importance to national security. It is hard work, but eminently preferable to the alternatives.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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