- - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

For more than 200 years, the United States Merchant Marine has been a key element in our overall national security equation. It has supported our nation’s military operations and conflicts throughout the world. It has always been the reliable partner, particularly when foreign flag ships and crews have refused to carry our needed military supplies and cargo into conflict areas or for political purposes. However, recent actions by the Obama administration call into question the sustainability of the U.S. Merchant Marine. For example, what is the objective of the administration’s recent reduction in cargo preference shipment of food aid for U.S. flag vessels? Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend last year and before even the Maritime Administration knew about it, the Obama administration reduced cargo preference shipments of American food aid to be carried by U.S. flag ships from the traditional 75 percent to 50 percent.

Such a reduction has serious consequences, as it has a significant adverse impact on the Merchant Marine, particularly when combined with the numerous waivers granted by the administration to the Jones Act. The act basically regulates domestic waterborne transportation, including not only ocean-going vessels but barges as well, in order to protect U.S. flag ship operations from foreign competition. Under the Jones Act, a foreign flag ship is precluded from, say, picking up cargo in Boston and delivering it to Houston or from carrying cargo from the Port of Los Angeles to Hawaii. Cargo under the Jones Act must be transported by ships that are “American built, owned, flagged and crewed,” except if waivers are granted. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has granted more waivers to the Jones Act than any other previous administration. So much for “buy American.”

The U.S. Merchant Marine certainly has not escaped the impact of sequestration. One of the Obama administration’s most controversial deficit reduction plans involves the Title 11 Food for Peace Program. The new plan for food aid being considered is to give the money directly to the nations whose citizens are starving, instead of buying food from American farmers and shipping it in American flag bottoms. Nations such as Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, Pakistan and Egypt would get direct cash payments so they supposedly could purchase food locally for their starving people. It is doubtful, to say the least, that cold, hard cash from the U.S. taxpayer would only be used by those leaders to purchase food.

Under such a plan, nongovernment organizations would oversee the program. Oxfam America, a nongovernment organization with global headquarters in Boston and a policy and campaigns office in Washington, D.C., is currently lobbying Congress heavily to cease buying food from American farmers and totally end U.S. cargo preference laws for U.S.-owned flag ships operators. Oxfam America received $78 million in revenues in 2011 and spent $28 million of it in organization salaries.

Ending food aid stamped with “Produced and made in USA” and sending the money and expensive nongovernment organizations overseas to ensure that people are fed will only ensure more corruption and waste. For most of these poor countries, their farmers cannot produce enough food now, which is the reason the American taxpayer is providing it. Wouldn’t it be better to buy food from U.S. farmers and transport it in U.S. flag vessels than to provide cash to questionable and corrupt regimes?

It is also understood that the Maritime Administration believes that the Obama administration’s proposal to lower the cost of the food aid program through greater use of foreign flag ships would quite simply be outsourcing American jobs in favor of foreign workers.

The Maritime Administration estimates that if the administration goes ahead with funding reductions for the Title 11 Food for Peace program, it will have a serious negative impact on U.S. sealift capability. The nation will lose about 1,200 qualified Merchant Marine personnel, and in order to survive, U.S. ship owners will reflag their ships. The Maritime Administration has estimated that at least 30 ships will most likely be immediately reflagged to foreign registry. The loss of the ships and the mariners in the labor pool will directly impact national security objectives by limiting available mariners to crew government rapid-response sealift ships when activated for emergencies.

Before the administration proceeds with changing the concept of the Food for Peace program and the food aid cargo preference program, the U.S. Transportation Command and its component Military Sealift Command should be asked to assess the impact to national sealift capabilities. All Maritime Security Program ships have made significant contributions to our current military conflicts, through cost-effective and reliable transportation services. There does not appear to be any reason for reducing this requirement for the foreseeable future.

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.