The old saying "he who rules the seas rules the world" is still relevant today. National and global interests — for America, in particular — are inextricably linked to the seas. With oceans covering 70 percent of the Earth's surface, they are just as important now as they were centuries ago when exploration and discovery were possible only by setting sail.
The magnitude of commerce dependent on shipping alone is staggering. Approximately 75 percent of global commerce moves by water and the volume of international trade by vessel will only climb. Even so, the U.S. flag fleet is carrying just 2 percent of cargo tonnage, down from 25 percent in 1955. Several factors have led to this decline, but the ramifications are not simply economic. The consequences also transcend into the realm of U.S. security as a result of commercial trade vessels serving as military sealift assets through the Maritime Security Program, which provides operational support to 60 U.S.-flag commercial vessels.
The fewer number of commercial vessels that are available to supplement military transport add to the strain of an already reduced and undersized naval fleet. With emerging threats requiring the full attention of naval resources and the shifting of America's defense strategy to the Pacific, the support provided through the Maritime Security Program is absolutely essential. In continuing the program, Congress must look ahead and consider policies that support the growth of the U.S. international flag fleet to alleviate pressure on limited naval resources.
Equally important, the U.S. domestic flag fleet carries more than a billion tons in cargo each year and contributes $100 billion in economic output. The fleet is U.S. owned, U.S. built and U.S. crewed, carrying grains, coal, iron ore, limestone and petroleum through inland waterways, across the Great Lakes and along the coasts. The fleet consists of 40,000-plus tankers, barges, tugboats and offshore support vessels, many of which are owned and operated by family businesses that have been in the maritime industry for generations.
Emerging to the disadvantage of these businesses are obstacles and complications imposed through the prevalent failure to recognize the importance of a strong flag fleet to the U.S. industrial base and national security. For the entire maritime industry, a last line of defense is the Jones Act, which requires flag vessels to carry cargo between U.S. ports.
Recognizing what's at stake, Fred Harris, CEO of General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. (NASSCO), cautions that without a renewed commitment to the Jones Act, the United States could lose its shipbuilding capability, the same way the United Kingdom lost theirs. In 1963, almost 20 percent of the world's commercial tonnage was built in the United Kingdom, but they have not constructed a commercial oceangoing vessel in nearly a decade, leading the Ministry of Defense to recently award a contract for military tankers to a South Korean shipyard.
NASSCO and others are working to make sure America doesn't make the same mistake. For instance, NASSCO is currently teaming with Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc., to build the first liquefied-natural-gas container ships in the world, creating new jobs and preserving critical capability.
On May 22, the nation will observe National Maritime Day, commemorating the first trans-Atlantic steamship voyage in 1819. Not only is this a time to observe our history, it's also an opportunity to recommit to America's maritime industry. In the process, preserving what works — such as the Maritime Security Program and the Jones Act — will go a long way, but it's equally important that we explore new avenues such as short sea shipping, the liquefied-natural-gas trade and an improved ship-financing program, all of which can be accomplished through a national maritime strategy.
As global trade will continue to grow, maritime policies must take center stage for the United States to remain an industry leader. America definitely has a proud maritime past. Together, let's vow to have more firsts in our maritime future.
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, California Republican, is chairman of the subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.