U.S. sea power depends on rebuilding the U.S.-flag fleet

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As the new millennium unfolds, the United States can usurp the opportunity to solidify its role as the world’s sole superpower by projecting sea-power supremacy. It is time for the nation to seize the moment. For the U.S. merchant marine, the backdrop to the new millennium is centuries of tradition and conventional beliefs. The traditional policies, many of which showed positive outcomes, were designed to protect and sustain the merchant marine through the peace/war cycle.
These programs include cabotage, cargo allocation, cargo preference, flags of convenience, financing mechanisms, intermodalism, protectionism, ship registry strategies, subsidy and tax engineering. For more than two centuries, many programs designed to foster the merchant marine found their way to the scrap heap of partisan politics. Others have been awarded new names (e.g., Maritime Security Program), or acronyms (e.g., VISA), to obscure intent or promise efficiency.

Each new age produces change, and change can arouse an inspiration of the moment. The second millennium exposes the world to new circumstances that beg America to act like the sole superpower that it is and to adapt to new circumstances. America cannot be a superpower in the 21st century without commanding supremacy of the sea, and supremacy of the sea demands military strength as well as an unyielding commercial presence.

Any policy rationalization that relies on foreign-flag merchant ships for the carriage of 95 percent of the nation’s foreign waterborne trade detracts from its sea-power capacity in war and peace. It is often noted that when a nation turns its foreign commerce over to foreign-flag carriers, it creates an irreconcilable dependency and loses a major source of power. If sea power truly protects the American way of life, then America must seize the moment to evaluate the threats of the new millennium, and accept the outcome that America’s sea power must be incontestable and that readiness is now its principal objective.

The success of globalization and the demise of the Cold War created power vacuums that challenge U.S. leadership. In the last century, China accepted its role as a continental power. However, China’s ambitions are expanding with the pressures of globalization. Economic growth, a large merchant marine and a growing shipbuilding industry are essential to realizing those ambitions. Currently, the country’s maritime infrastructure, military and commercial, is experiencing impressive development. China is already recognized as an economic power second only to the United States.

In 2010, the International Maritime Organization reported that China’s merchant marine ranked fourth in the world with 67 million gross tons of ocean shipping controlled by its state-owned companies. The U.S. had 8 million gross tons in its privately owned merchant fleet that year. It has declined further since that time. Lloyd’s of London predicts that by 2030, China will own one-quarter of the world’s merchant ships. A commercial fleet of that magnitude can safeguard its national maritime rights and interests, expand its commercial reach in the world and secure energy supplies, solidify its connectivity with trading partners and affiliations with the merchant marines of other nations, define and monitor the world’s chokepoints so as to maintain its access to sea lanes of communication and showcase its sea power to the rest of the world.

China fulfills this mission, disregarding the significant losses it incurs in its shipping sector. Bloomberg reports one such example: China Ocean Shipping Co.’s (COSCO) losses in 2014 alone amounted to $173 million, an annual loss that is its fourth since 2009. China evidently views such losses as an investment in its maritime infrastructure, a symbol of its growing maritime presence. The manifestation of its return on that investment is its climb to sea-power prominence.

Russia also understands the value and functions of sea power. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) merchant marine was the largest in the world with more than 7,000 ships. The USSR’s commercial merchant marine performed as an offensive arm of its navy and as a generator of hard currency.

Of course, the USSR no longer exists as a nation. However, Russia, its successor, possesses the USSR sea-power playbook. Today, resurgence is the goal of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. His current focus is regional, and the prospects for the Russian Far East remain ill-defined. However, this regional bloc extends Russia’s geopolitical influence. Putin envisions Russia at the beginning of a geopolitical renaissance, and he has Russia’s former status as a superpower to provide the confidence to pursue those ambitions. Russia’s aggression has begun; America must seize the moment to challenge such ambitions with maximum deterrence capability.

If the national threats of China and Russia are insufficient to ignite a unified maritime strategy for American sea power and preparedness, there are additional threats that should create the impetus needed. First, there are transnational actors that engage in asymmetric warfare provoked by Islamic extremism, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Second, regional actors such as Iran and North Korea threaten their neighbors with the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. Finally, technological innovation has been infected and misused for cyberattacks on government agencies and private organizations, which refuse to accept the will of an aggressor.

In the final analysis, there is a homegrown threat, a crisis of America’s own making: complacency. This crisis is broad-based and cannot be defeated by routine acceptance of the decisions of the past. One manifestation of complacency is that prior policies are rejected because of cost, the lack of a sense of urgency or their ineffectiveness when last implemented. Another sign is that U.S. passivity in crisis is viewed as more appreciated today than its demonstration of power. Prejudices such as these cannot permit the rejection of any policy in this new age. Proof of effectiveness is an inappropriate determinant of rejection. For the United States, the stakes are too high. A potential solution cannot be deemed unworthy of consideration when the country’s values, freedoms and way of life are threatened.

Dockworkers help moor APL Korea at the Port of Yokohama, Japan. The 909-foot U.S.-flag containership is part of the Maritime Security Program.

Courtesy NOL Group

Various U.S. government agencies have produced individual strategies for dealing with 21st-century threats. These strategies are timely and comprehensive, but they stand alone in organizational silo fashion. None of the strategies represents a truly unified maritime strategy that seeks to present the need for and benefits of America’s military and commercial sea power.

Through Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense, the Department of Defense (DOD) acknowledges the complex set of challenges “to which all elements of U.S. national power must be applied.” The set of challenges identified, however, is silent regarding such necessary components of sea power as the contribution of the U.S. merchant marine in both its commercial and military roles and its primary mission in reinforcing supremacy of the sea. The reference also fails to address the importance to the United States of maintaining the resources to ensure the transport of essential imports and exports in a time of national emergency.

An invigorated, stronger merchant marine will reinforce a credible deterrence worldwide, helping to build the capacity and competence of U.S. forces for internal and external defense. The civilian maritime force will increase U.S. influence for traditional trade and humanitarian activities. How can the DOD hope to “rebuild readiness de-emphasized over the past decade” when the terms “sea power” and “merchant marine” are not included as “elements of national power” in the Global Leadership strategy?

In a second strategy, Lifeline of the Nation: The U.S. Merchant Marine in the 21st Century, the Department of Transportation (DOT) cites the declining number of merchant ships, the advanced age of the merchant fleet and the depletion of the active work force of merchant mariners as “vulnerabilities in peacetime, crisis and war.” There is a certain duplicity presented by binding “U.S. national security with effective, efficient and unfettered movement of commercial and military cargoes by sea,” while the nation readily accepts foreign-flag shipping as a preferred substitute for U.S.-flag ships and crews.

Why is it so clear to the DOT that these vulnerabilities exist, but the same exposures appear obscured from the Department of Defense? Further, if Defense does not view these vulnerabilities as important challenges, why wouldn’t it convey that to Transportation, its sister agency, which believes the U.S.-flag merchant marine, the fourth arm of defense, is an essential link in the chain of American national security?

In yet a third strategy, Vision for the 21st Century, the Maritime Administration distinctly recognizes the security threats that the U.S. Marine Transportation System is confronting. The agency proposes, “The U.S. merchant marine has had and will continue to take a leading role in that struggle in times of peace, as well as war and national emergency.” Given that global security is dependent on the free flow of international trade, it is curious that the theme of sea power does not appear anywhere in this publication. 

Finally, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was published in 2007 by the combined military forces of the U.S. Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. The core message constitutes a unified maritime strategy that “integrates sea power with other elements of national power.” The implementation of the proposed strategy presents six major missions for maritime power, including forward deployment, deterrence, sea control, force delivery, maritime security and humanitarian assistance. The unified maritime strategy calls for the three sea services to jointly expand their core capabilities of U.S. sea power. How can a cooperative strategy for sea power be developed without the collaboration of the Maritime Administration and a definition of the role of the U.S. merchant marine in peacetime engagement and combat operations?

U.S. government agencies with essential responsibilities for international trade and national security should engage one another in an unbiased review of the threats facing the nation. They must conscientiously purge the organizational silo mentality that fortifies true barriers to change and cooperation. Then, through collaboration with the private-sector merchant marine, a truly unified maritime strategy that defines America as the superpower of the 21st century can be produced. Such a strategy must include a review of the role of the U.S. merchant marine as part of the soft-power projection of the country in peacetime, as well as the hard power that the U.S. military may need to project in an effort to prevent or win war.

Specific topics for deliberation include:

  • The U.S. merchant marine and armed forces jointly represent America’s national security infrastructure. Consequently, the nation’s return on its investment comprises the cost avoided by deterring threats and the readiness that it projects to the world.
  • The merchant marine is a force multiplier for the armed forces. It shares the same beliefs, interests and strategies. It can leverage its worldwide presence and assets to cooperate in planning and executing operations to enhance the nation’s sea-power objective.
  • The merchant marine can be an important deterrent when projecting a fleet size consistent with carrying a substantial portion, say, 25 percent, of U.S. waterborne foreign trade. Essential to this effort is establishing guidelines to re-flag foreign ships owned by Americans and to provide the necessary incentives to generate investment for building new ships.
  • The merchant marine should actively benefit from trade negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership providing for minimum levels of the trade for transport on U.S. vessels. Negotiators should seek a target of 25 percent of the trade to be transported on U.S.-flag ships.
  • The merchant marine should receive access to all cargo subject to the enforcement of the Jones Act, and grants to government-impelled and military cargoes whenever possible.
  • Federal and state maritime colleges and union training facilities educate the merchant mariner workforce. A cooperative and unified maritime strategy can encourage and financially assist these institutions to ensure that the size and competency of the workforce are available as defined by the strategy.

The United States cannot maintain its superpower status by defense alone. It must go on the offensive. Actively participating as a partner, today’s merchant marine can cooperate with government agencies as the United States competes “for global influence in an era in which they are unlikely to be fully at war or fully at peace. Our challenge is to apply sea power in a manner that protects U.S. vital interests even as it promotes greater collective security, stability and trust.” The most efficacious manner to pursue that end is to seize this moment. Rebuild the readiness that has been lost in a prior age. Invigorate the U.S. merchant marine.

Capt. Philip C. Kantz is master mariner residing in Wilmington, N.C., and Carlsbad, Calif. Kantz is a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots. This article is a condensed version of his thesis in recently completing a master’s degree in public administration at Norwich University in Vermont.

By Professional Mariner Staff