Why the United States Needs a Merchant Marine – A Historical Basis

Sal Mercogliano
Total Views: 180
October 23, 2018

The Military Sealift Command (MSC) dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Lewis and Clark (T-AKE-1). U.S. Navy Photo


By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D. (Editorial) In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and delivered a war message. In this speech he highlighted the main issue the United States faced with the Imperial German government, “Because submarines are in effect outlaws when used as the German submarines have been used against merchant shipping, it is impossible to defend ships against their attacks as the law of nations has assumed that merchantmen would defend themselves against privateers or cruisers…The intimation is conveyed that the armed guards which we have placed on our merchant ships will be treated as beyond the pale of law and subject to be dealt with as pirates would be.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed similar trepidations against the nation’s merchant marine, “This was piracy – piracy legally and morally…These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic. They are a menace to the free pathways of the high seas.”

In both World Wars, attacks on the nation’s commerce were key contributors to our entry into the conflict. Today, three legislative issues support the dwindling American merchant marine, an ocean-going fleet of only 180 ships – the Jones Act, the Maritime Security Program, and Cargo Preference.

Crouching Tiger Book by Peter Navarro
Related Book: Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World by Peter Navarro

Continued attacks on these programs threaten the existence of this essential national asset in a way that U-boats in both World Wars could not accomplish. Add to this, issues concerning the state of the Department of Defense’s ability to support the military with its fleet of government-owned and chartered merchant vessels, along with the inability of the Navy to properly escort such ships, one may reasonably ask themselves, will we achieve what the enemies of the United States attempted in two world wars, the destruction of the American merchant marine?

For most nations of the world maintaining a commercial merchant marine is not essential to their economic survival. Today, seventy percent of the world’s merchant fleet is registered under a flag that is different than the country of ownership. The top four registries – Panama, the Marshall Islands, Liberia, and Hong Kong – control over half the world’s commercial fleet. These nations are not commonly identified as maritime powers, while the United States, what many would argue is the greatest maritime power, while possessing the largest naval fleet in the world, has a merchant marine that ranks at twenty-second; a paltry 0.63 percent of the world fleet.

Can the nation endure in this capacity and what does history tell us about this situation?

In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain and found it necessary to project American forces into the Caribbean and across the Pacific. To do this, the new steel Navy of the United States, along with the Army looked to the diminutive merchant marine of the nation, in decline since the Civil War. The Navy, through provisions of the Postal Act of 1891 that provided monetary subsidies to mail steamers, acquired the eleven best ships of the American merchant marine in the Atlantic and converted them into auxiliary cruisers. The Army chartered coastal vessels, that normally operated between the Gulf of Mexico and the American east coast to convey its troops to Cuba. In the Pacific, both armed services chartered ships engaged in the China trade.

When the war ended, and as commercial ships returned to their normally scheduled routes, the military needed to sustain bases and forces globally. The Army and Navy purchased merchant ships and crewed them with merchant mariners, early precursors to today’s Military Sealift Command.

In World War One, with American merchant ships represented only eight percent of the world total, found itself at the mercy of German cruisers, the British blockade, and eventually unrestricted submarine warfare. As the American economy languished and goods piled up on the docks in seaports around the nation, the government turned to a solution by passing the Shipping Act of 1916 and creating the U.S. Shipping Board. The aim was to build commercial ships for operation on key trade routes and ensure that foreign-flagged shipping and enemy raiders no longer had the ability to shut down the American economy.

The nation emerged from the First World War with a Navy and merchant marine second in the world. In 1920, a new Merchant Marine Act, known as the Jones Act, aimed to keep American ships on key trade routes and not let the nation experience a similar situation, while also protecting the coastal trade of the nation from being controlled by foreign powers.

As storm clouds gathered again and reeling from the impact of the Great Depression, as an element of the New Deal, the government authorized the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 which provided for differentials to offset the cost of construction and operation of vessels, as compared to other fleets due to the higher standard of living in America, the requirements for manning ships to certain levels, and with 75 percent American crews, as mandated by the Jones Act.

With a lack of available credit and idle shipyards, Title VII of the act permitted the government to begin a program to build 500 ships over the span of ten years. These ships leased to commercial firms, kept the shipyards active so that they could shift over to warship production with the passage of the Two Ocean Navy Act in 1940.

In the First World War, the lack of personnel to man merchant ships led to the militarization of commercial ships under the Navy.

In 1938, to prevent a similar occurrence, the US Maritime Service was formed to train the necessary mariners to sail the fleet built by the Maritime Commission. In 1942, the War Shipping Administration managed all American merchant ships and utilized commercial firms as agents to operate the ships and work alongside the military in transporting the Arsenal of Democracy to the battlefield.

In the Cold War, a third Battle of the Atlantic was envisioned with American merchant ships once again braving the passage but this time facing Soviet nuclear submarines. However, the first test of the merchant marine in the Cold War came in Korea when the World War Two/Maritime Commission fleet, operated under a new Department of Defense agency – the Military Sea Transportation Service and renamed the Military Sealift Command in 1970 – responded to the contingency in East Asia. Yet, fifteen years later, while the Navy remained the largest and most powerful in the world, the merchant marine began its decline.

By the time of Vietnam in 1965, it had fallen to fifth place, behind Liberia, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Japan. When the war ended a decade later, the merchant marine had fallen five more places, with Greece, Panama, France, Italy, and the Soviet Union eclipsing the U.S.

In 1990 and again in 2003, the US called upon an ever-dwindling commercial fleet (down to 408 and the 246 vessels, respectively), an aging reserve fleet, an uncertain commercial marketplace to meet its military needs, and many hesitant shippers not willing to risk their ships in a war zone. Today, the Military Sealift Command would meet a contingency with a finite fleet of ships.

First to sail would be the two prepositioning squadrons from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and the other from the Marianas. These squadrons include a mix of government-owned ships and those chartered from the merchant marine.

Next would sail the ships held in reserve by MSC and the Maritime Administration in the Ready Reserve Force as part of the surge of continental US forces to the theaters of action. Many of these vessels are well past their prime as indicated in recent DOD Inspector General and General Accounting Office reports.

The eight Fast Sealift Ships, which provided key support in past conflicts were built in the early 1970s. Additionally, the number of ships is limited, MSC has 15 and there are only 46 in the RRF. These vessels require mariners to bring them out of their reduced operating status and to crew them for an in-determent amount of time. According to the heads of the U.S. Transportation Command and the Maritime Administration, there are currently insufficient numbers of qualified mariners, particularly in the more senior levels, to man all the ships for such a contingency.

Finally, to sustain the forces overseas requires, the military, principally the U.S. Transportation Command, would utilize commercial shipping firms to funnel over sustainment supplies, ammunition, and fuel. With less than 180 ships in the ocean-going American merchant marine, largely maintained by operating either in the coastal trade (and protected by the Jones Act), operating internationally by transporting government preference cargo, or receiving funding so as to maintain themselves if needed for war (the Maritime Security Program), the merchant marine would be hard pressed to sustain an operation the size and scale of Korea, Vietnam, or the Persian Gulf War, let alone a world war.

Since the World Wars, American merchant ships have operated under the shield of the U.S. Navy. In only a few instances, have commercial ships found themselves at the mercy of an enemy – such as running the gauntlet of the Rung Sat to Saigon in the Vietnam War or tankers in the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s. In 2009, when MV Maersk Alabama was seized by Somali pirates, the Navy responded with a destroyer, amphibious assault ship, a frigate, and Navy SEALs to free the master of the vessel, while ships flying foreign flags languished off the shores of Somalia waiting for ransoms to be paid. While the U.S. Navy is the most powerful force afloat, its assets are finite.

With eleven battlegroups and a similar number of amphibious ready groups, the 22 cruisers, 66 destroyers, and 12 littoral combat ships are enough to protect them, but little remain for commerce escort. By allocating two cruisers to each battlegroup, removing destroyers assigned to ballistic missile defense, and spreading the rest among the carrier and amphibious groups, the merchant ships would be left with littoral combat ships, which are equipped more for point rather than area defense, once they are fully operational and integrated into the fleet.

If the nation is serious about being a true maritime power, then it requires not only a viable Navy, but also a commercial fleet. A recent report from the Seafarers’ Rights International identified 91-member states of the United Nations with cabotage laws that regulate their coastal and domestic trades. This means continued support for the Jones Act is not out of the ordinary as many claim, but necessary to ensure that a fleet of American-built, American-owned, and American-operated ships is available to support the nation, and their crews. The Maritime Security Program provides for sixty commercial ships to sustain American forces overseas.

Cargo preference ensures the global presence of American ships on the world’s seas, establishes infrastructure and support in ports, and needed employment on key trade routes for American companies to operate. The debate should not be whether we need the Jones Act, the Maritime Security Program, or Cargo Preference, but how should they be sustained and expanded.

As the government debates the recapitalization of the Ready Reserve Force, thoughts should be given to the creation of an active RRF in conjunction with the Maritime Administration’s Marine Highway Program to provide coastal service. This would alleviate the burden on American highways, stimulate ship construction in the United States, bring jobs to American mariners, and revenue to the nation’s ports. With six state maritime academies and the federal U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point producing officers every year, and the with the ability to fabricate the most advanced warships afloat, the construction of a merchant marine should be the centerpiece of any new national maritime strategy.

If the United States was not the leading world power, the need for a merchant marine could be questioned, but as the country aims to be a thalassocracy, it should look at the fact that the nation in second place, in terms of both military and commercial vessels, is the People’s Republic of China. Twice in our history, the country had to fight shipping across a contested ocean; it is not clear if there will be the requisite merchant marine to even attempt it for a third time.

About Sal Mercogliano

Salvatore R. Mercogliano is an Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina and teaches courses in World Maritime History and Maritime Security. He is also an adjunct professor with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and offers a graduate level course in Maritime Industry Policy. A former merchant mariner, he sailed and worked ashore for the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. His book, Fourth Arm of Defense: Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War, available through the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Back to Main