Lawmakers Call on White House to Rejuvenate American Maritime Power

US Navy
File image courtesy Military Sealift Command

Published Jan 30, 2024 10:12 PM by The Maritime Executive


A group of 19 senators and congressmen have written to the White House to shore up American seapower and counterbalance China, the current juggernaut of shipping.

China has the world's largest navy and largest coast guard. Its national government owns more tonnage than any other entity (via China COSCO) and builds more ships than any public or private yard (via CSSC). Taken together, China's public and private shipyards build half the world's new tonnage.

By contrast, U.S.-flag deep sea shipping accounts for about 0.5 percent of the world's tonnage, down from 18 percent in 1950, according to a recent analysis by John D. McCown of the Center for Maritime Strategy. Out of the 178 deep-sea ships that are on the U.S. flag registry, nearly half are foreign-built. 

The signatories to the new letter expressed regret at the "precipitous" decline of the U.S. merchant fleet and the failure of the government to underwrite the cost of lifting it up again. With Chinese pressure building in the Western Pacific and asymmetric security threats on the rise in the Red Sea, they called for the Biden administration to help turn around the sector's long-term decline. The policy interventions would fall on three axes: appointing an "interagency maritime policy coordinator" who would report directly to the president; using Defense Production Act authority to invest in shipping; and "de-risking" the U.S. maritime domain from exposure to China. 

"After years of neglect, changing the trajectory of our shipbuilding and shipping industries is a task that will be measured in decades, not days, months, or years," wrote the signatories. "We must act now - before it is too late - to reinvigorate American and allied maritime power on the seas."

Other top maritime nations heavily underwrite their shipping and shipbuilding industries, protecting domestic enterprises from low-cost foreign competition. The Defense Production Act's Title III is designed to provide comparable support. The Defense Department's DPA Title III program uses federal funding to support businesses in areas where "critical industrial capacity is insufficient to meet U.S. defense and commercial needs." 

The available money in the DPA fund is typically in the range of $60-$200 million per year, though it has surged to far higher levels in times of need. Larger appropriations would require an act of Congress.