Report: ‘Whole-Of-Society’ Approach Needed To Strengthen Merchant Marine

A newly released study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says the sad state of the U.S. blue-water merchant marine is threatening necessary Defense Department capabilities and calls for nothing less than a “whole-of-society” approach to its revitalization.

The report, released February 20, is called “Strengthening the U.S. Defense Maritime and Industrial Base,” and its first recommendation is that the country create and implement a new national maritime strategy. “In contrast to preceding maritime strategies that focused on the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard operations, the national maritime strategy would address how the sea services, shipping companies, shipyards and broader industry would support U.S. national interests.”

Restoring the merchant marine will require the expansion of the annual stipend and increasing the number of participating ships in the MarAd Ready Reserve force and MSC Surge Fleet. Specialized vessels and tankers should be brought under the U.S. flag through programs like the proposed Tanker Security Program or a revision of the current MSP program, the report states. Also, the U.S. government should source a greater percentage of its fuel from U.S. refineries on U.S. bottoms, and should enact “better enforcement of existing cargo preference regulations.”

To better support shipyards, the report suggests returning to multi-ship maintenance contacts to provide repair yards with more predictability, along with loan guarantees and grants to improve private shipyard infrastructure. It also recommends that the federal government invest directly in “critical shipbuilding suppliers that depend on episodic government orders and lack the resilience to weather procurement gaps or budget uncertainty.”

To solve gaps in strategic sealift capabilities, the report recommends replacing the government-owned Military Sealift Command Prepositioning Fleet vessels with MarAd-chartered commercial ships; recapitalizing the expanding the MSC Surge Fleet with former Prepositioning Fleet ships and with new vessels with special assets like cranes or petroleum distribution systems; and ending the MarAd Ready Reserve Force and instead, reassigning the MSC Surge fleet to MarAd.

The report’s authors believe these steps would strengthen the U.S. shipbuilding industry by avoiding boom-bust cycles. They also say this approach would create needed sealift capability with more reliability at lower cost than current federal approaches.

The Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessments is an independent, nonpartisan policy research institute that promotes debate about national security strategy and investment options. It was founded in 1983 as the Defense Budget Project.

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