A U.S. Merchant Marine

For National Defense


The following is an article that I published as an editorial in the JOURNAL OF COMMERCE on January 13, 1995.

The United States can boast of a standard of living that is among the best in the world. Unfortunately, the American lifestyle makes it impossible for the US. merchant marine to compete if it employs US. citizens. For that reason, and many others, the government supports the merchant marine financially. It must continue to do so if this country is to have a viable merchant fleet that can serve us in time of war. Throughout most of our history, the government has underwritten a portion of the costs of U.S. ships to ensure their competitiveness. The reasons for this are plain: Most foreign fleets employ low-wage mariners from developing countries, or are themselves subsidized by their governments. When the United States did not aid its merchant marine, it had trouble deploying the military during wars and could not strongly influence the availability of and cost of international shipping. Simply put, a U.S. merchant marine can not exist internationally without a level playing field. To remain a superpower, the United States must be able to independently move its army, strategic raw materials and a substantial portion of its oceangoing commerce across thousands of nautical miles. Without U.S. flag ships, 37 nationalized fleets can be used by their governments to dominate or paralize commerce and manipulate foreign policy. Russia in the past has tried to bankrupt foreign fleets by moving cargo at rates below cost. In wartime, U.S. merchant vessels have always hauled military cargo. Although U.S. presidents may requisition U.S. flag ships, it has never been necessary because U.S. companies have volunteered to provide military sealift. Fuel for airplanes, jeeps, and tanks cannot be transported in sufficient quantities by airplane to sutsain military operations. Airlift is essential, but ships carry more cargo at lower cost. To win a war overseas, a pipeline of ships is essential. No other nation provided enough logistical support to sustain the Vietnam War. For every major mobilization of U.S. troops, including World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Haiti (Also Bosnia), the U.S. merchant marine transported the military overseas. Why use civilian ships for military purposes? Think of the investment required for the government to build a ship, employ its crew and incur other related costs. For starters, merchant ships are much less expensive to build than military supply vessels. It is also much cheaper to build military useful commercial ships that are kept in service during peacetime than to build military sealift vessels. Certainly, some military vessels are unique and can not be compared to commercial vessels. But in most cases, the private fleet is the preferred choice. Merchant ships also offset their costs by earning revenue. And shipping companies and their crews pay taxes, unlike their foreign counterparts. A portion of the government aid paid to U.S. ship lines is returned in corporate and income taxes. Relying on a government shipping fleet would present other problems. Maintaining, drydocking, activating, and operating a government-owned military reserve ship can be more expensive than keeping several merchant ships in operation over a period of a year. Inactive reserve ships suffer maintenance, corrosion, and painting problems because of neglect. These costs are deferred until the ship is activated. Active merchant ships are constantly maintained at less cost. Military logistics are peformed most efficiently by commercial ships motivated by profit; the military does not have the same incentive to operate with the latest technologies. Crew costs are also a factor. A merchant ship is typically manned by 19 to 26 people; a government vessel usually employs more. Commercial shippinig companies must minimize costs; government vessels are handed a budget which will be spent. A merchant marine and its infrastructure must be available in peacetime to be ready for war. It takes almost a year to build a military useful merchant vessel. Custody of the government-owned Ready Reserve Fleet rests with the Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration - and not with the Defense Department - to ensure that readily available merchant ships are used for sealift instead of Ready Reserve ships. Indeed, government vessels should not be used for government cargoes when commercial vessels are available that can haul the same cargo. If control of the Ready Reserve Fleet is transferred to the Military Sealift Command as part of a government reorganization, the laws protecting commercail companies from being bypassed by the government could be ignored, bankrupting ship lines. U.S. flag shipping companies also have proven to be among the best in the world. American President Lines and Sea-Land Service are two of the top five containership operators world- wide. APL pioneered "double-stack" trains. Sea-Land pioneered containerization. The U.S. commercial fleet is competitive and provides a threat to flag-of-convenience vessels because U.S. management and ship crews are highly educated. U.S. maritime training institutions also are the best in the world; foreign governments train their military leaders at our maritime schools. The most secure, economical, and efficient way to provide military sealift and to ensure maritime commerce is through a merchant fleet. The U.S. merchant marine and its seafarers are a vital reserve force: They have never missed a wartime commitment, and thousands have made the ultimate sacrifice. Without a merchant fleet, highly skilled citizen mariners will not be available to mobilize the military. It is in America's national interest to support a strong merchant marine composed of citizen officers and crews. Our leaders should review maritime history and learn this important lesson. authored by Randy Crenwelge

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