The US must maintain its merchant fleet to protect our sovereignty Ship’s crew

By Mike Stevens (Editor)

National Maritime Day, today May 22nd, has passed without much fanfare over the years. The vital importance of our national maritime capabilities – both military and domestic – is often not fully appreciated, as the smooth movement of goods and our military prowess are easily taken for granted. But this National Seafarers Day comes amid rising international tensions and should remind every American that our status as a seafaring nation is an important source of our economic prosperity, security and resilience.

The warning signs couldn’t be clearer. Communist China is on the rise, aiming to dominate global seafaring through its sprawling “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) – a very aggressive plan to expand global infrastructure. China now holds strategic stakes in 96 ports in 53 countries and heavily subsidizes shipbuilding to dominate the seas. Although the BRI is rhetorically presented as an economic development project designed to link world trade, they should consider the BRI for what it is – a Trojan horse for supply chain control and military expansion.

Faced with this threat and China’s burgeoning alliance with Iran and Russia, the US must renew its commitment not only to a strong Navy but also to a robust domestic naval and merchant marine.

Our Founding Fathers recognized almost 250 years ago that a strong Navy was not only essential to peace, but would advance US interests at home and abroad. But this mighty naval force does not stand alone. Our Navy is complemented by a domestic US-flagged merchant shipping capability that ensures we always have the industrial capacity and manpower to build American ships and crew them with American merchant ships – to protect our sovereignty.

Our domestic maritime capabilities are based on the Jones Act, a law that is as relevant today as it was when it was passed more than a century ago – despite routine criticism from special interests who seem to prefer American security to be outsourced. Opposition to a law as important as the Jones Act is a peacetime luxury that quickly vanishes when American security is at stake. The law is a crucial line of defense against China’s maritime dominance, and opponents should broaden their perspective and see the bigger picture.

The Jones Act ensures that only US-built, crewed and flagged ships can sail between US ports, allowing American ships to protect the country’s 95,000 miles of coastline. While America’s shipping industry provides 650,000 jobs and $154 billion in annual economic output, its primary function is to provide maritime transport capacity and a merchant marine to support our military. Unlike countries that subsidize domestic maritime shipping, our military relies not only on private shipbuilding capacity, but also on a fleet of American merchant ships and crew members capable of transporting equipment and personnel to war zones. In fact, more than 90% of the cargo transported by the military in times of peace and crisis is handled by sea, and our military simply cannot afford to rely on foreign partners for essential sea transportation services.

The importance of sea transport and the US merchant marine was evident during World War II, when more than 250,000 civilian merchant ships delivered supplies and personnel to war zones and nearly 10,000 lost their lives.

However, our domestic shipbuilding, ship-repair and merchant shipping capabilities have not received the national attention needed to ensure strong defenses and economic resilience. Testifying before Congress in March, Maritime Administrator Admiral Ann Phillips said she was “not at all confident” that the ships in the Ready Reserve fleet could be crewed should a crisis so require. While US Transport Command Commander Jacqueline Van Ovost expressed that her “principal concern is the reduction in capacity and readiness in both sea transport and air refueling.”

The US simply cannot allow this critical capability to atrophy while our challenges mount around the world. Our maritime strength and sovereignty, backed by our ability to build and man American ships in both peacetime and wartime, has been critical to our past and will determine our future. We should strengthen our US naval capability and not attack it for political or financial reasons.

This National Maritime Day is not just a day to reflect on the legacy of those who supported our military and transported the goods for every American. This year, and given the threats we face, we should renew our commitment to ensuring a maritime capacity that ensures America’s strength and resilience.

mike Stevens Is CEO of the United States Navy League and served as the US Navy’s 13th Master Chief Petty Officer.

This editorial was originally published from the New York Daily News.

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