Posted: April 5, 2017 9:45 AM

Panel Urges Growth in U.S.-flag Fleet, Maritime Infrastructure

By SARA FUENTES, Seapower Correspondent

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — During a panel focused on the U.S. commercial maritime fleet at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition April 4, participants expressed concern over the decline of the U.S.-flag fleet and argued for its growth as beneficial to both the nation’s economic and national security.

Representatives from industry, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) and the Coast Guard focused on the success of the public-private partnership between the maritime community and the government, and discussed ways in which greater investment in the fleet could alleviate a number of problems facing the country, from truck congestion on highways to preventing the weaponization of commerce during peacetime.

James Caponiti, president of the American Maritime Congress, outlined the three-legged stool on which the American maritime community depends: the Maritime Security Program, cargo preference and the Jones Act.

All the panelists see a future for the maritime community in the development of marine highways and greater use of inland waterways. Domestic and international freight flow is expected to increase by nearly 45 percent in the next 30 years and the population of the United States will increase by 80 million over the same period, Caponiti said.

Those numbers mean the United States will need to move an additional 7.3 billion tons of cargo, placing stress on all aspects of our shipping capacity. Using inland waterways could alleviate the stress this will put on highways and rail infrastructure. The Marine Highway would take significant numbers of trucks off the highways, alleviating congestion.

The Coast Guard also has made the its inland fleet a focus this year, as Rear Adm. Paul F. Thomas, assistant commandant for Prevention Policy, it needs serious recapitalization.

Additionally, the Jones Act and the maritime community play a crucial role in homeland security. As Tom Allegretti, chairman of the American Maritime Partnership and president and chief executive officer of the American Waterways Operators, pointed out, the southern U.S. border, which has received significant national attention, is 1,900 miles long, while the nation’s navigable water borders are 50 times that at more than 95,000 miles.

Panelists argued the security of America’s maritime borders is augmented by the Jones Act — that requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent resident — and security oversight from the Coast Guard. Without the Jones Act, they said, foreign actors would have unfettered access to the nation’s infrastructure, waterways and ports, and that kind of access could empower smuggling, illegal migration and intelligence collection.

MARAD Deputy Associate Administrator for Commercial Sealift Anthony Fisher made a big-picture push for why the United States must grow its commercial fleet, arguing its bigger than protecting U.S. commerce. As he noted, without a U.S. fleet, the economy has a “kill switch:” there is no way for the U.S. government to compel foreign-flag ships to service a U.S. port during a time of war, leaving a trade-dependent country vulnerable.

Fisher said peer competitors are making their own investments in their fleets and have their own cabotage laws. The Chinese are the clearest example of foreign aspirations to maritime dominance; they have grown their flag fleet by more than 400 percent to become the world’s largest shipbuilder. And with their $1.7 trillion investment in their One Belt, One Road initiative, the Chinese are making serious investments in their own shipping capabilities.

Fisher argued that these investments demonstrate that the Chinese understand commercial maritime dominance, which he fears more than military dominance.

“Commercial maritime dominance can be weaponized in peacetime,” he said.

Fisher dryly noted after a question about parallel Chinese investments in its Coast Guard and submarine fleet, “The Chinese and other nations have read their Mahan,” referring to military strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, a proponent of sea power and strategic importance of the maritime commons.

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