America’s reliance upon its merchant marine, ports, shipyards, and maritime industries for both trade and defense has been constant since colonial days. After several decades of continuous decline of its merchant fleet and maritime industrial base, the United States stands at a pivotal crossroads at the beginning of the new millennium.
The U.S. merchant marine — long a symbol of “Yankee” vitality, innovation, and seapower — is in a position to continue to decline and be in jeopardy, as was the case until recent years, or progress further with continued recognition and reliable advances made in partnership with federal policymakers. Nonetheless, the merchant fleet that ruled the waves at the end of World War II is a mere sliver of its former might. Carrying no more than one to two percent of America’s oceanborne foreign trade in 2008, U.S.-flag vessels handle a small fraction of total world seaborne commerce.
This decline is especially troubling for national security reasons. Billions of dollars have been “invested” in government-owned vessels to carry U.S. military equipment and material to overseas contingencies — costly ships that lie idle in peacetime. When called up, these government-owned vessels rely on private U.S. civilian mariners to activate and crew the vessels. In recent years, these reserve ships and their active merchant marine counterparts, manned by highly skilled and motivated U.S. citizen-seafarers, have served the nation well — from Haiti, to Somalia, to the Persian Gulf, to Bosnia and Iraq.
However, a portion of the scarce public resources that have been allocated largely for inactive ships could be more effectively used elsewhere as the United States seeks to define its place as we transition from the post-Cold War world to the Age of Global Terrorism.