National Maritime Day, today, May 22, has come and gone over the years with little fanfare. The critical importance of our national maritime capability — both military and domestic — often is not fully appreciated, as it is easy to take for granted the seamless movement of goods and our military strength. Yet this National Maritime Day occurs in the face of increasing international tensions and should remind every American that our status as a maritime nation is a major source of our economic prosperity, security, and resilience.
The warning signs cannot be clearer. Communist China is on the rise, committed to dominating global maritime through its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — a very aggressive global infrastructure expansion plan. China now holds a strategic ownership stake in 96 ports in 53 foreign countries and heavily subsidizes shipbuilding to dominate the seas. While portrayed rhetorically as an economic development project designed to link world commerce, the U.S. should view the BRI for what it is — a Trojan horse for supply chain control and military expansion.
In the face of this threat, and the budding Chinese alliance with Iran and Russia, the U.S. must renew its commitment to not only a powerful Navy, but also a robust domestic maritime fleet and merchant mariner force.
Our Founding Fathers recognized nearly 250 years ago that a strong Navy was not only essential for peace but would advance U.S. interests both home and abroad. But this powerful sea force does not just stand on its own. Our Navy is complemented by a U.S.-flagged domestic commercial maritime capability ensuring that we always have the industrial capacity and workforce to build American ships, and crew them with American merchant mariners — protecting our sovereignty.
Our domestic maritime capacity is powered by the Jones Act, a law that remains as important today as it was when it was enacted more than a century ago — despite routine criticism by special interests who seem to prefer outsourcing American security. Opposition to a law as important as the Jones Act is a peacetime luxury that quickly evaporates when American security is at stake. The Act is a critical line of defense against China’s maritime dominance, and opponents should widen their lens and see the bigger picture.
The Jones Act ensures that only American-built, -crewed, and -flagged ships can travel between U.S. ports so that American vessels can protect the nation’s 95,000 miles of coastline. While the American maritime industry creates 650,000 jobs and generates $154 billion in annual economic output, its most important role is to provide sealift capacity and a merchant mariner force that can support our military. Unlike countries that subsidize domestic maritime, our military depends not only on a private shipbuilding capacity, but a fleet of American commercial vessels and crew that can move equipment and personnel to war regions. In fact, more than 90% of cargo moved by the military during peacetime and crisis is by sea, and our military simply cannot afford to rely on foreign partners for essential sealift service.
The importance of sealift and the U.S. Merchant Marine was on full display during World War II as more than 250,000 civilian merchant mariners delivered supplies and personnel to war zones, and nearly 10,000 lost their lives.
But our domestic maritime shipbuilding, ship repair, and merchant mariner capacity has not received the national attention that is needed to ensure a strong defense 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 require it. While commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, Jacqueline Van Ovost, expressed that her “highest concerns lie in reductions in capacity and readiness in both sealift and air refueling.”
The U.S. simply cannot allow this critical capacity to wither as our challenges around the world mount. Our maritime strength and sovereignty, supported by our ability to build and crew American ships in times of both peace and war, has been critical to our past, and will help determine our future. We should be strengthening our American maritime capacity, not attacking it for political or financial gain.
This National Maritime Day is not just a day to reflect on the legacy of those who have supported our military and moved the goods for every American. This year, and in the face of the threats we face, we should renew our commitment to ensuring a maritime capacity that ensures American strength and resilience.
Mike Stevens is CEO of the Navy League of the United States and served as the 13th master chief petty officer of the U.S. Navy.