Getting There Is Half the Battle

JONATHAN YATES

March 12, 1991|By JONATHAN YATES

SILVER SPRING. — In Operation Desert Storm, U.S. military forces proved their effectiveness on the battlefield. Making it to the battlefield, however, could be a major problem in the next campaign. Although the United States had the military might and methods to act forcefully abroad, it may not have the means to do so again: Increasing foreign ownership in the U.S. airline and shipping industries could prevent extensive action in the future.

Over 95 percent of the supplies for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf arrived by ship. About half these vessels have foreign owners. In such poor shape is the U.S. Merchant Marine that ships and sailors from World War II were pressed into service. Among the crew members who set sail for the gulf was an 82-year old second mate-cum-real estate agent from New Jersey. Others collected World War II pensions in addition to Desert Storm pay. The U.S. Merchant Marine, once the powerful ''fourth arm of defense,'' now carries less than one percent of all international cargo.

U.S. airlines, too, are reeling: higher fuel costs, reduced travel due to the threat of terrorism, and the overall impact of the recession have hit hard. Over 25,000 pilots, flight attendants and mechanics have been laid off since last August. In an attempt to save the airlines industry, the Bush administration has proposed allowing foreign ownership of up to 50 percent, twice the amount currently allowed by law.

While the health of many airlines appear to be in the terminal stages, their continued operation is vital for U.S. national security: Over 95 percent of Desert Storm personnel and one-half million tons of crucial supplies came by air, with wide use of civilian planes requisitioned by the secretary of defense.

The future is bleak for U.S. shipping and air companies. The last order placed for an international trade vessel in a domestic shipyard was in 1982; ships in the U.S. Merchant Marine have declined by more than 80 percent since 1950. During the 1980s, there were 150 bankruptcies and 50 mergers among U.S. air carriers. By the end of this crisis, the secretary of transportation, Samuel Skinner, has predicted that as few as four major U.S.-owned airlines will survive.

While the number of domestic air and shipping companies is shrinking, the need is growing. In the ''New World Order,'' American forces will have to react quickly to crisis situations. With the military being reduced by 25 percent and troops withdrawing from 225 bases around the world, more units will have to be rapidly deployed from the United States.

Though Desert Storm was a success, forces were not ready for operations until January; if Saddam Hussein had attacked Saudi Arabia in October, there might have been a different outcome. Pentagon strategy had called for reinforcing NATO Europe with six infantry and armored divisions from the U.S. in ten days, but it took six months to complete the buildup in the Persian Gulf.

Needed will be greater numbers of planes and ships to bolster American military capabilities in the future. If current trends prevail, these planes and ships will likely be foreign-owned. Foreign owners will not always support U.S. national-security policy. One German-owned ship, transporting U.S. war materials, refused to sail into the Persian Gulf. Japan demanded that its contributions to Desert Storm be used for non-lethal purposes.

In future actions, more foreign owners or governments might refuse to ferry American forces and supplies. When the U.S. bombed Libya in 1986, for example, France would not allow American warplanes passage through its air space. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, no NATO allies allowed U.S. planes to fly through their air space or refuel on supply runs to Israel.

The economic threat is also substantial. Foreign airlines and shipping companies are frequently owned by their governments. As such, they receive subsidies and even monopoly benefits. Such practices put U.S. companies at a tremendous disadvantage. Foreign control of air and ship carriers will drive U.S. firms out of business, resulting in domestic job losses and more reliance on overseas-owned transport.

National-security needs should always supersede free-market economic policy. Allowing the U.S. to become more dependent on foreign-owned air and ship carriers cannot be overlooked. If the ''New World Order'' is to succeed, the United States must not allow for foreign control of its overseas transportation capabilities.

Jonathan Yates is a free-lance writer on international trade issues.

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