Our merchant marine is sinking rapidly

Jonathan Paul Yates

May 03, 1991|By Jonathan Paul Yates

AS A BRANCH of industry, shipping is valuable. But as a resource of defense, essential!"

Thus declared Thomas Jefferson in a message to Congress. In the ensuing two centuries, the U.S. has ignored Jefferson's counsel, allowing its merchant marine, once the powerful "fourth arm of defense," to wither.

While its main allies and trading partners lie across vast expanses of water, the U.S., as Operation Desert Storm has demonstrated, no longer has the means to project its economic goods or military might without critical support from other nations -- support that could be lacking in the future.

Over 95 percent of the supplies for U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf arrived by ship. Over half these vessels were foreign-owned, 175 in all. In such poor shape is the U.S. merchant marine that in response to the Desert Storm needs, ships and sailors from World War II were pressed into service.

The future is even more bleak. The last order placed for an international trade merchant vessel in the U.S. was in 1982. Fewer than half of the domestic shipyards of a decade ago are still operating. Overall, the number of U.S. merchant marine ships has dwindled from 2,263 in 1950 to only 379 today.

But the need for shipping is as great as ever -- and will grow. Planes cannot carry the massive loads of equipment vital for modern, high-tech warfare. For each soldier in the Persian Gulf, over 20 tons of supplies and fuel were delivered. This is no different from previous conflicts: 80 percent of the materiel for U.S. forces in Korea and Vietnam arrived aboard merchant ships, while one-third of the British ships deployed in the Falkland Islands war of 1982 were tankers.

What is different from previous conflicts is that the U.S. does not own or man the ships supporting its military. At least four foreign flag ships and their crews refused to sail into the Persian Gulf. If Iraq had managed to imperil merchant vessels, other foreign-flagged and foreign-manned ships might have balked, denying allied forces critical supplies and threatening the entire war effort.

The threat to the U.S. looms in peace as well as war. The nation has fewer than half the tankers needed in event of a national emergency. If there were another oil embargo, producer states could bribe or threaten foreign-owned tankers not to transport oil to the U.S. Since many of these vessels are flagged in small, impoverished, oil-importing nations such as Liberia and Panama, this should not be difficult.

One would think the condition of the merchant marine would be a matter of grave concern to U.S. leaders. But both the Reagan and Bush administrations have considered actions that would scuttle what little remains of the once-proud fleet. The Jones Act, which mandates that U.S. ships carry all goods between domestic ports, is threatened by a proposal to allow foreign tankers to carry some oil. This could sweep the U.S. tanker fleet from the high seas.

Both the industry and the administration must work together to save the merchant marine. Labor rates must be lowered so American shipyards can compete. Unions must also streamline their ranks. Funding must be increased to keep the reserve fleet in working condition; about 80 percent of the ships needed for Desert Storm had not been activated since 1980. A civilian merchant marine reserve, patterned after the Navy Reserve, should be developed for emergency situations.

Operation Desert Storm succeeded in part because other nations allowed their ships to be used. This will not always be the case. In 1986, only Britain supported the U.S. bombing raid on Libya; France would not even allow planes to invade its air space. The U.S. was forced to act alone in resupplying Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Without a powerful merchant fleet, the U.S. will find it difficult, if not impossible, to act forcefully, either economically or militarily, in the "new world order."

Jonathan Paul Yates has worked for members of Congress in both the House and Senate. He writes from Silver Spring.

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